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How to Treat Anxiety When You’re In Recovery

Anxiety is a serious issue for many Americans. Everybody, at some point, can feel a surge of anxiety. Some people just worry a whole lot. Maybe you get uneasy before a major engagement where you have to meet a lot of people or speak in public, or something along those lines. These instances are just normal human occurrences. Having anxiety during major events – especially when they’re stressful – is a totally normal thing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Having an anxiety disorder, however, is different from just being worried once in a while. Anxiety disorders are when you feel disproportionate amounts of worry and concern for any and all reasons. It isn’t simply a matter of feeling concerned – it’s feeling a constant sense of dread that affects all aspects of your life. And anxiety is a common side effect that often comes packaged alongside addiction. This is a side effect that people tend to look past because it seems so commonplace and ordinary. It happens much in the same way people look past clinical depression, brushing it off as “just being a little sad.”

What is Anxiety?

Anxiety is more than just being a little concerned or worried. It is a chronic condition that affects an estimated 40 million Americans every year. It also comes in many forms. Phobias and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are both classified as anxiety disorders. In many cases, anxiety may lead to substance abuse, as people turn to substances that help them to “stop worrying so much,” or “unwind from a tough day.” It’s rather common for someone to have a drink to relieve stress, and there’s nothing particularly wrong with that – until it develops into a dependency. Anxiety disorders that lead to substance abuse are particularly problematic, because it may seem that those substances are actually being helpful in “treating” said disorders. In actuality, those substances are a crutch that brings far more problems than solutions. And for those who are trying to kick their addictions, that anxiety is likely to come back in force once the drug supply wears off. Now here’s the problem. One of the more popular ways to treat chronic anxiety is, in fact, with drugs. Some of those drugs include antidepressants and sedatives, which can directly interfere with addiction recovery. So in trying not to be completely counterproductive in your addiction recovery, it may seem like you’re teeing yourself up for your anxiety to start beating down your door once again. Don’t despair. It is absolutely possible to deal with your anxiety while in recovery, without resorting to other substances. Here’s how.

Get Treatment for Co-Occurring Disorders

A co-occurring disorder is when a substance abuse problem is accompanied by another mental health problem. If that seems like a volatile combination to you, well, you’re right. But it’s also a very common one. In fact, anxiety and substance abuse are two of the most common psychiatric problems in the United States individually, and they both act on one another. In other words, having anxiety is a risk factor for substance abuse, and having a substance abuse disorder makes you more likely to have anxiety. Since these disorders are so closely tied, it’s no surprise that they often come together. And because they come together so often, many rehab clinics are equipped to treat both at the same time. Even for those who weren’t particularly susceptible to anxiety before, it is fairly common for it to creep up while in recovery. Sometimes it’s a side effect of the drug or its withdrawals, and sometimes it’s just one of the things you go through as a part of as you piece your life back together. Regardless, an evidence-based treatment method is going to help you zero in on the risk factors that make you most susceptible to addiction. And anxiety, if you suffer from it, is one of those risk factors. Behavioral therapy is a core part of addiction treatment. But treatment for co-occurring disorders (also called dual diagnosis treatment), is a slightly different process, that takes both problems into account and treats them at the same time.

Why Co-occurring Disorder Treatment is Unique

Sure, it would be simple enough for a rehab clinic to simply tack on anxiety treatment to their existing addiction treatment and go from there like they were adding a class at a university. But that’s not good enough. Facing down both of these problems at the same time is a completely different challenge that requires a complete re-thinking of the entire recovery process. That’s why a treatment plan for co-occurring disorders is unique from a regular addiction recovery plan. If you suffered from anxiety, depression, or any other form of mental illness before getting addicted, it’s likely that issue will be magnified while you recover, and so it makes sense to look for a facility that will handle that issue appropriately. As we always say, treating addiction is not a “one-size-fits-all” affair. It is something that must be handled individually. Co-occurring disorder treatment has been proven to improve recovery outcomes and reduce the rate of relapse, so it isn’t just about getting treatment for the anxiety itself – it’s about doing what’s best for your recovery in general. But beyond just getting the proper treatment, there are things that you, personally, can do to keep your anxiety in check that don’t involve drugs like Xanax.

Keeping Yourself Healthy and Anxiety-Free in Recovery

The things you can do to keep yourself free of anxiety are many of the same things that make up a healthy lifestyle, regardless of substance abuse history. This not seem like advice that is relevant to either anxiety or substance abuse, but it actually is very important to both. In fact, many drug detox programs have begun to move toward some of these more holistic methods of treatment, as kickstarting the body’s natural healing factor can be one of the best methods of recovery. The fact is, many people who are addicted have unhealthy habits – beyond just drug and alcohol usage. Most addicts don’t get enough exercise, they substitute junk food for balanced diets, and they tend to be sleep-deprived, either by choice or by circumstance. One of the best ways to deal with anxiety and substance abuse is to reverse those trends. As a start, you can:

  • exercise
  • eat healthily
  • drink lots of water
  • give yourself plenty of downtime
  • get a good night’s sleep

See? These just sound like basic advice to living a good, healthy, sober life. But they truly are important to addiction recovery. So much so, in fact, that it isn’t unusual to see a nutritionist or physical fitness expert on staff at a rehab clinic to help with the recovery process. Part of the reason this is so effective has to do with the reason addiction is so effective, and why it is so often a counter-point for anxiety.

Understanding How Substance Abuse, Addiction, and Anxiety Affect You

Addiction and anxiety are both afflictions that affect the brain in related, but similar ways. They both cause your brain to go in directions you don’t want them to go and don’t give you much control over bringing it back. Anxiety causes largely negative effects in your brain, bringing stress, concern, and dread. All of that is what it means to feel anxious. However, most addictive substances provide the opposite effect. In several states, marijuana is actually prescribed to treat anxiety. But obviously, if you’re in drug recovery, marijuana isn’t an option for you That’s because these substances tend to give the brain a shot of dopamine, which wipes out those negative feelings and replaces them with a flood of positive energy. The brain gets all of its reward sensors tripped, and immediately flips all the “happy” switches. It sounds great, right? Well, not so fast. In addition to the negative health effects of those substances, that rush of positive energy is fleeting and can ruin the brain’s normal reward cycle. Sure, at the moment it might feel like the drugs are making you happy. But soon you’ll find, it’s not making you happy enough. This is because your brain isn’t equipped to handle that much dopamine at a time. It makes you euphorically happy at first because your brain is still figuring out what to do with all the excess dopamine. But eventually, it adapts to the higher dose and builds up a tolerance. This tolerance is what makes a dependency even worse, and is the reason why addicts tend to lose interest in things they previously loved.

How to Beat Anxiety and Addiction at the Same Time

Things like nutrition and exercise are important parts of overcoming addiction and anxiety. See, those are activities that provide normal amounts of dopamine, the amounts your brain was used to in a sober state. Doing things that provide that modest amount of dopamine will help you suppress those anxious feelings, and start re-adjusting your body to normal amounts of dopamine again, rather than the overload levels you were getting while addicted. This is why things, like eating well and getting exercise, are so important to this recovery process. They really can help to overcome anxiety, simply by getting your brain back on track with reacting normally to normal positive stimulus. Obviously, you’re never going to be able to completely eliminate anxiety from your life. Everybody worries and everybody gets stressed out at certain times, over certain things. That’s just human nature, and it has nothing to do with addiction or substance abuse. However, for those who suffer severe anxiety disorders, these can be some handy ways to beat it while in recovery. Since drug recovery isn’t really conducive to pharmaceutical methods of anxiety treatment, it’s up to you getting the proper treatment and taking care of your body. Doing those things will put you on the right track to being both sober, and anxiety-free. What are your tips for dealing with anxiety? Leave us a comment below, because your experiences may just help someone who needs it right now.


Substance Use Disorders. (n.d.). Retrieved May 05, 2017, from Smith, J. P., & Book, S. W. (2008, October). Anxiety and Substance Use Disorders: A Review. Retrieved May 05, 2017, from Recognizing Anxiety: Symptoms, Signs, and Risk Factors. (2014, September 24). Retrieved May 05, 2017, from