Staying positive when recovering from addiction is crucial. Recovery is challenging on many fronts and having a positive attitude is a huge asset for persevering in the face of difficulties. In fact, negativity is often an early warning sign, indicating that your recovery needs support. Typically, relapse doesn’t happen out of the blue. Usually, relapse is the end result of a process lasting weeks or months. The early stages of the relapse process often include negativity, bottling up emotions, being self-critical, and neglecting self-care. In 12-step circles, this is known as “stinking thinking.” The following are some good habits for staying positive in recovery, even when it’s hard.
Studies have found that practicing gratitude can have numerous benefits, including reducing stress, improving sleep, strengthening relationships, and improving physical health. Several studies have found that even brief interventions promoting gratitude can increase happiness and optimism for months.
There are two primary ways to increase feelings of gratitude throughout daily life:
- Keep a gratitude journal. Once a week, write down two or three things you felt grateful for during the previous week.
- Express more gratitude to the people around you. A powerful way to do this is to write a gratitude letter. Think of something someone did for you that perhaps you didn’t adequately thank them for. Write in a letter what it was and what it meant to you. It’s up to you whether you deliver the letter or not. One study found that participants experienced a lasting happiness boost even if they didn’t deliver the letters. However, if you do decide to deliver your gratitude letter, it may strengthen your relationship with the recipient.
Staying positive doesn’t mean you pretend nothing will ever be difficult and it certainly doesn’t mean ignoring problems. Instead, staying positive means recognizing challenges but also recognizing the possibility of a positive–or at least, acceptable–outcome. Having expectations that nothing will go wrong makes every challenge feel like a disaster. Genuine optimism is not the belief that nothing will go wrong but the belief that when something does inevitably go wrong, you will find the strength to deal with it. Instead of seeing challenges as disasters to be avoided, think of them as opportunities to grow, or at least to prove to yourself that you can survive setbacks.
Watch out for Distorted Thinking
Negativity is often born of distorted thinking. For example, you fail at something on your first couple of tries and you think, “I’ll never get this right,” or perhaps even “I never do anything right.” Both examples are gross overgeneralizations, however, many fall into that trap surprisingly often. Another common symptom of distorted thinking is discounting the positive. For example, you might succeed brilliantly at something but discount it by saying, “I was just lucky,” or “I had a lot of help,” or “anyone could have done that.” It’s important to acknowledge your successes. Recognizing and challenging these kinds of cognitive distortions is a central element of cognitive-behavioral therapy, or CBT, the most common form of psychotherapy currently in use.
Get Enough Sleep
Taking care of yourself in general by getting regular exercise and eating healthy is important. However, sleep may be the single most important aspect of self-care to sustain a positive mindset. Research shows that even mild sleep deficits, such as sleeping only six or seven hours a night, can lead to significant cognitive impairment, including slower reaction times and microsleeps–falling asleep for a second or less. Unfortunately, most people are not even aware that their cognitive performance is suffering. A chronic sleep deficit can increase anxiety and depression and impair emotional regulation. Since your prefrontal cortex bears the brunt of inadequate sleep, you may not have the presence of mind to calm yourself down when things get tough.
Surround Yourself With Positive People
Everyone is influenced by those they choose to surround themselves with. Most people recovering from addiction are aware of how important it is to avoid people who drink excessively and use drugs. However, they may not be so cautious when it comes to spending time with negative people. Bringing awareness to the impact that these kinds of individuals can have on you is critical. Sometimes they drain your energy, leaving you more susceptible to faulty decision making. Other times, you may find yourself engaging in the same negative thought processes, ultimately putting yourself at risk for relapse. When scheduling your time, make a conscious decision to spend it with people who lift you up and inspire you. Avoid critics and complainers in favor of people who are optimistic and supportive.
Keep a “Did” List
Most people have heard of “to-do” lists but for many, keeping a “did” list is more helpful. Writing down what you have accomplished at the end of the day reinforces the progress that you’re making, even if it feels slow. Practice taking a moment each evening to acknowledge the efforts you’ve made towards improving your life. In a way, it’s like showing gratitude to your past self. There is always more to be done, but that shouldn’t discount all you have accomplished. Focusing on successes promotes a positive mindset and increases self-esteem, making that todo list seem more and more manageable.
Limit Your Scope
Optimism seems challenging for many people, as they think it means that they have to believe in some grand, perfect future. That brand of optimism often overtaxes the imagination and leaves you feeling more demoralized than inspired. Instead of worrying about some perfect outcome, think in smaller terms. For example, you don’t have to stay sober forever. You just have to stay sober for today. If you’re dealing with a relationship problem, you don’t need a perfect solution, just a way to make things a little better. Small improvements like these add up over time. Eventually, you may feel ready to be more ambitious with your optimism. In the meantime, don’t underestimate the value of your smaller wins.