Why Your Breath Is a Powerful Tool for Recovery

Your breath is a free & always available stress-buster in addiction recovery. Here’s why you should just breathe.

The first tattoo I got when I stopped drinking is a lotus flower with an Om symbol in the center, and the word ‘Breathe’ underneath. I didn’t just get it because it’s beautiful, although it is. I got it to remind me of what I need to do when life becomes overwhelming. It is on my right wrist, so it’s always easily available to me.

Learning to breathe properly was one of the biggest factors in my recovery. It has been instrumental in helping me stay sober for over 4 years, despite many stressful experiences that might have broken my resolve.

There are many ways that learning to manage and improve your breath can help you maintain recovery. Obviously breathing is not enough on its own, but it can be a powerful addition to your recovery toolkit.

1. Breath calms the nervous system.

During moments of stress and anxiety, the nervous system activates the ‘flight or fight response’. This is the body’s attempt to protect life, enabling us to fight or run away from a threat to our wellbeing. Unfortunately, the stress response can’t tell the difference between an actual threat to life, and a very bad day at work topped off by an argument with your loved one. The physical reaction is the same.

“Taking a few deep breaths at the moment you start to feel stressed calms the nervous system down and allows the body and mind to stay calm.”

In that moment of stress, the body often bypasses the logical brain as a survival measure. If you are in a life or death situation, you don’t want to have to rationalize your reaction! You want to act. This is great when faced with a real threat, but not so good when trying to manage day-to-day problems.

In these moments of perceived stress, recovery can be at risk.

The more we feel stress, the more we are likely to start experiencing cravings and desires for the old comfort blankets we used to turn to.

Taking a few deep breaths at the moment you start to feel stressed calms the nervous system down and allows the body and mind to stay calm. In that place of calm, you can think rationally and find a solution that will not lead to painful regret later.

2. Breath slows down a racing mind.

In recovery, it can be a shock to realize just how busy the mind is when you are not anesthetizing it on a regular basis. It can be disturbing and difficult to manage what can feel like an onslaught of thoughts. You may notice that you are beset by negative or repetitive thinking. This can be overwhelming and harmful.

A woman with a mug standing at a railing, gazing out at a mountain valley

“You don’t need to sit in the lotus position, chant Om, or wear special clothes for this.”

Your breath can be a powerful ally to help manage this. Simply sitting quietly and focusing your attention onto your breath, becoming aware of your breath, and connecting to it gives your mind a chance to focus on something. You don’t need to sit in the lotus position, chant Om, or wear special clothes for this. You just need to sit and breathe. There is no need to try to sit for hours on end; just a minute a day is a great start.

The act of keeping your attention focused on your breath will feel impossible at first. Your mind will resist your attempts to restrain it, and you will find your thoughts wandering many times. This is perfectly normal and not a sign of failure. Every time you notice your mind is wandering, bring it back to your breath and hold it there. You may have to do this many times. Don’t worry. Every time you do, you are training your mind to focus a little more.

3. Breath allows us to feel the feels.

One of the most difficult things about recovery is negotiating the emotions you have kept at bay for so long. Your addiction was there for a purpose, an attempt to hide from pain. In recovery, we have to process the pain we spent so long trying to escape from.

Connecting with your breath helps with this. When you learn to be more in tune with your breath, you can recognize your emotional responses in your body, sometimes long before your mind recognizes them. You may notice that your breath becomes more shallow and fast, indicating that you are anxious, and can take steps to ease this before it becomes a problem.

In the space you create when you sit with your breath, it becomes easier to sit with, acknowledge, and accept the emotional pain you might feel, and let go of the pain rather than dwell on it.

4. Breath eases pain.

As well as helping with emotional pain, there is some research that indicates that Pranayama, Yogic breathing, greatly helps with experience and perception of physical pain. People who practice breath-focused Yoga have been shown to have less experience of pain. This can be a tremendous help if you are in recovery from opioid addiction.

5. Breath improves sleep.

If you are used to using drugs or alcohol to help you sleep, learning to sleep naturally can present many challenges.  If you are unable to sleep, focusing your attention on your breath and breathing slowly and deeply can be a great help in assisting you to sleep. This works in a number of ways.

The deep breaths calm the nervous system, allowing your whole being to relax. If your body is tense, then sleep is unlikely. A tense body produces a tense mind, and vice versa. The relaxation produced by deep breathing might be all that you need to slip into restful sleep.

By focusing your mind on your breath, you are distracting it from all the worry thoughts that might be preventing you from being able to sleep. When your mind is whirling, it is impossible to relax and sleep well.

Even if you don’t get to sleep quickly when focusing on your breath, you will be allowing your body to relax, and this in itself will help you to feel better even if you don’t get enough sleep. The sleep you do get will be much better quality, and your mind and body will feel more rested than if you spend the night tossing and turning in bed.

Take a deep breath and ….

There is great power in your breath. Taking some time to learn to breathe well won’t ensure your sustainable recovery on its own, but it will certainly give you a valuable item for your recovery tool box. Try it now for yourself. Take 3 deep breaths, taking care to breathe in and out slowly, and see how you feel afterwards. Feels good doesn’t it?


10 Ways To Manage Stress In Sobriety

How can you handle stressful times in addiction recovery without picking up a drink or a drug?

One of the challenges of addiction recovery is finding new ways to cope when life gets hard. Even the very process of recovery is stressful in itself; you have to learn new ways of being, new strategies for dealing with life’s ups and down. You must come face to face with the consequences of your previous actions, and deal with your feelings, rather than numbing them.

All these things, and more, can be hugely challenging, and can lead you to feel at times completely overwhelmed. Getting sober is just the start of the journey, you need to find ways to develop the resilience you need to stay sober in challenging situations.

Fortunately, there are many tried and tested strategies you can turn to. If you are following a recovery program, you may find that this gives you all the tools you need to navigate your way through life’s storms. However, if you are reading this article, you may find you need more tools to cope with stress in hard times.

Here are 10 tips to help you manage stress both in life’s toughest moments, and to develop greater resilience to protect you long-term.

1. Focus on your breath.

Taking deep breaths in a difficult moment can help you to calm yourself down, and step out of the stress of the moment. Deep breathing reduces the “flight or fight” response and brings the nervous system to a place of calm. A few deep breaths before responding to a difficult situation can transform your response. A daily practice of sitting with the breath for a few minutes can transform the way to manage stress.

“Taking deep breaths in a difficult moment can help you to calm yourself down, and step out of the stress of the moment.”

Try a breathing exercise from the Workit Health program.

2. Cultivate an attitude of gratitude.

A daily gratitude practice has been proven to help to reduce stress and increase wellbeing. It is virtually impossible to feel stressed and upset while feeling grateful. If you can take those breaths mentioned above, try to take a moment to focus on something or someone you are deeply grateful for, and see how your response changes.

Struggling to feel grateful? Get into gratitude with an unlocked exercise from Workit Health.

3. Connect to nature.

Spending time in or near nature is a powerful way to bring the mind and body to balance. Walking in a park, tending to a garden, being close to water, or hiking in the hills all have a grounding and healing impact on wellbeing, and will leave you feeling at ease.

4. Getting enough sleep.

Sleep is absolutely vital for mental and physical wellbeing. If you don’t get enough sleep, life feels much harder to deal with, which can create a vicious stress/insomnia cycle. This can be especially difficult in early recovery. Try to create a relaxing evening routine, reduce your caffeine intake later in the day, and step away from the screen before bedtime to give yourself the best chance of a good night’s sleep.

5. Talk it out.

Problems kept to yourself can grow into insurmountable disasters. Talking to someone about your worries can help beyond measure, allowing you to put things into perspective, figure out solutions and know that you are not alone. Whether at a meeting, over coffee with your close friends, in therapy, or with family, the benefits of sharing your worries with a caring confidante are immeasurable.

Not sure how to make friends in recovery? We’ve got advice.

6. Prioritize your goals.

Are you trying to do everything all at once? It can be tempting to think, now that you are sober, that you want to make up for lost time, and try to do all the things you feel you missed out on in active addiction. Be careful not to overburden yourself with projects, remember that your recovery and wellbeing is the most important project. Be realistic about what you can actually achieve while also prioritizing recovery.

7. Let go of what you can’t control.

One of the ways we can create unnecessary stress in our lives is by clinging on to how things used to be, or to the ideas we had for how they were meant to be. Recovery needs us to let go of things that no longer work in our lives, but beyond that, developing the ability to let go of control of external events. Realizing your own behavior is the only thing you can take control of is hugely beneficial in managing stress. You can never control what is happening on the outside, but you CAN control how you deal with it, and make choices that help you move forward.

“Realizing your own behavior is the only thing you can take control of is hugely beneficial in managing stress.”

Struggling with what you can’t control? Try a Workit Health exercise on acceptance.

8. Reflect on (and celebrate!) your progress.

It can be easy, but demoralizing, to look at the path ahead and see how far you need to go in life. We don’t even know what is on that path towards the future, but you can always look back and see how far you have come. If you are feeling demoralized and anxious in recovery, look at how much progress you have made and how much you have grown. This always helps to put life’s difficulties into perspective, and shows you just how much you can win at life!

9. Exercise.

Exercise is a powerful stress buster and mood booster. Make sure that you move your body in a way that feels good to you; for me that is Yoga and walking, for you it might be something else. Exercise releases endorphins that make you feel good, and can help to give your mind a break from worrying about problems you may be facing. Exercise also helps you to sleep better which in turn helps with stress management.

10. Make time for self-care.

All of the above are ways to make sure that you take care of yourself, but there are a lot of other ways that you can ensure that you are practicing self care. This might mean taking the meds you need, getting in the shower every day, resting when you need to, ensuring you eat well, saying no when you need to, taking time for yourself to have a long soak in the bath, making time for meditation, prayer, reading, time with pets… the list can be endless. Whatever you need to do to make sure that you feel well, grounded and safe, do that, that is self care. If you are taking care of yourself, then the stresses life throws at you will be easier to manage.

What are your go to practices for stress management? Do you have any great tips to share?



5 Ways Yoga Can Ease Chronic Pain In Addiction Recovery

Chronic pain affects the whole being; the physical, mental, emotional, and the spiritual. While it is felt in the body, pain is a function of the brain and the nervous system.

Opioid addiction has been at the forefront of many minds in the addiction world in recent years, with deaths from opioid overdoses predicted to reach 650,000 in the next decade, and President Trump’s declaration that America is in the grip of a public health crisis.

The opioid crisis has developed partially as a result of the over prescribing of opioids for pain relief. When a drug is relied on heavily for a person to be able to function normally, tolerance develops and more of the drug is needed for it to be effective, and eventually the relief the drug provides becomes minimal, requiring stronger, and greater quantities, of drugs. Although opioids have a place as a legitimate pain treatment option for those suffering extreme pain, we also need to bring other options to light for those who choose not to take opioids any longer, or can’t due to their addiction issues.

A recent study showed that 2/3 of people who died from overdose were diagnosed with chronic pain and being treated for it before their death. It is important, therefore, that any attempts to treat addiction to opioids make adequate provision for pain relief through other means.

Chronic pain affects the whole being; the physical, mental, emotional, and the spiritual. While it is felt in the body, pain is a function of the brain and the nervous system. Chronic pain alters brain structures, and leaves the sufferer highly prone to depression, anxiety, and reduced mental functioning.

There are several medical approaches to help people deal with opioid addiction, but other complimentary, holistic solutions.

Yoga offers one such solution.

Yoga is so much more than an exercise class. It is a path for living that takes into account the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual dimensions of the human existence. It can help ease the depression and stress that can be created by, and that creates, pain and addiction.

Yoga has been shown to positively impact the structure and functioning of the brain, release physical and mental stress, promote relaxation of body and mind, and improve positivity.

M. Catherine Bushnell, Ph.D, of the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH), found that “Practicing yoga has the opposite effect on the brain as does chronic pain.”

1. Yoga changes the brain.

Regular yoga practice was found to increase the insula gray matter of the brain that affects tolerance to pain, making practitioners of yoga more able to cope with pain.

Yoga increases production of the neurotransmitter GABA. GABA deficiency leads to increased sensitivity to pain, as well as anxiety, increased risk of addiction and more. Increasing levels of GABA in the brain reduces anxiety and depression, increases tolerance to pain, and promotes relaxation, all of which help anyone in chronic pain to feel better naturally.

2. Yoga improves relaxation.

Pain and addiction create tremendous stress and tension in the body and mind. This stress only exacerbates the pain felt, as the tension will create pain of its own to add to the existing pain. Yoga practices that promote deep relaxation, like restorative yoga, or Yoga Nidra can combat these effects. The Gitananda tradition, which I was trained in, offers a wonderfully deep relaxation called Kaya Kriya which offers a powerful, dynamic pain relief.

3. Yoga harnesses the power of the breath.

Pranayama, the practice of energy control through the breath, has a powerful impact on body, mind and emotions. Through the breath, we can soothe the nervous system and switch from the flight or fight response created by stress, the state of anxiety and fear, to the relaxation response, one of calm and peace of mind.

Through learning to control, deepen and slow the breath, we can develop increased resilience to stress and pain. Learning to breathe well can be a powerful tool to aid sustainable recovery from addiction, and has been shown to reduce pain in even severe instances.

4. Yoga is meditation.

Studies have shown that meditation practices have a powerful impact on the brain, reducing activity in the primary somatosensory cortex, the area of the brain that controls the extent and location of pain felt, and increasing activity in the areas of the brain that create coping strategies. It has even been suggested that meditation is more effective for the treatment of pain than opiates such as morphine.

5. Yoga improves gratitude.

The yogic concept of Santosha, or gratitude, is becoming very well known as a powerful tool for growth and wellbeing. A regular gratitude practice increases positivity, which tends to lead to improved physical health. There are many anecdotal accounts of people living with chronic pain who have found a daily gratitude practice, listing all the things they can find to be grateful for, to be of tremendous value in helping them manage pain.

Yoga has so much to give to the treatment of addiction, and the reduction of pain, stress and unhappiness. There is so much more to it than the development of a flexible body, although this is a very good benefit in itself. There is great power in the practices and concepts of a tradition that reaches back down the millenia, and much that we can use to heal our own pain and the national tragedy that is the opioid crisis.