First Things First

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Dr. David Fawcett

For many people, recovery begins with crises. Therefore, it’s important to address and stabilize any acute situations you may be experiencing. Firstly, it’s imperative to make sure you are safe and that your health and life are not at risk. This may mean going to the doctor for a physical or the ER if you are having a medical emergency and/or getting into treatment if you can’t stop using or acting out.

Then it is important to address any basic self-care concerns that you’ve neglected. Physical well-being entails caring for your physical body and making sure your needs for water, food, shelter, safety, rest, and exercise are met. Eat healthfully and regularly, stay hydrated throughout the day, get some daily exercise, and get 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. These basics interventions increase emotional resilience, improve mental functioning and focus, improve impulse control, and promote a general sense of well-being.

Most people in early recovery report difficulties with sleep. The most effective way to optimize the quality and quantity of one’s sleep is by engaging in good sleep hygiene. This includes going to bed and waking up around the same time every day (including weekends), turning off any screens at least an hour before bed, and taking a hot shower and cooling down the room – both of which lower one’s body temperature, which sends signals to your brain to prepare for sleep.

Once any crises and physical needs are stabilized, the next step is to carefully attend to your emotional well-being. This includes having self-awareness around your thoughts and feelings, the ability to regulate your emotions towards a balanced state, using healthy coping mechanisms to deal with the stressors of life, the ability to process negative emotions and to generate positive emotions, having healthy close relationships and feeling socially supported, and having a sense a meaning, purpose, and self-efficacy.

All of these can seem overwhelming in early recovery. Focusing on a few specific strategies can help, include meditating, making time for self-reflection, writing in your journal, seeing a therapist, and engaging your mind with interesting activities and healthy sources of novelty.

Other ways of regulating yourself can include cognitive restructuring as occurs with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), reality testing, and using problem-solving and emotional regulation skills such as those found in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), including techniques such as “Wise Mind” for distress tolerance. This might also include labeling your thoughts and emotions, deep breathing, going for a walk to calm the mind, and calling a trusted friend to get perspective.

You can also improve self-regulation through learning and practicing mindfulness and other techniques. Benefits of such a practice include increased focus and clarity of mind, self-awareness, stress reduction, and being more attuned with yourself, others, and the universe. This work also expands your window of tolerance, which helps you make better decisions and not act out impulsively to cover negative emotions. Learning and practicing coping skills is key to increasing your window of tolerance.

It is common in early recovery to become distressed or angry about something or someone due to irrational thinking and engaging in cognitive distortions (such as “they should/must/ought…”), black and white thinking, rationalizing, jumping to conclusions, and mind-reading. When caught in such cognitive distortions it is helpful to take a step back, challenge your assumptions, call a friend who can give you perspective, and be open to being wrong or seeing things a different way. It can also be helpful to practice humility, radical acceptance, letting go, and forgiveness.

Building a social support network is another key to staying sober and enjoying life in recovery. Typically, we need to cut off our old using relationships and replace them with nourishing, caring relationships. A 12-step group is one of the best ways to start this process, although other groups like SMART recovery, Recovery Dharma, and Refuge Recovery can be equally helpful. Regardless of the program, it is through being connected with others that we find our greatest source of happiness and well-being.

Be sure to make time to nurture and be active in your relationships and community. As Daniel Siegel states in Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, “The neural networks around the heart and throughout the body are intimately interwoven with the resonance circuits in the brain – so that when we ‘feel felt’ (heard, understood, emotionally-connected) by another it also helps us to develop the internal strength of self-regulation, to become focused, thoughtful, and resourceful.”[i]

The emphasis here is on being proactive in reaching out and not waiting to be “a part of,” as we all have an important need to belong. You can go to a 12-step meeting and share. You can also hang out with or call a trusted friend, a new friend, a colleague, a mentor, a sponsor, a family member, or someone who is struggling and could use a shoulder, a hug, and an ear. Reaching out can make all the difference in your (and someone else’s) day.

Lastly, as you move from a sprint to a marathon in recovery, it is important that you have a relapse prevention plan in place. This will identify your mooring lines, which are those things in your life that keep you tethered to your recovery and a sense of emotional well-being. These could include meetings, exercise, rest, family, recreation, spirituality, and more. Mooring lines mean different things for different people. The key is to write yours down and create goals around your actionable ways to stay sober. If you see yourself reducing your engagement with these mooring lines, that can be an indication you are drifting toward relapse. This can serve as a red flag that prompts you to reengage with your recovery and the things that help you stay sober.

The bottom line for early recovery is something often heard in recovery meetings: First Things First. This means that it is important to always prioritize your recovery because it will be the foundation for everything else in your life.

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If you think that you or someone you care about might be sex, porn, or substance/sex addicted, we suggest taking our anonymous Sex Addiction Screening Test or our Substance/Sex Addiction Screening Test. Residential treatment for these issues is available at Seeking Integrity: Los Angeles. Seeking Integrity also offers online workgroups for addicts seeking recovery.

References

[i] Siegel, D.J. (2010). Mindsight: The new science of personal transformation. Bantam, p 167.