Anxiety In Sobriety

“Sadly in our society, it is far more acceptable to have a couple of drinks to take the edge off than it is to seek help for an anxiety disorder.  There’s a stigma attached to mental disorders, that’s why we’re not comfortable talking about them, we’re not comfortable sharing them.  And honestly, I’d rather be seen as a person with a drinking problem than a person with a mental health problem.  Now I had both.”

What a powerful way to sum up the battle between anxiety and a substance abuse problem.  I found this TED Talk by a guy named Steve Zanella a few months back and that message has stuck with me ever since.  Overall, this 18-minute talk has to be one of the best on anxiety I have seen.  Do yourself a favor, regardless of whether you suffer from anxiety yourself or you just know someone who does, and take the time to watch Steve’s TED Talk.

What if I can’t do this?  What if I have a panic attack?  What if I draw attention to myself?  What if I shake so bad that everyone notices?  What if I make a fool out of myself?  Like Steve, I could go on and on with a hundred more “what ifs” myself.  These are the thoughts that run through the mind of someone with severe anxiety.  And what really is the core fear behind these thoughts?

For me, it all comes down to embarrassment.  That’s it really.  I mean, think about it.  There’s no real imminent danger in walking into an unfamiliar situation or a walking into a group of people you don’t know.  Yet in the moment, those are the thoughts that race through my mind.  Then, the body begins to react.  The tightness in my chest, the difficulty breathing, the sweating, the shaking.  And it all happens in the blink of an eye.  There is no time to process the thoughts and change them.  It just happens.

And it’s not just me.  Let’s look at some statistics from the Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA):

Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults in the United States age 18 and older, or 18.1% of the population every year. Anxiety disorders are highly treatable, yet only 36.9% of those suffering receive treatment.

I’m not afraid to admit that I see a therapist for my anxiety.  I’ve said it many times, but it has probably been the single most helpful resource for me in my sobriety to this point.  We use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which works on the simple principle that your thoughts control your feelings, your feelings control your actions and then your actions lead back to your thoughts.  With CBT we work on changing the thoughts causing the anxiety and therefore disrupting the cycle in a positive way.  Make sense?  Good.

Now the problem that I have battled, especially initially, is that in the moment of facing an anxious situation I don’t even realize what thoughts I’m having and how they are affecting my feelings and actions.  In the moment, it all just happens automatically.  But that is the point.

Using CBT I am learning to identify those thoughts as they come up throughout the day and how to redirect them into something more positive.  The goal is to make it so natural that it happens just as automatically during those “in the moment” situations as the anxious thoughts do already.  Like anything, practice makes perfect.  You have to get in the habit of challenging your own anxious thoughts and redirecting them into positive thoughts so that they become the automatic first thought.

However, it’s easier said than done.  That’s why I’ve had to develop a set of tools to help myself practice.  The first step is, of course, identifying the anxious thoughts.  That alone takes practice.  If you’re anything like me, you’re probably thinking you don’t have a lot of anxious thoughts, especially in the moment.  Well, that is because they are so automatic that you don’t even realize they are there.  They are subconscious.

The habit I developed was to journal at the end of the day and to be sure to log any moments of anxiety that came up that day.  When you look back at the anxious moments, you can then dissect what you were feeling and how your thoughts, even subconsciously, might have sounded to you and how they affected your actions.  I’m willing to bet that if you do this for a week or two you will be surprised at the number of anxious thoughts you had leading up to anxious moments.

I know it sounds so simple, but just being aware of your thoughts can go a long way towards making anxiety more manageable.  The thing is, you can’t just say you’re going to be more aware of your thoughts.  That solves nothing.  You have to take action on it.  Make that lifestyle adjustment and adopt a practice of journaling and writing down your thoughts.  Carry a small notepad with you, record notes in your phone, do it at the end of the day or as you go through your day.  Just find something that works for you and do it.

Still having trouble identifying those thoughts?  Another technique I’ve adopted is grounding.  This is a form of mindfulness and becoming present in the moment when you are feeling anxious.  My grounding technique uses the five senses.  By taking a pause when you start to feel anxiety and identifying things near you that you can see, hear, touch smell and taste it brings you back into the present.  This makes it easier to identify your thoughts and then redirect them appropriately.

I am by no means a pro at this myself, but I am definitely getting better as time goes on and having less anxious reactions to certain situations.  For me, there is no replacement for meeting with my therapist to address the anxious thoughts and situations that arise each week.  However, I also use a book called The Anxiety & Worry Workbook: The Cognitive Behavioral Solution by Aaron T. Beck and David A. Clark.  The workbook is designed for use on its own or in conjunction with a professional.  It is a very easy read and the worksheets and exercises are actually useful and intuitive.  I highly recommend it to anyone who has any type of anxiety issue in their life.

Please share with me your experiences with anxiety and how you cope with it in the comments below or by contacting me here.  I’m always looking for new techniques to try in coping with my anxiety.  Please also like, follow and share this post on social media.  The more people we can reach, the more we can help OWN their SOBRIETY (and ANXIETY).

Love Y’all,