Taking the first step toward recovery is incredibly courageous. Making it through the process is downright heroic. However, despite the phrasing of this article’s title, recovery doesn’t stop when you’ve overcome your addictions. Rather, the building of healthy mind states and habits, along with fulfilling practices, will help you sustain abstinence throughout your life.
In this article, we’ll explore key strategies that can help you navigate life after recovery.
Reset your brain’s dopamine balance
Different types of addictions have varying effects on the body and brain, with many substances stripping your body of vital vitamins and minerals. However, while the effects on neurochemistry will vary depending on the substance or person, all addictions share in how they impact our reward circuitry.
The neurotransmitter dopamine is one of the key components of this complex area of the brain. As one of the chief molecules associated with pleasure, its release leads to positive feelings and motivates us to continuously pursue the activities that trigger its release.
Over millions of years, our brains have evolved to seek rewards that take time and effort. This is to preserve a state of homeostasis (the biological balance needed to function optimally). When compared with healthier reward-driven activities, addictions can trigger the release of up to ten times the amount of dopamine.
While there are many other factors at play, how addiction affects your dopamine balance is one of the key reasons recovery can be so challenging. Essentially, you’re operating below baseline; a dopamine deficit where the pleasure of healthy pursuits pales in comparison to the former addiction.
This study found that:
“…decreased dopamine function in addicted subjects results in decreased sensitivity to nondrug-related stimuli (including natural reinforcers) and disrupts frontal inhibition, both of which contribute to compulsive drug intake and impaired inhibitory control.”
To build a fulfilling life after recovery, resetting your dopamine balance is essential. The methods below are all steps toward regaining homeostasis, rekindling your sense of self-worth, and bringing pleasure back into your life.
Develop a positive mindset
Life isn’t static—emotional fluctuations are part and parcel of being human. Developing a positive mindset doesn’t mean you need to be perpetually happy. Nor does it mean you should shame yourself with toxic positivity.
It is a gradual process that can be strengthened by various practices, better equipping you to deal with life’s blows and resist temptation when it arises.
A growing body of research is showing that gratitude can offer many benefits for mental health, and people who practice it regularly tend to be happier and less depressed.
When looking at a study group whose participants suffered from anxiety and depression, researchers at Berkeley discovered those who wrote gratitude letters reported improved mental health at four weeks and twelve weeks.
It can be difficult to count your blessings when things aren’t going well, but the power of gratitude has the potential to cut through your malaise, boosting your mood and sense of self-worth.
Try to focus on the positive aspects of your life, however small they may seem at first, and practice gratitude in whatever way resonates with you: meditations, a journal, or giving thanks to friends or family members.
Set achievable goals
When you contemplate everything you need to accomplish to get your life back on track, it can be overwhelming—even paralyzing at times.
Well, as Desmond Tutu once wisely said, “There is only one way to eat an elephant: a bite at a time.”
Setting achievable goals is like laying out a roadmap for your recovery journey. To start, you need to figure out what you really want to achieve and why. You may need to rekindle your sense of self and rediscover what brings you joy. This could involve anything from learning a new skill, reconnecting with family and friends, or starting a new career.
Break down each step required to reach your goals and ensure you can handle them—the last thing you want is to take on too much and get burnt out. Furthermore, ensure they’re specific and realistic, with a timeline and outcomes you can measure. Think of them as little victories that will keep you motivated along the way.
Your support network can help you choose goals that align with your values and interests. If some things don’t work out, that’s fine— remember to stay flexible and adjust your goals as needed.
Ultimately, recovery is a journey, not a destination. There will be bumps in the road and the target may shift over time, but you should be proud of every step you take and celebrate each triumph, no matter how small.
Surround yourself with positive influences
Those who suffer from addictions often end up socializing with people in similar situations. Through no fault of their own, these peers can have an enabling effect and keep you trapped in old behavior patterns.
This is why, to support life after recovery, you must surround yourself with those who have a positive influence on you: people who raise you up, keep you on track, and can offer authentic support. Try to avoid those who tempt you to engage in bad habits, or only seem to have a negative influence on your life.
Sometimes this can be a difficult process, requiring you to spend less time with people, or end relationships completely. However, your sobriety is of chief importance. Cultivating friendships with those who understand and respect your journey is a vital step toward sustainable recovery.
Build healthy habits
Forming new habits isn’t easy and it’s especially difficult when they require effort and you’re in a dopamine deficit. On average, it takes around two to eight months for a habit to become automatic. This means that successfully building healthy habits requires a lot of drive and determination.
When undertaking this challenge, regularly remind yourself that they are an integral aspect of sustainable recovery. This will help keep your fires stoked and provide the strength to keep them up.
“If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.”—Robert Butler.
From steady-state, HIIT, and weight-lifting to yoga and pilates—exercise comes in many forms and each has its own set of benefits. However, the scientific consensus is that regular exercise is a pillar of good health. It comes with a host of benefits, from helping you better connect with others, to boosting mood and improving energy levels. But what of recovery?
This systematic literature review found that exercise may be a viable treatment for addiction, concluding that:
“Nearly three-quarters of the studies reviewed documented a significant change in addiction-related outcomes (e.g., more days abstinent, reduced cravings) in response to exercise exposure, particularly while someone was receiving treatment at an in or outpatient clinic.”
What’s more, regular exercise can help get you back to that all-important neurochemical baseline. According to this article from Berkeley:
“Over time, regular exercise remodels the reward system, leading to higher circulating levels of dopamine and more available dopamine receptors.”
No matter what form it takes, regular exercise may be the most effective way to sustain your sobriety. So, if in doubt, go for a walk, cycle, or run!
Practicing mindfulness simply means being in the present moment; letting your thoughts and emotions pass like clouds without judgment or attachment.
Mindfulness is a useful tool for everyone, but it can be especially useful for those with a history of addiction; those who may have to deal with the emergence of cravings. While the study of mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs) for addiction is only around a decade old, the findings are promising. This study concluded that:
“One recent meta-analysis indicates that MBIs produce statistically significant effects on craving (pooled Cohen’s d = 0.68) and substance misuse (pooled Cohen’s d = 0.33), suggesting that MBIs may be efficacious treatments for addiction.”
One of the many benefits of mindfulness is that it can help you recognize and accept your emotions without becoming overwhelmed by them. This can be particularly useful during recovery, when you may experience intense feelings that could trigger a relapse.
Additionally, mindfulness can help you develop a greater sense of compassion towards yourself and others, which can contribute to a more positive mindset and greater resilience in the face of challenges.
There are many ways to practice mindfulness, including meditation, deep breathing exercises, and mindful movement practices such as yoga. By incorporating any of these into your daily routine, you’ll build a powerful tool you can always rely on at a moment’s notice. It’s free, and a key building block for supporting life after recovery.
Coping with relapse
Relapses can happen. If they do, it’s important not to beat yourself up about it. Feelings of shame are natural, but that doesn’t mean they’re deserved. Healing isn’t linear and relapse is often part of the journey so try to remind yourself why you got sober in the first place.
Rather than letting it cause you to spiral, focus on learning from the setback and recognizing what led to it. This is the time to trust in your social support for strength and guidance or ask for help from a professional if needed.
A supportive community is a valuable component of lasting sobriety so don’t suffer in silence. Ultimately, you should be patient with yourself: keep rebuilding and remember that every day is an opportunity to take back control.
How can Tikvah Lake Recovery help?
At Tikvah Lake Recovery, we know that recovery is a life-long process. This is why we offer all our clients comprehensive aftercare and long-term support to help them stay on track.
Being part of a sober community within a trusted environment can help you remain supported on your recovery journey. This sense of solidarity is an invaluable component of maintaining sobriety; it allows you to build a life with meaningful connections along with a newfound sense of purpose.
If you’d like to talk to us about this, or anything related to long-term recovery, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
- The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Exercise, Verywell Mind, January 3, 2023
- Pathways to Long-Term Recovery: A Preliminary Investigation, PubMed Central, April 17, 2017