We all know we should be mindful of our mental health, but when life gets hectic, mental well-being can end up on the back burner. Some, may find themselves using substances to medicate symptoms of depression, anxiety, or trauma, which can result in an active addiction wreaking havoc on your life. Because of this, it’s important to understand the effect mental health can have on recovery.
As it turns out, it is so common for mental health issues and substance use issues to appear together that there is a term for it: co-occurring disorders. Most of the clients I’ve had in treatment for substance use disorder also have a co-occurring mental health disorder – anxiety, depression, trauma, attention deficit disorder (ADD). Many clients talk about using substances to quell their anxiety, lift or escape their depression. Some block out intrusive thoughts and memories of trauma with substances. It’s usually an ineffective way to manage symptoms and winds up being an additional problem to conquer.
Mental health disorders and substance use disorders have other commonalities. Both have a genetic etiology. Look through your family tree and you will most likely see relatives who had the same illnesses. Both also have an environmental component. While our genetic make-up may predispose us towards certain illnesses, it is often our environment which provides the stress that causes those illnesses to surface. For example, if you are the adult child of an alcoholic, you have a genetic predisposition which may have been triggered by an unstable environment during your childhood. You might have been exposed to drinking earlier in life than those without alcohol in the home, and found it a way to either bond with, or escape from, a parent under the influence.
If you had social anxiety as a teen, you might have found substances to be a way to shed your shyness, or release your inhibitions so you became the “life of the party.” It may have given you a way to “fit in” with your peers. You may have continued into adulthood using substances as your sole coping skill for dealing with difficult situations or stressful times. Once substance use was no longer working for you, and you entered recovery, you found you were right back to when you first used – having to figure out how to manage anxiety, depression, trauma, this time without substances. That can be a very scary place to be.
The good news is that the treatment for mental health disorders and substance use disorders is the same: individual psychotherapy, group psychotherapy, support groups, medications. And whether you have a diagnosed mental health issue, or mild symptoms that you have been managing on your own, focusing on self-care is essential. Treatment is a part of that all-important self-care. In order to get the most out of treatment, be vulnerable. The feelings you’ve been medicating with substances will come up in recovery. Be honest with yourself, your group, your provider. Take your medications as prescribed. Don’t wait until the last minute to get refills; going without your medications even for one day can set you back. Report side effects to your provider rather than stopping on your own or monkeying around with your dose. They can tell you if the dosage or time you take your medication can be changed or if a substitute is available.
What else can you do, in addition to treatment, to make sure you are practicing good self-care? To find the answers to that, I canvassed my colleagues and clients to get a wide range of advice. Here are their suggestions.
- Schedule time for yourself every day. Read a reflection, meditate, do something that is soothing, healing, and enjoyable.
- Treat yourself as you would a treasured house plant. Give yourself plenty of water, oxygen, sun, and food.
- Live one day at a time. Every day is a new day. Stay in the present. Focus on the moment.
- Take a daily inventory. How are you doing mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually? If you’re slipping in one area, develop a plan to strengthen it. Staying on an even keel decreases urges and negative thoughts.
- Revisit the simplicity of routine. Get eight hours of sleep, make your bed, shower, brush your teeth, dress in clean clothes that fit and that you feel good in.
- Exercise. Eat well. Go outside. Get your hands in dirt. Plant something. Windowsill gardens can bring the joy of nature inside — if it’s an herb garden, all the better!
- Discover a self-soothing hobby. Crocheting and knitting keep your hands busy and quiet the mind. Ask others what they do to self-soothe.
- Laugh. Play. Do something silly. Humor is healing!
Taking care of your mental health can mean the difference between sobriety and relapse. Recovery is a time of healing and growth. Nurture yourself. Be well.