Five stress factors that can lead to relapse

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.  Oh, that wonderful vicarious feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

 

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living.  All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

 

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted.  So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work.  On and on.  Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood.   It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it.  When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it.  This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

 

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components.  The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

 

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power.  To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.  When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level.  I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad.  They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stressor is fighting change. There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.”  That was me until a few years ago.  Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering. During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.”  I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

 

The three external stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people.  Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation.  Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned.  I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

 

The second external stressor is lack of control.  That was a huge one for me.  I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it.  The desire is understandable.  Humans have an aversion to pain.  Yet, control is an illusion.  In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person.  Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

 

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it.  As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others.  People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power.  It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

 

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance.  It is a potent antidote to stress.  And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer.  When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its  three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation.  Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

 

Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and into Your Life

Chronic pain is very discouraging.  Ten months ago I had a spinal fusion because of a back injury I suffered.  I had been in pain for two years prior to it. And now, as I’m supposed to feel the relief of full recovery, I still have back pain and nerve pain in my feet.

 

Like some of you, chronic pain has robbed me of my zest for life.  And it has left me feeling very discouraged—even hopeless.  But at 57-years-old, I am not willing to spend the next 20 years marooned by medications, living in an opioid stupor.

 

It’s time to get out of the preoccupation with pain and to get into my life.

 

Living an inspired life means making inspiring choices.  One of the most inspiring of those choices was to embrace the power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

 

At the core of ACT pain therapy is an essential truth:  elimination of chronic pain is not possible for some of us.  But it doesn’t have to sideline us.  In their Internet workbook called Life with Chronic Pain: An Acceptance-based Approach, Kevin E. Vowles, Ph.D.  and  John T. Sorrell, Ph.D.,  apply the core processes of ACT to pain.

 

They acknowledge that pain, thoughts and mood, and basic functioning interact in a way that contributes to increasing problems and decreasing quality of life.  As so many of us who suffer have come to realize, treatments often fail to provide us with long-term decreases in pain.

 

Trying to change our thoughts and moods also becomes problematic.   “If you wake up in a sad mood, does telling yourself, ‘Don’t be sad anymore.’ lead to any change in your mood?” ask Vowles and Sorrell, knowing, too, that trying not to think about your pain only increases its hold over you.

 

Functioning, though, may be the area where your efforts will have the most impact, according to Vowles and Sorrell.   It’s about deciding what is vitally important to you and pursing it despite pain.  I have found that if I remain on the sidelines trying to avoid anything that may incite my pain, that my pain still exists.  On the other hand, when I am actively engaged in my life, I often forget about my pain.  Consider this: when you are laughing with loved ones, what happens to your pain?  Exactly!  It disappears.  Remember, we give power to whatever we give attention to.

 

Breaking ACT Down

 

The “A” in ACT is about acceptance.  It’s about becoming comfortable with discomfort. “It is not the same as defeat, helplessness, quitting, or resigning to a life of unhappiness, struggle, or misery,” Vowles and Sorrell say.   Acceptance of chronic pain, then, is living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.

 

The “C” in ACT is about commitment.   By combining acceptance with commitment, you begin  living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.  “Values are what you want your life to stand for,” according to Vowles and Sorrel. “Values are what you want to be remembered for by loved ones and close friends after you have passed.”

 

ACT is about accepting the fact that we all face difficult challenges that we cannot control, alter, or eliminate.  It’s not about “throwing in the towel.”  We, instead, commit to a life in which we are engaged in the present moment with things we value in the here and now.  We live a life, not in the absence of pain, but knowing that there is something more important than pain.

 

I leave you with words that you can say that will help you keep your mind centered on acceptance and commitment.  It is called the Serenity Prayer:  Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Recurring Painful Experiences

 

One of the greatest spiritual truths I have learned after the 12 Steps is that we will repeatedly experience the same painful situations until we drill down to the root of the problem.

If you are like me, you know that we often see the small stuff we need to work on, yet we remain blind to the big stuff.

Even after eight years of AA, I had not come to terms with my unhappiness with life. I was unaware that my greatest battle was with life itself. Like some Roman gladiator armed with a mace, I swung at life believing I could stand unscathed from its inevitable pain.

Only after learning the futility of trying to control life and learning instead to surrender to it did I finally grasp the Big Book principle of accepting “life on life’s terms.” How foolish I felt not practicing this truth after my 12-step work with my sponsor and then with my sponsees. And I missed the essence of the Serenity Prayer that I had been dutifully reciting with my fellow AAs for years at the opening of meetings. “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change” is ultimately about accepting life as it is.

I realized that I had still been investing my time and energy in an attempt to fix all the externals in my life—my wife, my home, my colleagues, my friends—so that I could feel more comfortable with my everyday life. I failed to understand that the only way I was going to experience true happiness was “to have the courage to change the things I can.” What can I change? Not other people, but only myself. But how? By asking God to allow me to see the things within myself that needed to be changed.

With the same courage it took to complete my 4th Step years ago, I plunged into a “searching and fearless” inventory of all my thoughts and behaviors that repeatedly sabotaged my relationships with other people.

God is a wonderful teacher who won’t allow us to go on to the next lesson in life without learning from the lesson at hand. When we don’t learn the lesson, God keeps offering it in a different context. The entire cast of characters changes, but the same pain keeps recurring. Only when I stopped and looked deeply within to the core of each problem did I experience transcendence from the problem and the pain associated with it. In the next blog, I will focus on why relationships are so crucial for our spiritual growth and why they are so difficult for us AAs.