Thursday, 4 February 2016

Coping With Anxiety - Sober

This blog post was inspired by the wonderful Ulla, who left a fabulous simile in the comments section of one of my recent posts. Ulla said using alcohol to cope with anxiety is like peeing in your pants to keep warm. How brilliant is that?

Anxiety is a hot topic. I get a lot of e-mails about it. Because many of us started drinking too much as a way of taking the edge off anxiety.

I get the impression that a large proportion of us are perfectionists. We want to do really well in our careers. We want to have a great social life. And we want to be really good parents.

We're often hard on ourselves. Unforgiving. And when life doesn't live up to our expectations, as is often the case, it makes us really anxious.

So we drink. Easy peasy. Just taking the bottle out of the fridge makes our shoulders relax. Right?

But, the issue with our favourite coping strategy is that it only makes the problem worse! A bit like peeing in your pants to keep warm. The immediate sensation is an improvement, but you end up wet, colder than before, and smelly.

You see, alcohol causes anxiety. And depression. Because every time you stop drinking, your body starts withdrawing from alcohol, and that process makes you feel edgy and anxious. And the only way to take that uncomfortable feeling away is to drink more.

The other issue is that, because we've spent years using alcohol to medicate anxiety, we can't remember how to do it sober. We totally lose our confidence. We forget any other coping techniques we might once have had.

We're like the toddler who's terrified of sleeping without their comfort blanket. But you know that after a few nights of learning to manage without the blanket, the toddler's going to be just fine. They'll learn to cope, and be more confident than before. It's just a matter of practice, and faith....

.....and the same is true for you.

I found coping with stress and anxiety one of the hardest bits of going sober initially. And then, eight months in, I was thrown kicking and screaming into the advanced level class, when I got my cancer diagnosis.

Now, three months later on, cancer kicked into touch, I have graduated with a degree in Ninja Level Anxiety Management. 

I still get anxious, obviously (like going back to the Cancer Clinic yesterday), but I know I can manage it. And, in managing it, I've found a sense of pride and self respect that I thought had been lost in the mists of time.

So, here's my eight top tips for coping with anxiety sober:

1. Relaxation techniques

As soon as you start getting that panicky feeling, try whichever relaxation technique works best for you. I love a hot bath (ideally with aromatherapy oils). Some people like deep breathing, mindfulness or meditation (there are several Apps that can help with these, like Headspace). Many swear by yoga.

2. Exercise

If you can't sit down and relax, because that'd only make you feel more edgy, then do the opposite: exercise.

Running, brisk walking, or any aerobic exercise helps get rid of the adrenaline and cortisol caused by stress and anxiety, and gives you a great shot of endorphins (nature's happy drug). Ideally, try to get outside too, as the outdoors is proven to boost mood and counter depression.

3. Distraction

If you're anxious about a specific thing, like an upcoming event, and can't stop yourself worrying, then try distraction. Make yourself focus on something else - ideally a creative task like baking, colouring, gardening, knitting. It's a form of mindfulness that helps your brain quieten down.

(see my post on Monkey Brain and Mindfulness)

4. Visualisation

If you're feeling scared, and unable to cope, try visualisation. Sounds daft, but it works! I like to picture myself as my favourite kick ass heroine. I used to use Madonna, back in the Desperately Seeking Susan days of corsets and conical bras. I moved on to Ripley in Alien (Get away from her, you bitch!). Now I focus on Khaleesi - Mother of Dragons.

(See my post: I am Khaleesi)

5. Congratulate Yourself

We forget, when things get tough, how awesome and strong we actually are. Remind yourself what you've achieved. You've got through xx days sober! Maybe you've made it through a divorce? A house move? Childbirth? You've coped with tough times before and you can do it again. And the more you do, the easier it'll be next time!

6. Props

Personally, I needed props in the early days. Something to trigger the subconscious into thinking ah yes, now I can chill out.  Cake did it for me. Hot chocolate had magical powers. But my favourite prop was, and still is, Becks Blue alcohol free beer.

Some people find that AF drinks trigger cravings for the real thing. If this is the case for you, then avoid them like the plague. I don't (perhaps because beer was never my tipple of choice).

For me, Becks Blue fooled my subconscious into thinking it was getting a 'proper' drink. In the early days it even made me feel drunk. I have to confess, when I was going through the worst of the cancer days, I was drinking up to six small bottles a day. And they really helped. I know that I'm now feeling happier, because I'm down to one a day!

(See my post: Blue Without Becks Blue)

(Just be careful that your chosen 'prop' doesn't become another addiction. Ex alcohol addicts are notorious for sugar addictions, shopping addictions, nicotine or gambling habits.... you name it).

7. The worst that can happen....

Whatever is making you anxious, force yourself to think about the worst that could happen. Perhaps, for example,  you're anxious about applying for a new job? The worst that could happen is that you don't get it. At least you tried!

Just remember that, whatever the situation, the worst thing that can happen is DOING NOTHING.

Scared about applying for that job, going on that date, making a new friend, so you don't bother? Find a lump and ignore it, hoping it'll go away. Crazy behaviour, right? But that's the kind of thing we did when we were drinking - we'd pour another glass and put it off until another day (that never came).

Fear is a natural part of life, of moving forward. If you're feeling fear and anxiety it's because you're living! If you're not, then you're slowly dying. A fly trapped forever in amber, or - more accurately, perhaps - pickled in vinegar.

8. Ask for help

Everyone needs a hand sometimes. And when I was going through the whole cancer thing, it was this blog and you guys who kept me sane. The first thing I did when I found the lump was to write a post on this blog. So lean on your family, on your friends, and on the sobersphere. We all like to help - it makes us feel useful!

I promise you, that once your body is through the physical withdrawal, which feels very much like constant anxiety, and once you get used to coping with those unfamiliar feelings sober, you will feel stronger, braver and less anxious than you can ever remember feeling before.

So go out there, and kick some ass!

Love SM x


  1. A brilliant, and really helpful list. My anxiety has been a hurdle to my getting sober; when I worry, I drink. And then I worry about drinking. SIGH. Day one again for me today...but I'll try not to worry about that. Annie x

  2. Yes. Help is important.
    Some of us will find that we have spent our lives trying to control anxiety and that it must be addressed. It is a mental illness and while exercise, mind,fullness, good food, sobriety, bubble baths and breathing all help, medication is also an option.

    I never even realized this. I'm well educated. I have 3 degrees. I am a professional. And I never recognized that anxiety disorders were a diagnosed condition, or that my crippling panic was different than others stress anxiety.

    Early sobriety brings all this out. Finding professional help can really make a huge difference.

    Wonderful post. Excellent advice as always!


    1. Thanks so much, Anne, for your point about medication. Well said x

  3. As ever, thank you for your advice but equally, if not more so, for your beautiful writing. It strikes me that one of the benefits of sobriety which you missed - don't take this as a criticism, I'm assuming you are too young for it - is a reduction in menopausal hot sweats (apologies to those of you who are grossed out by bodily effluent (is that the right word??)). I'm bouncing between sobriety and - um - not - so can definitely report a difference. And not quite on the anxiety front, but for me there is a build up (on some days) of what I can only describe as resentment regarding clutter in the house, failure to put things in dishwasher etc. And for this a good belly-laugh is an effective antidote - can I recommend to all you married/cohabiting/in-a-relationship women "How to be a husband' by Tim Dowling. I (sneakily) bought it for my husband for his birthday so that i could read it (but also get points for having bought a present). Also good is "Things my girlfriend and I argue about" by Mil Millington.

    1. Thanks for the book recommendations! Re hot sweats, these are a very common side effect of Tamoxifen, but I've had none. Funnily enough, those who do get them are advised to cut down on alcohol! A co-incidence? I don't think so! Xxx

    2. Yes to the menopausal symptoms! I noticed a huge difference! I started that joy at 42 while I was pregnant (yes it is possible to be perimenopausal and pregnant - utter madness)!!! Anyway just about to half my HRT medication dose on recommendation of my dr...

    3. I am sorry I didn't put two and two together with the alcohol and menopause correlation. A bitch of a time with peri menopause and into menopause....30 lb weight gain, hot flashes that came as often as contractions, D & C, you name it. Hormone therapy has helped a lot but not without the risks. I used to have the wine glass on the nightstand thinking it would help me sleep through the hot flashes. Waiting to see what a difference no alcohol will make on many fronts physically. Day 9 for me, woke up with a terrible headache.

    4. Headaches are perfectly normal Tams! It's detox. I bet you're exhausted, too? It'll all get better! Xxx

    5. Thank you, still maneuvering that Obstacle Course.

  4. Thanks so much for this great post. I was also going to comment on medication. I'm realizing now that perhaps I should have been on an SSRI all along to help with lifelong anxiety. I'm starting one now and quitting drinking at the same time. I'm just waiting (hoping) for some calm to kick in. Funny enough, I've been exercising all along and to Anne's point, it could be another addiction. Sugar is definitely a problem for me. In the short term trying to control it better in the long term hope to give up most. I think it's best not to do too much at once though.

  5. Anxiety is the reason why I stopped. A bottle of wine in the evening would result in a state of dull panic for the better part of the working day. It was particularly bad because a good part of my job is standing in front of people talking ( early stage withdrawal anyone?)

    The first good thing I noticed once all the poison was out of my system is how calm I felt. This core calm is the reason I haven't been tempted that much through the fatigue, pissed-offedness, and stress of the first month.

    Here I am though having a MAJOR craving. It's Thursday. I'm off on Fridays. The cleaning lady came today. This is my trigger. Ahh! Some nice wine. ( same feeling like a couple of weeks ago during the blizzard which I posted about)

    What's stopping me? The thought of tired grossness and the bone- crushing dehibiltating anxiety that will inevitably follow.

    I am very early days, but I just can't go back to that. This keeps me going for now. Xx

    1. Hold strong Clio. I'm right there with you. Only 35 days sober, feeling great about that, but triggers keep popping up, and I feel like giving in; but when I read SM's post for the day, I gain the strength to hold on for another day. Remember the agony of drinking, not the "fake" good times. Good luck!

    2. Thanks Lia! Yes, SM's posts have been an arsenal of strength. I think I've read most of the blog by now and when little, and not so little challenges come up I refer back to what I've learned here ( and from other posters;). Let's do this xx

    3. With you both in the early days! I try to remember the waking up at 3am feeling gross and know I don't want to go there again. Yes, let's do this! Day 17 and counting for me.

  6. My anxiety is so much more manageable now that I stopped drinking.

  7. As ever, on the mark. As I get further away from day one, so my anxiety attacks have diminished and I can put them into perspective. Basically they were crap, worrying about stuff that I couldn't change or unbelievably trivial in reality. I have had a couple of days of PAWS though and retreated to the safety of an early bath and bed. Progress none the less.


  8. Great post SM. I think I have suffered from anxiety for a long time. I just never realised what it was. I just thought it was my normal. I'm hoping it will get a bit better now. And if it doesn't, I will go and see someone about it. A

  9. Really good post! Just what I needed to read. Thank you!

  10. Difficulties posting a first ever. Lost 2, this is a testing try. Sorry!

  11. Oy! Now that I've succeded - talk abt anxiety! - i wanted to comment on how your 4th paragraph ('hard on ourselves') resonated with me. Just this morning, I was thinking how I wanted to note in the 'dry' journal I've been keeping how refreshing is the QUIET in my head. No voice yammering at me, fault-finding, critical, self-recriminating. Instead, there's just a sense of calm. Incredibly refreshing and heretofore pretty much unknown.

    I signed up NYDay for Dry January2016 pretty much impulsively after reading an article. And worked. The sense of making a commitment was the trigger (GOOD trigger!) I seemed to need. Just a few days away from the nightly alcohol routine started to bring clarity and a growing acceptance of how important/needed this is for me.

    Have been reading your blog since my Day 1, SM, and it has been incredibly helpful. Thank you for sharing your life and for your insight and support. Amazing that you were able to get thru this C. Experience in a dry state! Congratulations on yesterday's good news and continued healthy progress to you!

    1. Welcome, NorthWoman! And WELL DONE YOU! You've done brilliantly. Keep at it, and please stay in touch xxx

  12. Fantastic post as ever SM. Just what I need to help me on my way - day 34 here. Cant believe it! Love SFM xxx

  13. Just another thought, would love to hear if you have any feedback on the emotion of ANGER. My husband and I have been quarreling a lot this week, about a multitude of things. If anxiety and drinking is like "peeing your pants to keep warm"' then anger and drinking is like " pouring alcohol on a fire to stamp it out!" I will shamefully admit, I have pulled a "watch me drink" when angry with my spouse. It is the emotion that will quickly make me want to drain the bottle.

  14. Great post and love the analogies to drinking with the peeing and the blanket. Both are very true. Also thanks for the tips. I have had those moments of anxiety or when a trigger moment comes along. I have kept a list of items that I can do on my cell phone to refer to at those mindless moments thinking only of a drink. It really seems to help me. Thanks for the blog, very helpful!