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Managing Stress – A Key Element in Recovery

By | General

Your heart beats faster. Your breathing becomes more rapid. Your muscles tense and you start to sweat. This is the body’s response to a perceived threat or stress. If you are faced with a physical threat–like fleeing a burning building, scaring away a mountain lion, or lifting a car off a child–the body’s flight-or-fight response can be life-saving. In day-to-day life, however, the stresses we face–deadlines, bills, jam-packed schedules–don’t require the same burst of adrenaline, and yet our bodies respond in the same way. In the long term, chronic stress can lead to depression, high blood pressure, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, weight gain, and a host of other health issues. In addition, we may use alcohol or drugs to cope with stress and this use can become an addiction. Part of recovery from any substance abuse problem includes learning healthy ways to cope with stress.

Deep Breathing and Body Scanning

Any number of deep breathing techniques can be used to de-stress quickly and a few are detailed below. For any of these techniques, it helps to get into a comfortable position.

  • Falling out breath: In this technique, inhale deeply and fill your lungs with as much air as possible. Exhale with an audible sigh.
  • Box breath: To use this technique, inhale for a count of four. Hold your breath for four counts, exhale for four counts, and then hold your breath out for four counts.
  • Emptying breath: For this breath technique, inhale for a count of three and exhale for a count of six. Release as much air as possible.

Body scan techniques can also reduce stress. To try any of these techniques, get into a comfortable position, close your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. In the first technique, start at the top of your head and mentally work your way down your body. Notice and release any tension you may be holding in your muscles. You may be surprised at where your body holds tension. In another method, you would begin by tensing up your right foot as tight as you can, hold the tension for a few seconds, and then release. Next tense and release your right calf, then your right thigh, and so on until you have tensed and relaxed every part of your body. In a similar technique, you mentally travel through your body and imagine that each part is being filled with warmth. (Note: These techniques can also be used to help you drift off to sleep.)

Meditation

Meditation is a great way to reduce stress. You can opt for guided or unguided meditation. If you are interested in guided meditation, you can find a teacher or use an app like Headspace, Calm, or MyLife Meditation. If you prefer to meditate on your own, there are many techniques for you to try. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Focus on your breath. Don’t control your breath, just notice it. As thoughts arise (and they will), notice that you are thinking and let the thought drift away. Another method that some people find calming is breath counting. Count your breaths, going up to 10. Repeat, as many times as needed, until you feel tranquil. You could also try a moving meditation. In a walking meditation, for example, focus on each foot contacting the ground. Notice how the ground feels beneath your feet. Notice the sensations as your heel hits the ground,  rolls to the ball of your foot, and then to your toes. As your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to walking. These techniques allow your body to relax and your mind will follow.

Exercise

Exercise, in any form, is a great way to reduce stress and anxiety and elevate your mood. The key is to find a type of exercise that you enjoy. You could go for a walk or a run, or you might prefer swimming or bicycling. You may enjoy the dynamic of an exercise class. You could take up tennis or golf. Yoga, in particular, is a great stress reliever. No matter what you choose, make it a point to exercise several times per week. This will have a positive impact on your mental and physical health.

Nature

Spending time out of doors helps to relieve stress as well. Researchers in the field of ecotherapy suggest that being outdoors can elevate your mood, lower your anxiety, improve your ability to focus, improve your memory, boost creativity, relieve depression and anxiety, and help with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).  Being outside for 120 minutes a week causes positive changes, and the time doesn’t need to be continuous. So go for a stroll on the beach, take a walk in the park, or a hike in the mountains. Plan a camping trip. Plant a garden. Take your work outside. Bring the outside in by keeping cut flowers or potted plants in the house. Use natural materials to decorate. Plant herbs in your kitchen. Arrange a comfortable seating space near a window with a view. Even something as simple as displaying photos of your favorite outdoor places can help reduce stress.

The Role of Nutrition in Addiction Recovery

By | General

Good nutrition is a vital part of recovery from substance use disorder. Substance abuse frequently leads to poor nutrition because people struggling with an addiction either aren’t taking in enough calories throughout the day or are making poor food choices.

According to David Wiss, founder of Nutrition in Recovery, many people in the West aren’t eating well, either. Part of the problem is the prevalence of highly processed foods, which, he says, is contributing to metabolic disease and may be causing an increase in depression and anxiety as well. Highly processed foods are frequently low in fiber and high in sugar. When a person who has been eating highly processed food enters treatment for drug or alcohol abuse, their primary source of dopamine (drugs) is gone, and post-detox they can gravitate towards caffeine, sugar, and possibly nicotine. “Old wisdom from the recovery community would suggest that a liberalized approach to sweets, nicotine, and caffeine is favorable to help the individual get past the immediate crisis,” writes Wiss in an article that appeared in Psychology Today. However, “New wisdom suggests that this behavior is a form of cross addiction that should be addressed early in recovery.” If you or someone you know is contemplating entering a facility to recover from addiction to drugs or alcohol, it is important to make sure that the facility pays careful attention to nutrition and teaches about nutrition and wellness.

What Should You Eat in Recovery?

In recovery, you are working to heal your body and your brain. Therefore, you want to eat as well as possible. Focus on eating whole foods, defined as “…any fruit, vegetable, grain, protein, or dairy product that has not been artificially processed or modified from its original form.” (US News and World Report, “You’re in Recovery, What Should You Eat,” 2018). Avoid sugary beverages, artificial sweeteners, refined grains, and fried foods. If possible, eat organic food. Organic fruits and vegetables are often fresher and are not grown using synthetic pesticides, which reduces exposure harmful chemicals. Organic farming is also better for the environment in that it reduces pollution, conserves water, reduces soil erosion, and uses less energy. Organically raised animals are not given antibiotics, growth hormones, or fed animal byproducts.

Another alternative is to purchase locally grown food. If you buy locally grown food, typically from a farmers’ market of a food co-op, the produce is typically fresher because it hasn’t had to travel as far to get to market. In addition, if you buy local, you are supporting a local small business.

Foods That Improve Brain Chemistry

According to a recent article in US News and World Report (“You’re in Recovery, What Should You Eat,” 2018), there are specific foods that are especially good to eat in recovery because of the role they play in boosting the brain. For example, the amino acid tyrosine is a precursor to dopamine, the neurotransmitter associated with feeling good. Dopamine is typically at a very low level in early recovery, which can lead to low energy and motivation, a depressed mood, and substance cravings. Foods that contain tyrosine include bananas, sunflower seeds, lean beef, pork, lamb, whole grains, and cheese.

Eat foods rich in L-glutamine, an amino acid that boosts the immune system. These foods can help reduce sugar cravings, which is important because sugar consumption is linked to higher rates of depression, anxiety, and inflammation. These foods include kale, spinach, parsley, beets, carrots, beans, Brussels sprouts, celery, papaya, beef, chicken, fish, dairy products, and eggs.

Foods that contain a lot of antioxidants also boost the immune system and these include berries, leeks, onions, artichokes, and pecans. Make it a point to eat foods that boost levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter that leads to feelings of calm and relaxation. Low levels of GABA can lead to anxiety, restlessness, and insomnia. Foods that have been found to increase levels of GABA include kefir, shrimp, and cherry tomatoes.

Lastly, include foods that contain tryptophan in your diet. Tryptophan can boost levels of serotonin, which is associated with feelings of well-being and happiness. Serotonin helps with sleep and digestion. Foods containing tryptophan include cheese, turkey, lamb, pork, tuna, oat bran, beans, and lentils.

What to Look for in a Recovery Program

Because of the important role that nutrition plays in successfully recovering from an addiction, it is vital to select a treatment program that stresses nutrition. A good program will offer nutrition and wellness counseling and/or education. A healthy diet, focused on whole foods, helps the body and brain to heal. In some programs clients will learn or relearn to cook and to garden. A facility that includes a garden or farm provides many benefits to its clients. In addition to learning how to grow food, gardening offers clients exercise and an opportunity to be outside. Programs that have a farm frequently supply produce for the facility, which can lead to increased self-esteem and a sense of purpose.

In some programs, clients working in groups take turns fixing meals for everyone in the facility. This provides many benefits in addition to learning or relearning how to cook, meal plan, etc. Working in a group builds community and a sense of camaraderie, and knowing that you are responsible for everyone’s meal provides a sense of purpose. The emphasis on nutrition is important as well; as the body becomes healthier, the brain heals. In addition, cooking is therapeutic and can be just plain fun. Because of the importance of nutrition in recovery, eating well becomes an act of self-love and care.

Nature: An Important Tool in Addiction Recovery and Improved Mental Health

By | General

It would be hard to find a person who didn’t enjoy being outside or who had never been awestruck at some aspect of the natural world. Perhaps it is watching the total eclipse of the sun and being amazed as the moon inexorably moves across the face of the sun, blotting out the light, causing the temperature to drop and the animals to settle in for the night, and then to reverse itself and become day again. Or maybe you’ve been moved emotionally as you walk through the majestic old-growth redwood trees on California’s northern coastline. Or perhaps it’s smaller. Perhaps you are a person who can look at a flower and really see the textures of the petals, the subtle or not so subtle shadings of color. Or perhaps you love the sound of the rain on the roof. Whatever it is, most of us have been awed by nature at some point. But did you know that nature is also good for your health?

Health Benefits of Nature

The health benefits of nature are numerous and range from decreasing blood pressure to improving mood to relieving depression. A study conducted at the University of Queensland in Australia found that spending 30 minutes in nature could reduce blood pressure by as much as nine percent and reduce depression by seven percent. The study also found that exposure to sunlight helps to regulate sleep. Another study found that being outside for 120 minutes per week causes positive changes in mood for people. In all, spending time in nature can elevate mood, lessen heart disease, improve asthma, lower anxiety, prevent migraines, improve the ability to focus, improve memory, boost creativity, relieve depression, and help with seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

How Nature Can Impact Your Brain

A recent study found that being in the sun increases serotonin levels in the brain. The increased serotonin helps with elevating mood and can be a deterrent against depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In another study, one group of people walked in the forest while the other group walked into the city. The group that walked in the forest had a 16% drop in cortisol levels (a stress hormone,) a two percent drop in blood pressure, and a four percent drop in their heart rates. Researchers in Korea used functional MRIs to watch brain activity in people viewing different images. When people looked at urban images, the MRI showed increased blood flow in the amygdala, the part of the brain concerned with fear and anxiety. When the subjects looked at nature scenes, areas associated with empathy and altruism were more active. A study at Stanford showed that people who walked in nature for 90 minutes “showed decreased activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain linked to depressive rumination.” That is to say, people who spent more time in nature were less apt to beat themselves up. And finally, a study conducted at the University of Michigan found that people who took a 50-minute walk in the arboretum had improved executive functioning skills.

Spending Time in Nature Is an Important Part of Addiction Recovery

In Psychology Today, therapist Sarah Benton discusses the emphasis that current society places on technology and electronics. “The key to recovery…is ‘balance,’ ” she writes, “and therefore it is important for our mind, body, and spirit to counteract our high-tech lives with nature.” Spending time in nature through hiking, camping, backpacking, and the like can give people a sense of self-confidence and belief in their own abilities. Spending time outdoors and connecting with nature could be viewed as a way of practicing the 11th Step in the 12-Step tradition (“Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”). Most people feel a sense of awe when in nature that they don’t feel in an urban setting. A part of recovery is reawakening the senses and becoming mindful of one’s surroundings, and spending time in the natural world is an excellent way to do this.

Ways to Make Nature a Part of Your Life

Spending time in nature is good for everyone, especially people recovering from addiction or living with mental health issues. An easy way to do this is to take your exercise routine outside. If you live anywhere near water, a walk on the beach or along a stream is good for the body and soul. You can find hikes in your area. Join the Sierra Club or the Audubon Society. Check for “meet-ups” in your area that get you outdoors. If you have children, go outside with them. Take the dog for a walk. Go for a horseback ride. Become involved with wilderness preservation organizations. Go camping with your family and friends. Check out sports-related businesses. Many local bicycle and running stores have information on rides and runs, and your local REI will have information on numerous activities that you can join.

Find ways to make nature a bigger part of your home. Plant a garden or become part of a community garden. Keep cut flowers or potted plants in your home. Plant an herb garden in your kitchen. Even something as simple as displaying photos of your favorite natural locations or listening to nature sounds can work to reduce stress and aid in your recovery.

The Role of Guilt and Shame in Addiction

By | General

It happened again. You said you wouldn’t drink too much at the family gathering, but you did. As you start to sober up, you see the hurt and disappointment in your spouse’s eyes. You hate hurting people you love, but you can’t seem to stop your behavior. You feel guilty about your behavior and ashamed of who you are. The feelings of guilt and shame are so painful that you drink again to stop the emotional pain, which causes you to feel guilt and shame. The cycle starts again.

What are Guilt and Shame? Where Do They Come From?

Although many people use the terms “guilt” and “shame” interchangeably, they are not quite the same emotion. According to Joseph Burgo, Ph.D., writing in Psychology Today, guilt is “a feeling of responsibility or remorse for some offense, crime, wrong, etc….” Guilt relates to others. Shame, on the other hand, relates to the self and how we feel about ourselves. Shame is the feeling that something is fundamentally wrong with us, that we are damaged or flawed.

According to information published by the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM), feelings of guilt develop in children between the ages of three and six years of age. Feelings of shame can develop in children as young as 15 months. Guilt stems from the knowledge that we have done something objectively wrong. Shame stems from the feeling that we are inherently damaged. Shame may arise in early childhood when our negative emotions are denied. Some caregivers don’t allow children to have negative emotions, perhaps because the caregivers were never taught how to handle negative emotions themselves. At any rate, when we are children we learn that these negative feelings are unacceptable. So we suppress these feelings and may begin to use addictive behaviors to cover up the emotional pain.

Results of Guilt and Shame

Shame can cause us to fear rejection, which in turn can cause us to avoid people. Shame can also lead to mental health problems, including depression and substance abuse. Many people who struggle with an addiction, be it to drugs, alcohol, gambling, turn to addictive behavior because of their fundamental shame, and then develop shame because of the addiction and guilt over the behaviors caused by the addiction. Shame has also been linked to violence, aggression, bullying, depression, and eating disorders. Shame can also lead to relapse in recovery, which leads to more shame over the relapse. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40% to 60% of people will relapse in the first year following treatment.

Guilt, however, can lead to positive change. Guilt can lead us to make an effort to atone for the hurt that we have caused other people or to fix the problem that we have created. We can learn to change the destructive behavior that caused the problem and can reconnect us to people in our lives.

How To Conquer Shame

Shame is a very self-destructive and soul-destroying emotion and can keep us trapped in our addictions. Fortunately, shame can be overcome. A recent article in Psychology Today had several techniques to help overcome shame. When you are experiencing strong, negative emotions, spend some time to sort out what you are feeling. Is it guilt? Shame? Remember, shame is a way you feel about yourself, the feeling that you are inherently flawed. Guilt is feeling bad because your behavior had a negative impact on someone or a situation. Make sure that what you are feeling isn’t unhealthy guilt, which has been described as feeling guilty because you failed to live up to an unrealistic ideal. When you have sorted out what you are feeling, then you can choose an appropriate response.

1. Separate yourself from what you do

You have value as a human being on this planet apart from your work or your economic status. Learn to recognize what triggers your feelings of shame, which are usually centered around your emotional vulnerabilities. For example, if you have children, you may feel shame when your parenting abilities are called into question.

2. Connect with people

When you are feeling ashamed, don’t go it alone. Seek help from a sponsor, therapist, support group, family members, friends, or the idea of a higher power. Although it may seem like it, you are not alone in this struggle.

3. Think of your road to recovery like that of an athlete in training

If a champion athlete loses a game, they are likely to be very disappointed but will be back in practice the next day. Likewise, if you have a relapse, view it as a setback rather than a failure, and get right back into your program.

4. Treat yourself with compassion

As you would to a friend who was suffering. Lastly and perhaps most important, forgive yourself.

Random Acts of Kindness”: It’s Good for Others And for You

By | General

The New Oxford American Dictionary defines kindness as “the quality of being friendly, generous, and considerate.” A recent article on the benefits of kindness defined kindness as doing something nice for someone without being asked and without expecting anything in return. Examples of kindness include holding the door for the person behind you, inviting a new colleague to join you for lunch, or taking a meal to someone who is sick or has had a death in the family.

Kindness is also an international affair. World Kindness Day has been celebrated on November 13 each year since 1998, promoted by the World Kindness Movement (WKM). The WKM is a non-governmental organization with no religious or political affiliation whose mission statement is to “inspire individuals and connect nations to create a kinder world.”

Health Benefits of Kindness

Besides benefitting the recipient of the kind act, kindness can actually improve the physical and mental health of the person performing the kindness. When you do something kind for someone, you have an increased level of oxytocin in your system. Known as the “love hormone,” increased levels of oxytocin are associated with bonding: the bond between a mother and her infant, the romantic love between two people, and the bond between people and their pets. Physically, studies have shown that increased levels of oxytocin help to lower blood pressure and improve overall cardiovascular health. Oxytocin is also connected to feelings of greater self-esteem and optimism.

The act of being kind also elevates levels of serotonin. Serotonin is the “feel-good” hormone and allows brain cells and other nervous system cells to communicate. According to the Hormone Health Network website, serotonin aids in sleep reduces depression and anxiety and helps with bone health. Serotonin levels are also increased by performing acts of kindness for others. Increased levels of endorphins help to reduce sensations of pain and decrease anxiety. In addition, numerous studies show that people who are routinely kind to others produce 23% less cortisol (a stress hormone) than people who don’t. This results in less stress, which results in better overall health and slows the aging process.

The Role of Kindness in Substance Abuse Recovery

As shown above, performing acts of kindness clearly provides physical and mental health benefits: increased oxytocin promotes greater self-esteem and a more optimistic outlook on life; serotonin reduces anxiety and depression and aids sleep; increased endorphin levels (similar to the boost you get from exercise) reduce sensations of pain and reduces stress levels and anxiety; and a lower level of cortisol results in less stress and may lead to greater longevity. In fact, people who are suffering from depression are frequently told to exercise and to do volunteer work for the mental health benefits of those activities.

Kindness also helps with substance abuse recovery. When we are abusing drugs or alcohol or another addictive behavior, our focus is on ourselves and our next drink or whatever substance or behavior we crave. Performing an act of kindness or service for someone helps to turn our focus from ourselves to others. In fact, performing acts of service is an important aspect of the 12-Step philosophy.

Performing acts of kindness also aid us in building connections with other people. We may feel a greater sense of connection to the people we are serving, but if our service is as part of a group (like a church group serving lunch at a homeless shelter or a high-school club participating in a local effort to clean up a local area), we may also feel a greater sense of connection to the people we are serving with. Performing acts of kindness can open us up to new possibilities, and we may begin to focus more on what we have in common with other people, rather than the differences that divide us. By serving others, we start to emerge from the self-imposed isolation that is common with addiction.

Be Kind to Yourself

If you are in recovery, it’s important to direct some of those acts of kindness toward yourself as well. People suffering from addictions tend to criticize themselves harshly, which does not aid in recovery. We need to learn to like and love ourselves in order to fully recover. It can be helpful to write a list of the qualities about yourself that you like–a love letter to yourself if you will. If meditation is part of your spiritual practice, consider doing a loving-kindness meditation, where you direct kind intentions toward yourself and others. Scripts and more specific directions are widely available online.

An act of kindness doesn’t need to be elaborate or time-consuming to benefit both you and others. Smile at a stranger. Give a coworker a compliment. Run an errand for a neighbor. The benefit to you will be just as great to you as it will to them, and the world will be a kinder place.

The Hansen Foundation, Inc.
4 E. Jimmie Leeds Road
Galloway, NJ 08205
Phone: 609.270.4443

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