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Recovering from a Substance Abuse Problem

By Pamela M. Peeke, MD, MPH

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Recovering from a substance abuse problem doesn't occur just once; it's a lifelong challenge that takes place every day you make the choice not to have a drink, swallow a pill or pull out a needle.

That's why people with a history of substance abuse never say they're cured; they say they're "in recovery." In that way, they remind themselves every day of their challenge.

I strongly believe that making certain changes in your daily life and environment can help you maintain your recovery. Here are some things I suggest:

  • Make new friends. Your old friends are probably associated with your drinking or drugusing days. Now, more than ever, you need a support system. So seek out new friends in healthy venues such as 12-step programs, faith-based environments or even the local gym.
  • Find a natural high. I know it's become almost a cliché these days, but the high you get from exercise really does exist. A few studies even find that people in substance abuse treatment who engage in regular physical activity have less depression and anxiety than those who don't. Given that depression often coexists with substance abuse in women, I urge you to develop a regular physical activity habit.
  • Learn to forgive. Anger is a key contributor to substance abuse in women. Part of addressing underlying issues related to your substance abuse problem is learning to address that anger and move beyond it. One way is to forgive the person or persons responsible for that anger. You can do this in person, by writing a letter, in therapy or simply by coming to terms with the person in your mind and forgiving them so you can move forward in your life. One study of dependence found those who completed 12, twice weekly sessions of forgiveness therapy improved significantly more in their anger, depression, anxiety, self-esteem, forgiveness and vulnerability to drug use than a similar group who participated in an alternative therapy treatment.
  • Stay in therapy. You cannot cope with a substance problem through sheer will power. You must deal with the underlying issues that caused the problem in the first place and with situations in your present life that could trigger those issues again. Thus, whether it's once a week, once a month, or even a check-in every few months, I urge you to stay in touch with a therapist. Having someone you trust to talk with and to help you understand your feelings and find new ways to cope beyond drugs or alcohol may be the most important thing you can do to avoid relapse.
  • Practice stress-reduction techniques daily. As you probably learned in treatment, you are particularly susceptible to the negative effects of stress. While it may be impossible to reduce the stressful events in your life, I recommend you find ways to minimize their effects through stress-reduction techniques such as deep breathing and meditation. One study found self-hypnosis could help people prevent relapse.
  • Follow a healthy diet. During the years of your addiction, you put your body under tremendous stress, particularly your liver and kidneys, which had to work so hard to remove toxins from your body. Now is the time to be good to your body. Try to eat as many "natural" foods as possible versus processed foods. Because eating disorders are common in women who have or have had substance abuse problems, you may want to talk to a nutritionist or keep a food journal to alert you to any potential behavioral changes in your approach to food. And be careful that you don't begin substituting food for drugs or alcohol in an effort to numb your emotions. You can become addicted to or abuse food just as easily as alcohol or other substances.