If there’s anything to be said for drugs and alcohol, it’s that they take the edge off. Most people start using drugs not with the intention of ruining their lives or succumbing to addiction, but because it felt like a good idea at the time – either because everyone else was doing it, and it felt good, or because people sometimes find themselves in places of great hurt and need things that feel good.
Despite the fact that drugs and alcohol take the edge off, they also make you pay a terrible price over time – addiction. There’s nothing glamorous or debatably cool about addiction. It starts as a nightmare and ends as a tragedy.
Thankfully, some people get the help they need. And once they do, they find the strength to get sober and stay sober. But it isn’t easy. And once the drugs are gone and the booze doesn’t flow anymore, there’s nothing to take off the edge. Worse yet, addiction tends to sharpen the edge and make it cut deeper than you ever thought possible. For many, this turns early sobriety into a living hell, enough to force most to relapse very early on.
Without anything to take off the edge, you’re not going to stay sober for any significant length of time. That’s where adaptive coping mechanisms come into play.
What Are Coping Mechanisms
Coping mechanisms are central to everyday life. They might sound like a form of treatment specifically prescribed to people struggling with great traumas, but the reality is that we all need coping mechanisms, and most of us seek them out one way or another. Having a little nightcap after a stressful day, hitting the boxing gym to keep yourself in check, going out with friends after getting dumped, reliving old memories through pictures and music after losing someone we love – we all cope with stressors in life, both big and small, by seeking out comfort and reassurance, by seeking out strength and self-determination, by seeking out the memories of a time when things were better.
Some coping mechanisms are adaptive. Some are maladaptive. In other words, there are good ways and bad ways to cope. Drugs and alcohol are effective, but they’re maladaptive. They help you feel better for a time, bit instead of actually helping you improve your situation or process your pain, they simply add onto your growing list of personal problems.
Some coping mechanisms are both maladaptive and adaptive depending on the situation. We may cope by memorializing our loved one and moving on after processing their loss through cherished memories and loving gestures. Or we become hung up on their loss, letting it rule our lives, putting us deeper into a depressive hole with no sight of an exit.
To stay sober, you need a list of clear, healthy, adaptive coping mechanisms. Not one, or two, but three or more. Things you can do to take off the edge, improve your life, improve your health, improve your relationships, find your way, redefine yourself as a new sober person, and make great strides towards a permanently drug-free life. We’re going to cover three basic groups – physical coping mechanisms, social coping mechanisms, and mental coping mechanisms.
Physical Coping Mechanisms
These are ways to use your body to work off stress. Exercise is an obvious choice, but not everyone enjoys hitting the gym – and many people struggle to do so consistently.
Pick a physical hobby that you will actually enjoy, something you can commit to as a healthy, physical activity to expend excess energy, vent out a little, and generally feel better and lighter afterwards. Movement and exertion, not exercise, is ultimately what helps us release endorphins and feel good. Bonus points if you’re having fun, because that helps even more.
Think dancing, climbing, lifting, sprinting, boxing, wrestling, running, kettlebell sports, biking, curling, fencing, tennis, ping pong, and more.
Social Coping Mechanisms
Coping mechanisms are ways to deal with stress, so a “social coping mechanism” might sound confusing. But it makes a little more sense when you think of it as “healthy activity you can have with friends”.
Avoid activities where you barely end up talking much to each other, as well as activities where you might be pressured to drink or use, like visiting a loud club, heading to the movies, or going to a concert. Focus on activities that are fun and bonding, like hiking, escape rooms, video or board game night, coffee and cake tasting, restaurant-hopping, or team sports.
Mental Coping Mechanisms
These are coping mechanisms that help you put your mind at ease, especially when you’re feeling anxious or craving. These are, in essence, distractions you can use to keep yourself from remaining fixated on your own inner cravings. To prevent these from just becoming media consumption, focus on constructive coping mechanisms. For example, instead of just listening to music, pick up an easy instrument and try to learn how to play your favorite songs.
Instead of just reading a book, try journaling or a short story based on your inner turmoil, even if you don’t plan to have anyone ever read it. Instead of watching a movie, draw or paint something – don’t be too worried about how it’ll come out, just let your imagination and raw emotions guide you.
The Old You Is Gone
Don’t be afraid to completely redefine your life, and who you are. Addiction changes you fundamentally, and sometimes causes you to do and say things you’ll never be able to come back. You may find yourself recovering from addiction deeply regretting a great number of things, finding yourself in a place you’ve never really planned to be in.
Instead of dwelling on that, you have to adapt. Drug recovery is an opportunity to completely change yourself and take a step in a better direction – and it starts by tearing down everything about you that you don’t like during recovery and working meticulously to build it up again. Don’t fall for preconceived notions of character – you can be whoever you want to be and turning over a new leaf is something we’re allowed to do day after day, and not only after traumatic events.
Feel free to try new things out, delve into uncomfortable and unfamiliar new hobbies and topics, explore different communities and perspectives on life, and work on both new relationships and salvaging old ones. Life has its fair share of stresses and struggles, but ultimately you should be doing more than just coping. You should be living.