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.
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.
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)
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!
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