Depression and anxiety are very common in sobriety.
There are so many people, perhaps you’re one of them, who feel lethargic, sad, and lost after they quit drinking. Sobriety was supposed to fix everything, right? You’re supposed to be happy.
But you’re not.
You feel like you’re on autopilot, there’s no joy in your life, and the only thing you feel like doing is curling up on your couch and finding ways to check out to pass the time. Simply put, you don’t feel like doing anything. Ever.
What was all that work for if sobriety means you’re just going to feel blah for the rest of your life?
If this sounds like you, I completely get it. I’ve suffered from anxiety and depression for years, even before I started drinking excessively. Everything you are feeling right now is normal. Fortunately, I have some good news for you.
Whether or not you want to hear or believe it right now, I want to reassure you that it doesn’t last forever. It will get better and I’m going to give you some tips, resources, and suggestions for how to help yourself out of your current depressive episode.
Depression in Recovery
First and foremost, if you are experiencing depression right now, you need to see a mental health specialist. The vast majority of people cannot DIY their own mental health recovery. I’m going to give you things that will SUPPLEMENT proper therapy and counseling.
If you’re not sure if you’re depressed, you can take this quiz from Depression.org to see if there’s a problem. Chances are there is.
If you do not have access to in-person mental health counseling or a similar program, then I recommend using online talk therapy AND seeing a general practitioner to discuss medication options. You may or may not need medication, but depending on the severity of your condition, you need to seek advice from a trained, medical professional.
Together, you can make a decision about your care.
Online Talk Therapy
Talk Space is a great option for online therapy if you can’t do in-person.
You’ll start off with an assessment with a therapist who will help determine your current needs. Be open and honest with this person. From there, you select a therapy plan and then get paired with a therapist who is best situated to help you.
This is why it is so important that you are forthright about what you’re seeking help for. Talk about the alcoholism, depression, and anything else that’s going on so you can get the best person to work with you.
From there, you’ll get started.
Talk Space also offers specialized therapy and programs for veterans and members of the LGBTQ community in case you fit either (or both) categories.
The great thing about Talk Space is that you can change your therapist if something isn’t working out so there’s no reason to give up on the program if you’re not meshing well with the first person you get. When compared to the out-of-pocket costs of in-person therapy (in the US at least), Talk Space is an affordable alternative.
And honestly, some people do better with online counseling because they feel the platform enables them to be more open than they might otherwise be in-person with a stranger. The opposite can be true as well, it just really depends on individual preferences.
Why So Many People Suffer From Depression in Sobriety
In a lot of people self-medicate their mental health issues with alcohol, so it’s no wonder that after the alcohol is taking away, the depression hits hard. Because alcohol gives your brain a supersized dopamine boost, it’s also likely that you’re no longer able to produce dopamine naturally at levels that can sustain a healthy mood. (Don’t worry; this is reversible.)
Pile that on with trying to deal with the trauma and pain years of alcohol abuse has caused and you’ve got a recipe for depression.
From the Experts
An article on Ocean Breeze Recovery’s blog really breaks this down nicely. It states:
“When people get sober, they expect a life filled with joy and happiness. When things do not go as planned, they might begin to think recovery is not worth it. To them, treating their addiction meant all their problems would vanish.
However, this is nowhere near the truth. In fact, many more problems can arise because they are now dealing with their sober self. There is nothing to mask or suppress the true feelings of their internal being. With no suppression of thoughts or feelings, one may realize they are struggling with depression in recovery. To their luck, depression is treatable if action is taken quickly.
The symptoms of depression are easily distinguishable when the person in active addiction accumulates a significant amount of clean time. People suffering from depression usually have symptoms such as these:
- Inability to focus or concentrate
- Overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, or “emptiness”
- Guilt, worthlessness, helplessness
- Disinterest in activities or hobbies
- Difficulty sleeping
- Changes in appetite
- Harmful thoughts (suicide, homicide, death)”
Visit their site here to read more.
Habits & Routines That Can Help Manage Your Depression
Depression, much like addiction, is fond of downtime. It’s where these two little devils thrive the most, like mosquitos in a swamp. Laying around all day mindlessly watching Netflix is doing much more harm than good.
But here’s the catch 22 – laying around all day makes your depression worse, but your depression is making you so exhausted and unmotivated that you have no energy for anything except laying around all day.
So what do you do?
Here’s a list of things you can do or focus on IN CONJUNCTION WITH PROPER THERAPY AND/OR COUNSELING to get better.
1. Change your mindset.
It is very, very easy to wallow in depression. I have thrown many a pity part for myself from the comfort of my couch. I’ve also had very real, debilitating moments when I curled up with a blanket and cried, wishing my life was different, or even over.
If that last scenario is playing out for you, seek help right away. I cannot stress that enough. You may think it’s “just” an emotional breakdown and you’ll sleep it off and be fine tomorrow, but it’s actually a huge warning sign that something is very wrong.
You cannot wish or visualize yourself out of depression. But you CAN force yourself to think about the problem differently.
The very first, and biggest, step you can take in that direction is viewing your depression as a solvable problem. Even if you don’t know how or where to begin, if you can get yourself into the headspace that your current feelings are a result of a medical condition (depression) and there are treatments that can help you, you’re on your way.
This is why therapy is so critical. We don’t think twice about seeing a medical doctor when our bodies are sick. The same should be true of our brains. Let the professionals help you get better (because you can).
2. Move your body.
Movement is so powerful and it doesn’t have to be a burden on your daily routine. When you move your body and increase your heart rate, your brain releases all those delicious, feel-good chemicals that improve your mood.
Aside from the obvious advantage of increasing serotonin levels in the brain of someone suffering from depression, there’s the restorative element as well. Your brain has taken quite a hit from years of heavy drinking. You need to relearn how to feel good again without that chemical crutch.
Sobriety requires us to find new, natural ways to feel better. Exercise and movement is a must-have tool in any sobriety toolbox.
Am I suggesting you start hitting the gym four times per week? Absolutely not. If you’re struggling to drag yourself off the couch and shower regularly, the chances of you hitting the gym consistently is not very high right now.
Start small and then build from there.
I promise you that when I wake up in the morning and take even five minutes to sit on my floor and stretch, maybe do 5 push-ups (if so many), or even stretch over the side of the bed to create an inversion, my whole morning changes. Truly.
It helps clear those morning cobwebs from your brain and makes you MUCH more likely to do something healthy for yourself like eat breakfast or complete a meditation.
The opposite is also true. Hitting the snooze button and allowing your brain time to wander aimlessly is fuel on your depressive fire. Don’t do it.
How To Get Moving At Home
Not ready or financially capable of getting a gym membership but interested in finding new ways to get moving? There are a bazillion different programs out there, not to mention a bevy of free videos on YouTube that can help you get there.
If you prefer something with a bit more structure, there are plenty of affordable programs available. Here are some of my personal favorites.
- Beachbody OnDemand – I use the PiYo program on here occasionally and really enjoy it. I’m not a fan of the bootcamp style of exercising to exhaustion, but if that’s your thing they’ve got several programs to suit your needs.
- Daily Burn – Similar to Beachbody OnDemand, Daily Burn offers a wide variety of fitness programs for different fitness levels and durations. I particularly enjoy their pilates program. If you’ve never used a pilates ring before, your thighs and booty are in for a treat, my friend!
- YogaDownload – If you’re more into yoga (or at least want to see if you are), Yoga Download has a ton of classes in a variety of styles, loads of instructors, and basically anything an aspiring yogi could possibly want.
- Bodybuilding.com – I LOVE Bodybuilding.com. It is a one-stop-shop for all things weightlifting and I use it a lot. I prefer weightlifting and dancing for exercise. There is something so cathartic to me about lifting heavy things. Don’t let the name of this website scare you away. It’s for anyone who wants to lift weights and they have resources for everyone. You don’t have to aspire to be on the cover of Muscle Magazine to use this website.
The point is that you can get moving relatively easy and you don’t even need to leave the comfort of your home to do it. Find something to do that’s 10 minutes long if that will help you start and figure out from there where you want to go.
Most of the programs above have trial periods so if you’re considering a paid program, there’s no big risk in giving it a go.
3. Watch what you eat.
Getting bit by the sugar bug is incredibly common in sobriety. Most of us fall victim. Here’s the thing. If you’re trying to manage depression right now, the worst thing you can do is eat foods that spike your blood sugar and cause your mood to swing.
It’s tough to eat well when you’re depressed. Healthy eating requires effort, which you can barely muster right now. It also requires caring, which maybe you don’t. And then there’s the comfort of emotional eating. It’s a lot!
There’s an emerging field called nutritional psychiatry that may help motivate you to create diet changes. It turns out, our guts and brains are connected. What you put into your body can have wide ranging impacts beyond your waistline.
Serotonin is that wonderful neurotransmitter that helps regulate our sleep, appetite, mood, and keeps pain at bay. And do you know where 95% of your serotonin is produced?
If you are struggling with depression, there are a few things you can do nutrition-wise to help improve your mental health.
- Take a probiotic. Protect the good bacteria in your gut and guard against bad bacteria and inflammation. It’s one pill and maybe three seconds out of your day. This is an easy win for you!
- Start eliminating processed food from your diet little by little. (Visit my habit stacking post to see how to do this effectively.)
- Try switching to a more traditional diet like the Mediterranean Diet or a typical Japanese diet. People who follow one of these two diets are 25% to 35% less likely to suffer from depression than the rest of us stuffing our face with Hot Pockets and Doritos.
Interested in learning more? Check out The Mind-Gut Connection: How the Hidden Conversation Within Our Bodies Impacts Our Mood, Our Choices, and Our Overall Health
A note on probiotics – make sure you get a high-quality tablet. Even better options are to eat fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi, or sauerkraut. If you love any of these foods, have at them!
Healthy Food Options With Minimal Effort
To the greatest extent possible, I want you to make these lifestyle changes slowly and with the least amount of effort. With that in mind, here are some tools you can use to make healthy eating easier.
I personally LOVE to cook. It’s therapeutic for me. I’m also well aware that cooking has the exact opposite effect on other people.
If you have the financial means to do so, consider a meal prep service that will deliver all the ingredients you need to prepare healthy meals at home. No shopping necessary and you get to eat delicious food without having to find your own recipes and ingredients.
It’s also a huge time saver.
Related: Why Nutrition Matters In Sobriety
I know that when I am having a depressive episode, finding time to cook feels like a herculean effort. If someone who enjoys cooking feels that way, I can only image what those who do not are experiencing.
Here are some meal services you can try:
- Blue Apron – lots of delicious options for all kind of dietary needs. Ignore that wine link, though. I’ve heard great things about their customer service as well, in the event something is not up to snub.
- Hello Fresh – I’ve used this one a few times and the food was AH-MAZING. I would’ve continued with it, but it’s pricey and because I know how to cook, it didn’t make sense for my family to keep at the time.
- Graze – not meals, but if you want some healthy snacks to nosh on, folks in the US and UK can try this service. Healthy snacking is my Achilles heal and something I have to be very intentional about or otherwise, all the Doritos will be in my belly.
You can also try grocery delivery services like Amazon Fresh if going to the store is an impediment to having healthier food around the house.
4. Keep yourself busy.
This is the hardest one because, for a lot of people, being depressed means you don’t want to do anything. To an extent, allowing yourself space to rest is great. HOWEVER, if all you are doing is resting, then you’re not helping yourself.
Some people feel like joy has been completely sucked out of their life after they get some sober days under their belt. There were so many moments in my life when I knew I needed to do something, but I genuinely could not find something to care about. Nothing I thought about sounded like it would bring me happiness.
People would say, “Well what do you enjoy doing?”
I didn’t know. Nothing, I guess.
“What makes you happy?”
Right now? Nothing.
If this sounds like you, I get it. The only thing that helped me in these moments was to force myself to get out and do stuff. Eventually, something will click. You’ll try something that was almost, kind of fun and you’ll go back and do it again, and again until you start to find a new groove. It could be something you had NO idea would be interesting to you.
Be open to finding meaning and purpose where you find it.
This can be a slow process. I won’t pretend otherwise. BUT, it all goes back to #1. Depression is a solvable problem and if your sobriety and recovery are important to you, you have to constantly work on the solutions.
If your attitude is that nothing can or ever will make you happy, it’s going to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Feelings are not facts. The more you detach from your feelings, the more likely you are to develop a healthier mindset around depression.
You’ll eventually get to a a point where you can identify depression the same way you can identify an oncoming cold. You’ll be able to say, “Okay. My energy is really dropping and I can feel myself wanting to go into hermit mode. My depression might be getting bad. I’ll need to do things to make sure I don’t get swept up by it.”
I’ll be providing additional tips and strategies for managing your depression in future posts, but I wanted to give you a place to start.
At the risk of accidentally writing an e-book, I’ll give you space to process these initial tips before diving deeper and adding to the list (you know there’s more information about meditation coming your way) in future posts.
Most importantly, I hope you are able to see (or at least begin to see) that, A. your depression is very, very normal, and B. it is treatable. Do not give up on your sobriety.
If you want some additional support, we have a wonderful group of people in the Soberish private Facebook Group and we are ready to welcome you with open arms (if that’s what you need).