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[ Opinion ]

Self Care and Recovery – What’s It All About?

The concept of “self-care” is becoming ever more popular in the recovery community, but what does it actually mean? And can it really be useful in maintaining sobriety and improving one’s quality of life?

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines self-care as, “care for oneself: self treatment.” In the recovery community, self-care refers to what you do to improve the quality of your life in all areas– including physical, psychological, spiritual, and emotional. Some believe proper self-care will aid in maintaining sobriety and enhancing recovery.

Recovery, as the term is used in the addiction world, is somewhat controversial. At the risk of sounding overly simplistic; if one has an unhealthy relationship with a substance, behavior, or another person, the best way to address it would be to extinguish the behavior and put an end to the relationship. Simple – but not easy.

For a few years in college I worked at the on campus pub. If all the students who abused alcohol were “alcoholics”, my college should have been a rehab instead of an institution for higher learning.

Many people will go through periods of unhealthy behaviors. Most will stop on their own when the negative effects of the behavior outweigh whatever benefits the behavior had at first. But there will be some who will be unable to discontinue the behavior even as negative consequences mount (health and relationship problems, job loss, and worse). For lack of a better distinction, people unable to discontinue such harmful behaviors are identified as addicts and/or alcoholics.

Numerous treatment approaches exist (some more helpful than others) to assist in achieving a state of abstinence from the addiction. There are many theories as to why some people are able to stop destructive behaviors on their own, while others struggle, often for years, without success. Whether it is genes, early trauma, or some other variable, there exists a group of people who will need assistance to overcome harmful dependencies.

There is a saying that the opposite of anxiety is action. It would be difficult to dispute that the transition to a sober life, for those who struggle, is fraught with a certain level of anxiety. So how does one address that anxiety and discomfort without falling back into harmful old habits?

Enter the concept of self-care.

After an extended period of inflicting self-harm, the individual now new to abstinence may have a limited tool box of approaches to self-care and be left with significant psychic damage. Maintaining a level of support seems crucial and the neuroscience behind the idea that connection is an essential component of recovery from addiction continues to grow .

Acquiring tools to care for oneself on all levels may not be easy for someone who never experienced adequate caring, or who has been lost in a cycle of self-harm for an extended period of time. I contacted a number of distinguished professionals for their input on self-care techniques and how engaging in these behaviors can be a healing experience for those recovering from addiction.

Dr. Jamie Marich, a clinical trauma specialist, expressive arts therapist and author, as well as developer of Dancing Mindfulness (of which I am a proud certified facilitator) shared with me, “I’ve come to embrace self-care in recovery more as self-nourishment. One of my close teachers often challenges me to do an inventory on what is nourishing me in my life right now and what is depleting me, and I often have my clients engage in a similar inventory. When the depletion column overwhelms the nourishing column of this inventory, it’s time to take some radical action.”

“My life and my recovery literally depend on it. Some activities that I find consistently nourishing include, swimming, taking baths with my favorite oils, spending time alone on a walk or with a good book, keeping my phone off or on silent for extended periods of time, engaging in physical exercise I truly enjoy (e.g., yoga, dance, jiu jitsu), and spending time in the company of supportive people who challenge me without judging me.”

“This means that the nature of my recovery support system has changed and evolved over the years. And that’s okay–what nourishes us in one season of our lives may deplete us in another. Our needs for nourishment and care as people in recovery is ever-evolving.”

Yoga is a physical and spiritual practice intended to promote unity of mind and body, and compassion in action. Darren Littlejohn is an author and yoga teacher with multiple years of recovery from addiction. Regarding yoga and his personal recovery, Littlejohn told me:

“From one perspective I suppose we could say that the practice of yoga, since it’s healthy for our mind, body, and soul, is a good way to practice self-care. For me, after 34 years of AA meetings, and 7 years of yoga and meetings, I can say without a doubt that yoga is my recovery. Those of us in recovery begin to practice self-care the moment we decide to get clean. But what does self-care look like in the long term, after many years of sobriety? For me, meetings alone don’t cut it. Self-care as a yogi in long-term sobriety is an evolution. Our recovery is our posture, breath, alignment. The principles of 12-Step and yoga that we practice in meetings on our mat teach us who we really are off the mat outside of meetings.” 

Proper nutrition is a vital component of our health and well-being. Often food can be a problematic relationship in and of itself and for everyone, diet is crucial for physical and emotion health. Sarah Roberts is the author of The 28 Day Kick The Sugar Challenge, and intimately familiar with the experience of addiction and the process of recovery.

Regarding addiction, recovery, and self-care, Roberts told me, “ Placing a focus on my health and fitness has been an integral piece of my recovery journey. When I got sober, I became aware of how my lifestyle choices affected my overall health, and without this new understanding, I believe I would have played “whack-a-mole” with my addictions, finding something else–like food, sugar, shopping, etc.–to soothe my emotions. Focusing on my health filled the hole I was always trying to fill with alcohol. In early recovery, I felt so incredibly untethered that placing a priority on what I was putting in my body and how I was moving it created a wonderful distraction while helping me to feel better than I ever had before. It became my new passion…and it gave me purpose.”

“For anyone looking to get sober, or for those in early recovery, it is my belief that true freedom is possible, and that nourishing and nurturing our amazing bodies is a key towards achieving it.”

Yvette Jacquez and Nuria Reed are long time friends, and the creators of the subscription box Ekka Recovery ( Nuria is a certified yoga instructor with over a decade in meditation and yoga experience, PTSD and the mind/body connection. Yvette is a fitness expert and has spent over ten years focusing on fitness and wellness with the attitude that exercise, in order to be effective, needs to be fun.

Subscription boxes have become increasingly popular with the general population and Ekka is unique in that it focuses on the concerns specifically facing women in recovery. Ekka is a gift women in recovery can give themselves monthly, that includes tools for caring for multiple aspects of their lives. Yvette and Nuria said of their inspiration to create this service: “We created Ekka because we wanted to help women in recovery, from any kind of traumatic experience such as divorce, eating disorders, addiction, etc and bridge the gap between their old lifestyle and the new selves they are working to create.”

Ekka Box

“At Ekka, we ensure that the whole being is taken care of holistically: the physical box, the mind, the internal systems and the spirit. Our wellness boxes help to build the big picture self by giving women new rituals to practice to replace old, self-sabotaging ones. Over time the repetition of these positive habits leads the formation of new neural pathways in the brain supporting the positive growth of the individual.”

Many people, especially women, who have struggled with addiction are unhelpfully punishing towards themselves. Ekka is a gift that nourishes and offers ways for recovering women to better take care of themselves and focus on a healthier, more positive future.

Patty Powers is a nationally recognized certified recovery coach and writer based in New York City. She observed, “People who seek recovery from addiction are used to instant relief. They’ll agree self-care makes sense but generally lack the motivation to put it into practice because the payoff is either too subtle or too elusive.  When you’re wired up for instant gratification, the concept of working toward something as foreign as emotional balance is as far reaching as saying “This is what space travel feels like.”

“I have clients make a 90 day commitment to following a self-care routine and to judge for themselves whether or not there is pay off that’s worth the effort.” Regarding self-care, Powers told me, “The most compelling reason to add self-care activities to your daily routine is because ultimately you’ll suffer less. These activities help to stabilize emotions by lowering stress, improving sleep quality, increasing energy and improving mental clarity. Not to mention self-care is self-love so this adds a spiritual component to it.”

Specifically addressing self-care, Powers offered, “A self-care starter kit would look like this: exercise, healthy food and plenty of water, getting a substantial amount of fresh air daily, and some form of mindfulness.” Powers continued, “Start out by setting realistic goals because perfectionism leads to unrealistic expectations. If you think you’re going to give up sugar, flour, caffeine and cigarettes, workout 2 hours every day and meditate for 40 minutes at a pop – guess what? You won’t. In fact, as soon as you fail to live up to this regimen, you’ll give it up altogether and probably torment yourself with guilt and negative self-talk.”

“The important thing is to make a plan and take action. If these activities are new for you, take baby steps. Trust me, at first you’ll probably need to set reminders for everything – Drink water, eat vegetables, get fresh air, put away cell phone outside, take deep breaths. Once the feel-good benefits kick in, you’ll find yourself stepping up the challenge by adding meditation, yoga, and maybe adding in a new hobby. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and forget why self-care matters. It’s an important part of relapse prevention.”

“If exercise and nutrition can help manage anxiety and depression, restore confidence and increase self-esteem – inactivity heightens ruminating thoughts and, let’s face it, there’s no such thing as ‘positive’ ruminating thoughts! Negative self-talk, anxiety, depression, isolation, lethargy, and loneliness take over and scream out for relief. Drugs, alcohol, or self-harming behaviors pop into your head as a solution to the very loud statement ‘I didn’t feel this bad before I got sober’”

Powers concluded, “Practicing mindfulness can be as simple as putting away your cell phone so you can pay attention to whatever’s in front of you; taking slow deep breaths or stepping outside and turning your focus to the breeze, the sound of chirping birds, or noticing all the colors that make up bark on a tree. Nature has a calming effect.” 

This list is by no means exhaustive. Meditation, essential oils, prayer, music, creative expression, volunteer work, acupuncture, massage therapy, and many other practices have been found deeply valuable to, not only those in recovery from addiction or compulsive behaviors but all people. Once unshackled from dependencies that have kept one prisoner, the options for creating a life worth living are endless.

Regina Walker  is a licensed psychotherapist, writer, and photographer in NYC. She is currently at work on her first book.