By Cassie Jewell, M.Ed., LPC, LSATP
When your loved one has a substance use disorder (SUD), it can be overwhelming, distressing, and all-consuming. When we’re stressed, we forget to practice basic self-care, which in turn makes us even less equipped to cope with the emotional chaos addiction generates.
In the book Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change (A Guide for Families), the authors discuss the importance of self-care. This post reviews suggested strategies.
(Side note: I strongly recommend reading Beyond Addiction if your loved one has an SUD or if you work in the field. This book will increase your understanding of addiction and teach you how to cope with and positively impact your loved one’s SUD by using a motivational approach. This is one of the best resources I’ve come across, especially for family members/significant others.)
Based on the premise that your actions affect your loved one’s motivation, taking care of yourself is not only modeling healthy behaviors, it’s putting you in a better space to interact with your loved one. Chronic stress and worry make it difficult to practice self-care. Self-care may even seem selfish. However, by taking care of yourself and thus reducing suffering, you gain the energy and patience to cope with your problems (and feel better too). Furthermore, you reduce the level of pain and tension in your relationships with others, including your loved one with a SUD.
Self-care strategies include developing/building resilience, practicing distress tolerance, keeping perspective, and recognizing/managing your triggers. Therapy and/or support groups are additional options.
“An empty lantern provides no light. Self-care is the fuel that allows your light to shine brightly.”Unknown
Self-Care Strategies When Your Loved One Has an Addiction
The definition of resilience is “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties” (Oxford Dictionary). Doctors Foote, Wilkens, and Kosanke wrote that having resilience is a way to “systematically reduce your vulnerability to bad moods, lost tempers, and meltdowns.” While you cannot “mood-proof” yourself entirely, resilience helps when facing life’s challenges, setbacks, and disappointments. To maintain resilience, one must practice at least the most basic self care practices, which are as follows:
- Eat well
- Sleep well
- Exercise enough
- Avoid mood-altering drugs (including alcohol)
- Treat illness (with prescribed medications, adequate rest, etc.)
Self-care is not something you can push in to the future. Don’t wait until you have more time or fewer obligations. Self-care is not a luxury; it’s a necessity. The authors of Beyond Addiction pointed out that self-care is something you have control over when other parts of your life are out of control. If you find it challenging to implement self-care practices, tap into your motivations, problem-solve, get support, and most of all, be patient and kind with yourself.
“Taking care of yourself is the most powerful way to begin to take care of others.”Bryant McGill
On tolerance, Doctors Foote, Wilkens, and Kosanke suggested that it is “acceptance over time, and it is a cornerstone of self-care.” Tolerance is not an inherent characteristic; it is a skill. And like most skills, it requires practice. However, it’s wholly worth the effort as it reduces suffering. By not tolerating the things you cannot change (such as a loved one’s SUD), you’re fighting reality and adding to the anguish.
Techniques for distress tolerance include distracting yourself, relaxing, self-soothing, taking a break, and creating positive experiences. (The following skills are also taught in dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), an evidence-based practice that combines cognitive behavioral therapy techniques and mindfulness. For additional resources, visit The Linehan Institute or Behavioral Tech.)
- Switch the focus of your thoughts. The possibilities are endless; for you, this could mean reading a magazine, calling a friend, walking the dog, etc. The authors of Beyond Addiction suggested making a list of ideas for changing your thoughts (and keeping it handy).
- Switch the focus of your emotions. Steer your emotions in a happier direction by watching corgi puppies on YouTube, reading an inspirational poem, or viewing funny Facebook memes. The writers of Beyond Addiction suggested bookmarking sites in your Internet browser that you know will cheer you up.
- Switch the focus of your senses. This could mean taking a hot shower, jumping into a cold pool, holding an ice cube in your hand, walking from a dark room to one that’s brightly lit, looking at bright colors, listening to loud rock music, etc. Also, simply walking away from a distressing situation may help.
- Do something generous. Donate to your favorite charity, pass out sandwiches to the homeless, visit a nursing home and spend time with the residents, express genuine thanks to cashier or server, etc. By redirecting attention away from yourself (and directing energy toward positive goals), you’ll feel better. In Beyond Addiction, it’s noted that this skill is especially helpful for individuals who tend to ruminate. Also, it’s important to brainstorm activities that are accessible in the moment (i.e. texting a friend to let them know you’re thinking about them) that don’t take multiple steps (such as volunteering).
“Body tells mind tells body…” Relaxing your body helps to relax your mind. It also focuses your thoughts on relaxing (instead of your loved one’s addiction). What helps you to relax? Yoga? A hot bath? Mindful meditation? (I recommend doing a mindful body scan; it’s simple and effective, even for the tensest of the tense, i.e. me.)
In Beyond Addiction, self-soothing is described as “making a gentle, comforting appeal to any of your five senses.” A hot beverage. Nature sounds. A cozy blanket. A scenic painting. Essential oils. A cool breeze. A warm compress. A massage. Your favorite song. Find what works for you, make a list, and utilize as needed. Seemingly small techniques can make a big difference in your life by creating comfort and reducing out-of-control emotions.
Take A Break
“Taking a break” doesn’t mean giving up; it’s a timeout for when you’re emotionally exhausted. Learn to recognize when you need to step away from a situation or from your own thoughts. Find a way to shift your focus to something pleasant (i.e. a romantic movie, a nature walk, a day trip to the beach, playing golf for a few hours, traveling to a different country, etc.)
Create a Positive Experience
Doctors Foote, Wilkens, and Kosanke refer to this as “making it better,” not in the sense that you’re fixing the problem (or your loved one), but that you’re making the moment better by transforming a negative moment into a positive one. Suggested techniques include the following:
- Half-smile. Another mind-body technique, half-smiling tricks your brain into feeling happier.
- Meditate or pray. As explained in Beyond Addiction, “meditation or pray is another word for – and effective channel to – awareness and acceptance. Either one can open doors to different states of mind and act as an emotional or spiritual salve in trying moments.”
- Move. By moving, you’re shifting your focus and releasing energy. Stretch, run, play volleyball, chop wood, move furniture, etc.
- Find meaning. The authors of Beyond Addiction wrote, “Suffering can make people more compassionate toward others. Having lived through pain, sometimes people are better able to appreciate moments of peace and joy.” Suffering can also inspire meaningful action. What can you do to find meaning?
- Borrow some perspective. How do your problems look from a different viewpoint? Ask a trusted friend. You may find that your perspective is causing more harm than good.
Perspective is “an understanding of a situation and your reactions to it that allows you to step back and keep your options open… [it’s] seeing patterns, options, and a path forward” (Beyond Addiction).
When Trish married Dave nearly 20 years ago, he rarely drank: maybe an occasional beer over the weekend or a glass of wine at dinner. After their fist daughter was born, his drinking increased to a few beers most nights. Dave said it helped him relax and manage the stress of being a new parent. By the time their second daughter was born several years later, his drinking had progressed to a six-pack of beer every evening (and more on weekends). Currently, Dave drinks at least a 12-pack of beer on weeknights; if it’s the weekend, his drinking starts Friday after work and doesn’t stop until late Sunday night.
Dave no longer helps Trish with household chores or yardwork as he did early in their marriage. He rarely dines with the family and won’t assist with the cooking/cleanup; he typically eats in front of the TV. Dave occasionally engages with his daughters, but Trish can’t recall the last time they went on a family outing, and it’s been years since they went on a date. Dave struggles to get out of bed in the mornings and is frequently late to work; Trish is worried he’ll get fired. They frequently argue about this. Dave is irritable much of the time, or angry. Most nights, he doesn’t move from his armchair (except to get another beer) until he passes out with the television blaring.
Trish is frustrated; she believes Dave is lazy and lacks self-control. When she nags about his drinking, he promises he’ll cut back, but never follows through. Trish thinks he’s not trying hard enough. She can’t understand why he’d choose booze over her and the kids; sometimes she wonders if it’s because she’s not good enough… maybe he would stop if she was thinner or funnier or more interesting? At times she feels helpless and hopeless and others, mad and resentful; she frequently yells at Dave. She wonders if things are ever going to change.
A different perspective would be to recognize that Dave has an alcohol use disorder. He feels ill most of the time, which affects his mood, energy level, and motivation. He wants to cut back, but fails when he tries, which leads to guilt and shame. To feel better, he drinks. It’s a self-destructive cycle. If Trish understood this, she could learn to not take his drinking personally or question herself. Her current reactions, nagging and yelling, only increase defensiveness and harm Dave’s sense of self-worth. Alternative options for Trish might include learning more about addiction and the reasons Dave drinks, bolstering his confidence, and/or creating a supportive and loving environment to enhance motivation.
In recovery language, a “trigger” is anything (person, place, or thing) that prompts a person with SUD to drink or use; it activates certain parts of the brain associated with use. For instance, seeing a commercial for beer could be triggering for a person with an alcohol use disorder.
You have triggers too. For example, if your loved one is in recovery for heroin, and you notice that a bottle of opioid painkillers is missing from the medicine cabinet, it could trigger a flood of emotions: fear, that your loved one relapsed; sadness, when you remember the agony addiction brings; hopelessness, that they’ll never recover. It’s crucial to recognize what triggers you and have a plan to cope when it happens.
Therapy and Support Groups
Lastly, therapy and/or support groups can be a valuable addition to your self-care regime. Seeing a therapist can strengthen your resilience and distress tolerance skills. Therapy may provide an additional avenue for perspective. (Side note: A good therapist is supportive and will provide you with tools for effective problem-solving and communication, coping with grief and loss, building self-esteem, making difficult choices, managing stress, overcoming obstacles, improving social skills/emotional intelligence, and better understanding yourself. A good therapist empowers you. A bad therapist, on the other hand, will offer advice and/or tell you what to do, disempowering you.)
Regarding support groups, there are many options for family members, friends, and significant others with a loved one who has a SUD, including Al-Anon, Nar-Anon, and Families Anonymous. Support groups provide the opportunity to share in a safe space and to receive feedback, suggestions, and/or encouragement from others who relate.
“I have come to believe that caring for myself is not self indulgent. Caring for myself is an act of survival.”Audre Lorde
In sum, self-care is not optional; it’s essential for surviving the addiction of a loved one. Self-care enhances both overall wellness and your ability to help your loved one; in order words, take responsibility for your health and happiness by taking care of yourself.
For more information on how you can help your loved one, visit The Center for Motivation and Change.