By Haley Kennedy, Recovery Coach – 8.27.2021 –
When we embark on a life in recovery, we’re routinely making multiple big life changes all at once — changes in living situations, new careers, beginning or ending relationships, taking on new responsibilities, establishing daily routines, and/or budgets — not to mention we’ve just gone through a very significant break-up with our substance use. And even if these represent dreams come true… serious life changes are stressful, often overwhelming.
Feeling overwhelmed at times is natural but feeling overwhelmed while implementing major life changes and embarking on a journey of recovery is almost unavoidable. So, we should proceed with caution: feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope is often a major factor in a recurrence of substance use.
Overwhelming is a term that is thrown around loosely. Feeling overwhelmed is technically defined as “bury or drown beneath a huge mass” or “to overcome completely in mind or feeling.”
Generally, we feel overwhelmed due to traumas or life changes; trauma can be anything from a car accident, to witnessing something terrible, to being victimized, or even to the pandemic we are currently entrapped in. Meanwhile, breakups, moving, changing jobs, or finding recovery are generally the life changes. It is likely we will experience both traumas from our active substance use and life changes due to our newfound lifestyle — which is a recipe to feel overwhelmed. Overwhelming energy presents differently for everyone, but there are some common recognizable symptoms — sporadic/emotional thoughts, anxiety, inability to focus, anger, racing heart, or loss of sleep.
It is important to remember, we are not alone in feeling this way and it certainly does not mean we’re weak. It is important to practice self-compassion, take things as slow as possible, and ask for help when we need it.
Adjusting to recovery is a major transition in itself; it is suggested that we try to wait at least a year before making other unrelated life changes. When we’re settled into our new way of life and decide it’s time to make more changes, maybe wait six weeks between each new step. Of course, it isn’t always possible to keep major changes on a strict one-at-a-time basis, sometimes life throws us challenges in batches, and sometimes transitions come in pairs by default — like finding recovery might be paired with ending an unhealthy relationship or getting married is paired with moving to a new home. A good safeguard from becoming overwhelmed when things are changing around us is to consciously try to preserve our rituals and routines to the best of our ability.
Being in good physical health also helps us through the stress of transitions to avoid overwhelming feelings. Being undernourished and fatigued inevitably increases stress as they lower our ability to think reasonably, concentrate, and function overall. And, unfortunately, these are often the first things we convince ourselves “can wait” when we’re bombarded with other demands. The acronym SPARE is a tool we can use to store up a reserve of energy to get us through challenges:
Sleep. Remember the function of sleep and do your best to get the recommended seven to eight hours a night. We might stay up later in an attempt to be productive and cross of some of the items on the to-do list hoping to reduce our overwhelming stress, but it’s actually counterproductive because now we’ve cut into the hours of sleep necessary for us to perform at our best the following day.
Play. Make time for leisure activities — ideally with friends or family — on a regular basis, and during that time practice not thinking about work or “what comes next.”
Activity. Specifically, physical activity. Exercise is the body’s natural pressure relief valve. Of course, there’s the added benefit of improving cardiovascular, digestive, and immunity health. But it is also a great way to help quiet the mind and forget about many stressors.
Relaxation. Besides sleep and recreation, everyone needs time to sit and daydream, or to watch the world go by. Take regular breaks from all types of work — reserve one full day of each week for not doing anything “productive.”
Eat. We don’t have to ban coffee and sweets entirely, but we shouldn’t consume them as a ‘complete meal’. Focus more on food as fuel, think fresh produce, whole grains, and lean proteins. And take the time to thoroughly enjoy the meal by avoiding gobbling, gulping, or multitasking.
Now we can take a careful look at what’s currently consuming our time and how necessary those activities really are. In most cases, “screen time” is the first thing we can cut down on. But if we cut out a chunk of television and all non-work related screen time and still feel like we have a full plate we can look at a few other areas in our lives…
Are there social or volunteer groups we continue to attend out of habit, rather than because we genuinely enjoy them?
Are there chores we can delegate or projects we can contract out?
Can we free some productive time by reducing our driving — by taking public transportation, telecommuting, or doing errands at off-peak hours?
Be willing to let anything go that’s not essential; keeping in mind that “essential” includes that regular leisure activity, physical activity, and social activity (hey, maybe there’s a way to combine any or all of these!).
And now we’re ready to use short-term goals to create an action plan; having a plan is a great way to stay focused on our goals while helping to reduce overwhelming feelings. BUT be mindful that trying to plan every single step can be harmful — it’s tempting to become obsessed with making everything “just so” and controlling even the uncontrollable. If we’re trying to make situations fool-proof, we’ll only end up angrier and more frustrated when we face the inevitable glitches. Things to consider when making the plan are who can help along the way, what part of the journey comes next, when does the goal need to be accomplished, and why the goal was chosen.
Presented all at once, this is probably overwhelming in itself; take one step at a time. Looking at the whole list too often could cause an almost paralyzing level of overwhelming stress. Focus on one top priority at a time, and work on accepting what can’t be changed. Take time to recognize and enjoy successes while simultaneously learning from mistakes. With time, when we’re on the other side, we realize it was all worthwhile.