Everyone experiences stress to some degree. However, the way we respond to stress makes a big difference to our overall mental and emotional well-being. The World Health Organization defines stress as a state of worry or mental tension caused by a difficult situation that we feel we can’t control. One key issue is the way in which we react to pressure or threats.
Based on circumstances and emotional sensitivity, there’s a wide range of responses to stressful situations. Coping styles and symptoms of stress vary from individual to individual. For a person with substance use disorder, stress becomes a negative loop that grips one’s life.
Substance Use Disorder and Coping Mechanisms
When one struggles with a substance use disorder, one of the maladaptive coping skills one learns is to use substances as a means to deal with stress, trauma, and unpleasant emotions. But using substances to deal with stress causes additional stress to the nervous system, especially with the onset of addiction.
On the other side of addiction, the withdrawal process from substances is extremely debilitating. On a physical level, withdrawal can include severe body aches, nausea, vomiting, and tremors. And on a psychological level, one can experience rage, depression, suicidal thoughts, and severe anxiety. People struggle with getting sober because the physical and mental stress of withdrawal is so difficult and uncomfortable.
If you can make it through all that and go clean, sobriety itself does not automatically provide the coping mechanisms that are necessary to deal with depression, anxiety, and trauma. These emotional issues frequently trigger the use of substances in the first place. It’s a horrendous vicious cycle.
One of the primary sources of stress after detoxing is an intense craving for the addictive substance in question. Craving is not only a physical consequence of abstaining from a substance, but it is also the strong impression or memory of what using that substance feels like. Such a strong impression can dwell in the mind.
For example, the rush of Beta-endorphins that one experienced when one was high on opioids is so much stronger than any natural stimuli that occurs during times of sobriety. The memory of that experience produces a craving in us that holds us hostage, leading to relapses.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, around 40-60 percent of individuals in treatment for substance use disorder will relapse numerous times before they experience sustainable sobriety. So, the question is, how does one manage stress to minimize the relapse rate during recovery? Even if modern science were to magically develop a pill to treat stress, it would only treat symptoms, not the underlying condition. And trying to control one’s environment to avoid stress is neither practical or feasible. The unexpected will inevitably happen. Then what?
The Power of Meditation in Recovery
The simplest and most natural modality for managing stress is meditation. Theoretically, anyone can practice meditation, regardless of their background. It is simple, inexpensive and does not require any special equipment. You can meditate anywhere, at any time.
Many studies have shown that practicing meditation has numerous physical and psychological benefits including reduced stress, depression, anxiety, and pain. Studies have also shown that it can improve quality of sleep, enhance productivity and creativity, and reverse the aging process.
For me, meditation was a life saver. In my late teens, marijuana became my new religion after my mother suddenly died of a heart attack. A close friend who had gone through similar challenges inspired me to learn how to meditate. Through regular practice of meditation, I was able to cope with my sudden loss and stop what had turned into a dependency. If it were not for my daily practice, I’m certain that my marijuana habit would have led me down the road to more addictive substances and behaviors.
But now that I have been teaching meditation for over forty years, it is very clear to me that meditation can be a real challenge for anyone in recovery. After prolonged drug use, sitting with oneself with the intention of letting go and relaxing may lead to cycles of ruminating, negative thoughts about past traumas. In fact, such thoughts themselves can trigger emotional instability and lead us back to drugs and alcohol.
Being able to relax before you can relax seems like an oxymoron but it is essential for meditation to happen. The ancient yogis revealed many modalities to prepare the mind for meditation. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is the classic Vedic scripture which synthesized and organized the knowledge of how to reach Samadhi, a deep protracted state of bliss. This sacred text shares various steps to take to go deeper into meditation.
The first step is to focus on the body. Asanas, or yoga postures, can not only tone the body but also help one to eliminate many of the physical stresses and tensions that prevent the mind from setting down. Doing a few minutes of yoga before meditation will help eliminate both physical and mental restlessness.
The second step is the breath. Pranayama, or breath modulation, can help increase the subtle life force so the mind can gain focus and energy. A few minutes of pranayama before meditation is helpful in removing dullness and fatigue. It can help you settle the mind down and keep it alert at the same time.
Breathwork and its Transformative Impact
Breathwork is a way to relax, manage stress, and improve overall mental health. One of the most acclaimed breathing techniques that effortlessly draws the mind into a deep meditative state is Sudarshan Kriya Yoga or SKY. SKY is unique because it uses specific patterns of breath to automatically settle the mind into deep meditation without any mental effort, concentration, or observation.
Studies using open and randomized trials, both in healthy populations and in populations with psychopathology, have observed SKYs effects. By reducing the burdens of anxiety, depression, stress, and trauma, it can be helpful for anyone in recovery because it reduces the very triggers for relapse.
I strongly advocate for people in recovery to practice natural modalities like yoga, breathing, and meditation, along with traditional approaches like medication, counseling, and behavioral therapies. These ancient practices help manage deeply rooted stress and sustain sobriety. But they aren’t one size fits all. The important thing is to find a practice that you can comfortably commit to and that gives you the desired benefits.
To evaluate whether or not meditation is helping, it is essential to do it regularly. Patanjali, in his Yoga Sutras, says that to be effective, meditation needs to happen regularly, continuously, and without interruption. Doing it daily and not giving up is key, because the benefits are just around the corner.