31 Oct Managing Anxiety in Recovery by Greg Binns, LMFT
- -being in recovery means you’ve given up your most well-practiced coping skill, leaving you feeling uncomfortably
- -exposed you’re still dealing with the messes that your past self left for your current self
- -you’re learning how to relate to people, places, and things in a fundamentally different way than you’re used to you’re clean and sober, but the habit of looking over your shoulder or expecting to get busted hasn’t gone away yet
- you’re hypervigilant about triggers and it’s wearing on your nerves
- you feel that you may still have some reservations
- you haven’t yet gotten used to not having anything that you have to lie about today
- you feel that you’re still holding some secrets and it’s bothering you
- coincidentally, you’re a worrier by nature
- you’re sure that if anyone knew how sensitive, needful, or vulnerable you feel inside, they’d abandon you
- you can’t stop thinking about how close you came to losing your husband, wife, children, social standing, freedom, health…..
Again, not an exhaustive list, but I imagine that anyone in recovery who is reading this can relate to an item or two and could also add several. In fact, you’ll raise your chances of getting a return on your reading investment if you pause right now, grab a pencil and paper, and jot down the 5 or 10 most immediate sources of your own day-to-day anxieties. I.e., in those moments where you’re feeling worried, agitated, unsettled, off balance, what are the thoughts that are going through your mind? Take a minute to jot them down before you continue.
What follows isn’t going to be an exhaustive treatment of managing anxiety either, but I want to suggest two angles that might be helpful and that will, hopefully, prompt some reflection and some useful conversations with people you trust.
By and large, anxiety gets a pretty bad rap in my profession. Much of it is well deserved, but not all of it. What people usually mean when they talk about “managing anxiety” is “managing too much anxiety.” In distinction to that, I’m making the suggestion here that a little bit of anxiety isn’t that bad. All things in moderation, right? Thank you, Aristotle. Just like a little bit of sadness isn’t that bad, or a little bit of anger. It’s easy to think of examples where either a deficiency or an excess of these kinds of feelings can lead us astray. (Aristotle again.) What if we took the same view of anxiety. As it turns out (see below*), mammal brains are equipped to generate feeling states – what we usually refer to as affects – that motivate behavior that is useful for survival and flourishing. When all goes well, our feelings function as reliable guides to action, interaction, and communication in the world. When things don’t go so well, our feelings are overwhelming, misdirected, disproportionate to reality, and very much not useful. So the reflection question might be, “is this anxiety I’m feeling guiding me, or misguiding me?”
Ok, so now I’m ready to cut to the chase with regards to our topic:
Part of your task is to learn to differentiate between a) anxiety that’s a signal to take care of something important, and b) anxiety that’s just your brain running amok.
Once you’ve sorted that out, then the next management step is to either
a) do some work on the real life issue that needs your attention, or
b) find a way to work with the excess anxiety, or
c) do some of both
The main thing I’m driving at here is that anxiety isn’t necessarily or always a bad thing. But because it feels bad, the conditioned mental habit is to treat it as if it is bad, and then respond aversively. Sort of like the way I might relate to the smoke alarm that’s chirping at me every 60 seconds because it wants it’s battery changed. As annoying as it may be, I do myself a disservice by reflexively tuning it out.
So now, look back at the list at the beginning and see if anything occurs to you about which examples might be calling for some practical action and which ones might require you to get your radical acceptance on and just breathe through it.
[*If you want to hear some of the current science about how emotions function in mammals, check out episodes 65 and 91 of The Brain Science Podcast: http://brainsciencepodcast.com/episodes-page]