During my more than 20 years in recovery from substance and sex addiction, I have developed a varied and useful sobriety toolkit. More so than I realized. In fact, this article, when I started writing it, was titled “10 Tools for Sobriety.” Before I realized it, I’d listed more than 20 items. Rather than paring down my list, I decided to publish it in full because different tools work better for some addicts than others.
These are the 23 tools I turn to on a relatively regular basis and that I know work well in terms of keeping me relatively sane and sober. If you have tools of your own that I did not list here, please email me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I will update this list. In the interim, I hope you will find this listing helpful.
- 12-Step Meetings: This is where we connect with others who share our struggle, learning effective coping skills and both giving and receiving ongoing social support.
- 12-Step Sponsorship: Sponsors guide newcomers through the 12 steps of recovery while also serving as a confidant and advisor. Sponsors and sponsees tend to benefit equally from these relationships.
- 12-Step Work: The 12 Steps of recovery are designed to walk us through a process of discovery, helping us accept our reality and outlining a process for both short-term and long-term behavior change.
- Bookending: Addicts can bookend potentially triggering events with phone calls to a supportive friend in recovery. During the before call, we commit to sobriety, and we discuss plans to avoid relapse. The after call provides an opportunity to discuss what happened, what feelings came up, and what we might want or need to do differently next time.
- Breathwork: There are countless forms of breathwork (controlled deep breathing exercises), all of which are effective in terms of managing stress, lowering anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and maintaining sobriety. My favorite technique is 4-7-8 breathing. Breathe in for a count of 4, hold for a count of 7, exhale for a count of 8.
Connecting with Friends and Loved Ones: It has been said that the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection. And there is little doubt that when we start to connect with others – friends, family, fellow recovering addicts – on an emotionally intimate level, staying sober gets much, much easier.
- Connecting with Nature: Communing with nature, especially with friends and loved ones, is a great way to understand that we are not alone in life, that we are loved, and that recovery is worth it.
- Creativity: This can involve painting, sculpting, drawing, photography, landscaping, decorating the house for holidays, cooking, writing, or any other creative activity that we enjoy.
- Exercise: Exercise is good for both physical and mental health, and therefore good for recovery. It doesn’t matter if the exercise is low impact or hard-core. Simply getting up and moving around is good for us.
- Gratitude: A great way to combat “stinking thinking” is to create a gratitude list. Writing a 10-item gratitude list nearly always counteracts almost any trigger and halts the addictive cycle.
- HALT (an acronym for Hungry, Angry/Anxious, Lonely, and Tired): Addicts must learn to ask themselves: When is the last time I ate? Did I get enough sleep last night? Is there some conflict in my life that I need to resolve? Would a few minutes spent talking with someone who understands me help me to feel better? More often than not, a catnap, a candy bar, or a five-minute phone conversation will greatly diminish the desire to relapse.
- Journaling: Writing about our experience slows the mind in ways that lead to deeper understanding. For this reason, journaling, especially about feeling triggered toward relapse, is a great way to advance our recovery.
- Meditation: Many addicts struggle with meditation, and that’s OK. The practice of meditating is called a ‘practice’ for a good reason. No person ever really masters any form of meditation, but this does not mean that we cannot benefit. Even a semi-effective meditation can help us calm down and rediscover our priorities.
- Podcasts and YouTube: Who doesn’t love listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos? Listening and/or watching these offerings is a great way to stay focused on recovery without expending a lot of effort.
- Prayer: Soren Kierkegaard once stated, “Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” And there is plenty of research that proves this is the case. Moreover, almost any recovering addict, even non-believers, will tell you that when they are triggered toward relapse, the act of praying for sobriety is incredibly effective – if only as a way to change our mindset.
- Program Literature: The mother of all recovery books is the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, and I believe that any person in recovery, regardless of the nature of his or her addiction, should own and read a copy of this cornerstone book. That said, every 12-step program has its own version of the Big Book, plus other approved literature, and reading this literature can be extremely effective as a tool of recovery.
- Three-Second Rule: We cannot control the thoughts we have or the fact that we feel triggered. We can, however, control what we do with those thoughts and feelings. For instance, a sex addict, after spotting an attractive person, can acknowledge that he or she is human and it is normal to feel an attraction. However, the addict needs to turn away from the triggering individual within three seconds. Then, without turning back for another look, he or she should think about the other person as someone’s wife/daughter/sister or father/son/brother, wishing that individual and his or her family all the best. The same procedure is useful when substance addicts see someone drinking or using drugs and feel triggered to participate.
- Refocusing: This is a variation of the three-second rule described above. Essentially, after recognizing an addictive thought or fantasy, we give ourselves a maximum of three seconds to turn away from it and focus on something else – the score of last night’s game, what we need from the grocery store, how much we love our spouse, the trouble our kid is having with algebra, etc.
- Rubber Banding: With this, we place a rubber band around one of our wrists, and whenever we recognize an addictive thought or fantasy, we pull the rubber band and release it so it snaps against our arm – ouch! – as a way to distract ourselves.
- Self-Care: The positive impact of basic self-care is indisputable – eating right, getting enough sleep, avoiding stressful situations, reaching out for help when we feel overwhelmed, and just plain having some fun once in a while.
- Service: Page 89 of the AA Big Book states, “Practical experience shows that nothing will so much insure immunity from drinking as intensive work with other alcoholics.” This maxim is true in all recovery programs. Being of service keeps us sober.
- Therapy: Most addiction recovery studies find that the best way to stay sober is to combine professional treatment (rehab and/or outpatient therapy) with 12-Step recovery. The long-term impact of this combination is undeniable.
- Using the Phone: Most recovering addicts will tell you that the most powerful tool of recovery is the telephone. When we are struggling, we pick up the phone and call a friend in recovery who can talk us off the ledge. If we struggle with the phone, we can practice by making calls when we’re not struggling, just to see how the other person is doing.
I hope you have found this somewhat lengthy list of tools for recovery helpful. I know that I have. And once again, if you have tools of your own that I did not list here, please email me (email@example.com) and I will update this list.