Avoiding Relapse When Life Gets Overwhelming

Sunset at the beach

Avoiding Relapse When Life Gets Overwhelming

June is traditionally the month for weddings. It’s also a month when many recent graduates are seeking their first full-time jobs. Either situation means major changes in living situations, responsibilities, daily schedules, and/or budgets—not to mention all the planning, decision-making, and to-do lists that go into making the actual transition happen. Even when they represent dreams come true, major life changes are stressful, often overwhelming.

If you have substance addiction issues, proceed with extra caution: feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope is a major factor in relapse. The last thing you need is to make the transition more stressful than necessary.

Avoid Making Too Many Changes at Once

When you’re recently detoxed, adjusting to sobriety is a major transition in itself: try to wait at least a year before making additional, unrelated life changes. The same principle applies to getting married, starting a new career, or coping with a death in the family: one major change at a time is enough. Wait until you’re settled into post-transition life, then wait another six weeks, before taking a new major step. If you jump into a new relationship or volunteer involvement immediately after your first stress-free week on a new job, the job is likely to toss out its next “testing stage” just as the other new commitment passes the point of no return.

Of course, it isn’t always possible to keep major changes on a strict one-at-a-time basis: sometimes life throws out challenges in batches, and sometimes transitions really do come in pairs (sobriety may mean looking for work, marriage may require moving to a new home). But you can keep small routines intact: no matter how crowded your schedule, stick to everyday family time, leisure activities, and getting-up or going-to-bed rituals.

Take Care of Your Physical Health

“Healthy” is a word that should never be far from your mind; being in good physical condition helps you through the stress of transition. Being fatigued, undernourished, or out of shape will make you vulnerable to relapse and physical illness—and, long before that, will create a vicious cycle of increasing stress by lowering your ability to concentrate and think reasonably.

Unfortunately, good health practices are often the first things we convince ourselves “can wait” when we’re bombarded with immediate demands. Store up spare energy for transitional challenges by heeding the acronym SPARE:

Sleep: Try to get seven or eight hours of sleep every night. Make sure your bedroom is comfortable, and keep the last hours of your day free of work and “screen time” activities. If you still have trouble dozing off, concentrate on a relaxing mental picture.

Play: Participate in favorite leisure activities—ideally with friends or family—on a regular basis. Find something to laugh about every day. During leisure hours, practice not thinking about work or “what comes next.”

Activity: Specifically, physical activity (called “exercise” by some). Try to combine at least part of this with the Play category—even a stroll through the park qualifies. Build extra activity into the rest of your life as well: get off the bus a stop early, take the stairs instead of the elevator.

Relaxation: Besides sleep and recreation, everyone needs time to sit and daydream, or to watch the world go by. Take regular breaks from work (including time for a decent lunch away from your desk). Reserve one full day of each week for not doing anything “productive.”

Eat: Eat the right things, that is. Fresh produce. Whole grains. Fish and other lean proteins. You don’t have to ban coffee and doughnuts entirely, but never consume them as the whole of a main meal. And remember the hows of healthy eating: no gobbling or gulping or multitasking.

Stay in Touch with Your Support Network

Another frequent casualty of transitional overwhelm is human connections—just when you need them most. Never let support-group attendance slide. Keep up other regular interactions with family, friends, and social groups. Don’t hesitate to call for help when you’re stressed out—or to invite a friend over “just to chat” (and to get your mind off stressful topics entirely).

Remember the Higher Power element of your support network, too. Keep up regular prayer/meditation or whatever practices nurture you spiritually. (Writing out prayers—or otherwise journaling—can be especially helpful during transition periods.)

Keep a Realistic Perspective

All that said, some good-in-themselves things may have to go, at least for a while. Take a careful look at what’s currently consuming your time and how necessary those activities really are (or will be, in post-transition life). There is a saturation point to human schedules.

In most cases, “screen time” is the first thing you can dispense with. If you cut out all television and all non-work computer time and still feel overloaded, ask yourself:

  • Are there social/Meetup/volunteer groups I’m staying in from pure habit, rather than because I genuinely enjoy them?
  • Are there chores I can delegate or projects I can contract out?
  • Can I free some productive time by reducing my driving—by taking public transportation, telecommuting, or doing errands at off-peak hours?

Be willing to let anything go that’s not essential. Just remember that “essential” includes at least one regular leisure activity, one regular physical activity, and one regular social activity (you may be able to combine any or all of these).

And Finally

Presented in a clump, all this may sound as stressful as the transition itself: so practice these tips one at a time, as you should do with everything pertaining to transitions. Looking at the whole list too often will intensify your sense of overwhelm and perhaps paralyze you.

Trying to plan every step can also hurt you in another way: it tempts you to become obsessed with making everything “just so” and controlling even the uncontrollable. The harder you try to make every situation foolproof, the angrier and more frustrated you’ll feel when the inevitable glitch turns up. “I deserve better for all the effort I put in” is a common excuse for abusing substances in misguided attempts to spite the world.

If you take away nothing else from this article, remember to focus on one top priority at a time, and to accept what you can’t change. Eventually, you will make it through the transition period—and will realize it was all worthwhile.