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Healthy Ways to Manage Stress in Recovery

StresHealthy-Ways-to-Manage-Stress-in-Recovery - dark haired girl taking deep breaths is Inevitable.

Everyone experiences it. Social media may present highlight reels of other people’s lives while our own blooper reels play on a loop in our heads, but even seemingly picture-perfect lives are not without stress. Because too much stress can be a risk to successful recovery, it is important to learn how to manage it.

When Stress Is Good

Though stress is generally viewed negatively, there are times when stress can be healthy. Concern over grades may cause a student to study more. Worry about high cholesterol may cause a person to make positive lifestyle choices. Wanting to make a good impression on a job application might motivate an applicant to put more effort into their resume. This type of stress can be a motivator that allows for greater success, health, and happiness.

Often, however, stress can turn negative. Too much stress decreases a person’s motivation, sense of self-worth, or feelings of well-being.


Deep breathing exercises have been shown to ease stress, decrease anxiety, and address trouble falling asleep, all of which can increase the chances of making good choices and not simply reacting to impulsive thoughts. WebMD has instructions for several deep breathing exercises.

Avoid Procrastination

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Don’t put off until tomorrow, what you can do today.” Because some problems become more complex when they are left unaddressed and because too many issues can make a person feel like there is too much for them to handle, it is often better to handle matters as they come up. A to-do list or reminders on an electronic device can be good ways to ensure that important tasks get done.

Break It Down

To a stressed mind, a problem may appear to be one massive, entangled mess that has to be taken on all at once. If stressors are broken down into many little pieces, however, it is easier to see how the barrier can eventually be conquered.

One way to do this is to use the SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound) method of goal setting. Psychology Today offered suggestions for SMART goal setting in a recent blog.

Reach Out

Two heads (or more) are generally better than one. When stress seems too big to manage alone, a trusted ally can help to process negative feelings, develop strategies, and prioritize. A person in recovery might have the following supports in their network:

Take a Break

While it is important to address issues causing stress promptly, sometimes, it can make sense to step away briefly. Taking a nap, coloring, enjoying a relaxing bath, having a snack, going for a walk, or listening to some music can be ways for a person to regain their ability to focus. When you are struggling, a short break may leave you be better equipped to address a stressful situation.

Turn to a Higher Power

If a person has embraced a higher power, they may find it helpful to pray or to ask for spiritual guidance from leaders within their faith tradition. Some individuals also visit sweat lodges or other forms of spiritual retreat to help them regain their sense of peace.


Because people in recovery from mental illness and/or substance abuse can, with some reflection and practice, identify their own strengths, needs, triggers and support system, the odds of successfully managing stresses they encounter can be greatly increased, by creating a personalized WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan). As mentioned above, two (or more) heads are often better than one, so WRAPs are often developed in a group, as part of a therapeutic setting. By making a plan in advance, it allows a person to use their best thinking to have answers on hand for major crises and even small hurdles that may get in the way of their goals.

While the Copeland Center owns the rights to the official WRAP and has written a number of books on the topic, it is possible to create something similar to a WRAP by documenting:

  • Every coping skill a person possesses
  • Who is in their network and what each identified support offers
  • How the person feels and behaves at their best or how they would like to be
  • Triggers that are likely to threaten a person’s recovery
  • Other things they will need help with while they are getting back on track (someone to water their plants while they are away in treatment, a daily check in once they get home, someone to remove alcohol or other drugs from their residence while they are gone, etc.)

Ultimately, it’s not stress that is the problem. It is the response a person has to stress that can threaten sobriety. Unchecked, stress may dominate the situation, but a quick, proactive response can allow a person in recovery to maintain forward progress on their recovery journey.

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