The experience of stress is something to which we all relate, but we don’t often think about its effects. When a person experiences stress, his or her instinct is to find a way to alleviate it. But when someone doesn’t know how to respond to stress in healthy ways, the only option is to resort to unhealthy methods of coping. As research has shown us, one of the most common causes of addiction is the use of mind-altering substances as mechanisms for coping with stress.1 Moreover, this means that stress is a potential relapse trigger for individuals in recovery.2

In a perfect world, we would simply eliminate all potential stressors that might tempt a recovering addict to relapse. Until that’s possible, the next-best thing is to learn some effective and healthier alternatives.

Connect With Family and Friends

One of the most under-utilized resources in a recovering person’s toolbox is his or her family and friends. After a period of time in active addiction, many individuals become accustomed to keeping loved ones at arm’s length and keeping the details of one’s life to oneself; however, research has shown us time and time again that having a network of supportive loved ones is an important piece of the recovery puzzle.

In a stressful situation, the last thing that many of us want to do is have to put on a happy face and pretend like everything is great, which is what we often assume we have to do around loved ones. On the contrary, family members and close friends can be a vital resource during times of stress.3 Perhaps they have advice due to being in similar situations or maybe they can take your mind off whatever it is that’s stressing you. For those in recovery, the impulse to immediately default to alcohol or drugs can be intense, but the kind of emotional support friends and family offer is something that a person can’t get from a chemical substance.

Find a Creative Outlet

There are many different ways to be creative, but those who don’t have a background in the fine arts often dismiss them on the grounds that they’re not skilled enough. However, a person doesn’t need to be Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway or Clark Gable to have a creative outlet.

Although being creative has many benefits, it’s a particularly great way to deal with stress. For instance, drawing and painting allow a person to create a visual representation of his or her emotions, which feels cathartic and liberating. As well, those who play instruments find that they can shut out the world around them while they’re playing, becoming one with their music in a way that’s vaguely reminiscent of meditation. Studies of trauma survivors have shown us that even writing — whether it’s fiction, essays or journal entries — can be hugely liberating and a great means of coping.4 Again, having great skill and years of experience isn’t necessary. Rather than writing it off entirely, individuals in recovery might want to give some of the countless different creative outlets a test run.

Vent and Purge

Stress is an uncomfortable, complex feeling. Depending on the severity of the stress, it can trigger simultaneous feelings of anger, disappointment, disgust, fear and melancholy. From the moment the stress (and any related feelings) sets in, we want to find a way to alleviate it. In some situations, the most effective means of coping might be to just let those feelings out.

When young children experience distress, they throw tantrums. In effect, the emotions that they feel are so intense that, when coupled with their inexperience in dealing with such strong emotions, they explode out of them. Soon thereafter, they can return to calmer and more even states. Of course, those in recovery from addiction shouldn’t interpret this as encouragement to throw explosive tantrums; instead, it’s a reminder to let it out. In practice, this could mean taking a little time to cry privately, scream into a pillow, run as hard as you can or any number of other things. Since stress often means that the body stores tension and emotion, the idea is to essentially let the tension and emotion out of the body.

Focus On Helping Others

The experience of stress can make us feel helpless or as though we have no control in our own lives. It can even trigger feelings of inadequacy, but another great way to cope with stress is by helping someone else. In fact, studies have found that helping others is particularly beneficial for those in recovery from addiction, which is one of the main reasons why 12-Step programs are effective and remain popular today.5 After helping someone in need, a person feels proud of being able to make a positive difference in someone else’s life. Helping others can also remind people about the progress they have made, inspiring them to continue that progress. Rather than being defeated by stress, helping others becomes a positive place to channel energy and frustration.

There are many ways for a person to cope with stress without putting recovery in jeopardy. The key is to vent via the right outlet. In reality, alcohol and drugs can’t help a person to deal with the situations that trigger stress; instead, they merely cover up the stress and related feelings. Every person — whether in recovery or not — needs strategies for dealing with stress in healthy, productive ways. With some effective coping tools, a person can deal with almost anything life throws his or her way.


Written by Dane O’Leary