Beat Addiction with Exercise and Nutrition
- Training to recover from substance abuse (drugs, alcohol) or process (gambling, sex, shopping, internet, workaholism) addictions may sound strange. But it shouldn’t.
- Exercise and diet offer recovering addicts all the health benefits they provide for non-addicts, and more.
- Learn how we produce faster physical and mental recovery from addiction, and significantly reduce the chances of relapse.
- Your generosity will help those in need get the education, training and treatment they need to reintegrate into their families and return to being productive, happy members of society.
Ever find your mind racing down a path you don’t want to travel? Catastrophizing about the future? Engaging mental gymnastics inside your head to debate points or events now irrelevant? Why do we torment ourselves so?
My experience indicates the answer is this: automatic thinking. Sure, part of this emotional turmoil is related to post-acute withdrawal. But even for many of us with years of abstinence, this “debate society” in our heads won’t shut up.
In our addictions, we cultivated and grew a vast crop of distorted thinking patterns. Defense mechanisms that allowed us to deny, justify, rationalize, minimize and cast blame for our addictions and indefensible behaviors. Irrational thinking that was impulsive, made assumptions, jumped to conclusions – negative conclusions. And these patterns of thinking became automatic.
Just because we are suddenly clean and sober, doesn’t mean we aren’t still stuck in our own BS.
So how do we get unstuck? Becoming more self-aware. Practicing new ways of thinking.
One technique I use is “thought stopping.” I try to catch myself when my brain starts hurtling down the tracks of negativity. How do I know this is happening? For me, I find myself first starting to feel uncomfortable and irritable. My blood pressure goes up. I can feel my face flush and heart rate increase. My mind begins racing with thoughts of how I would have, could have, should have, must ____________ (fill in the blank). I’m either trying to rewrite history, or author the future.
When you feel this way, stop. Deconstruct what is going on. Usually, we are triggered by something. What was that activating event? Keep in mind that whatever this trigger was is objective. In and of itself, it does not cause your emotions. Your beliefs about the trigger are what result in your emotion and reaction.
So look at what your beliefs are about this event. My old ways of thinking would be conflicted, pessimistic, catastrophic.
That negative thinking results then in my feeling stressed, uncomfortable and increasingly agitated, irritated and angry. I don’t like feeling like this – but I know a way to not feel this. That’s right. Using. So the natural result is getting an urge or craving to use. Score one for your disease.
It takes work and practice to identify, dispute, and then change our old ways of thinking. I liken it to learning to shoot a basketball jump-shot when all you know is a two-handed-push shot from your chest. Your way old way worked for a while and you made some baskets. But it quickly lost its effectiveness. And certainly has no place in a game beyond grade school. Learning the new way takes willingness, open-mindedness, practice, attention, focus and…time. You’ll feel uncomfortable. You may miss more shots initially using your new method. But eventually, your game, self-confidence and effectiveness will take a leap forward. Score two for your sobriety.
So many principles of recovery….and life…cross my mind when I’m out hiking. Helps me maintain perspective. It’s not just about the exercise and the fresh air and sunshine. Patience, nurture, faith, acceptance, healing – rebirth. The tree reminds me that the scars from a life of addiction can be channeled into something beautiful and enduring. The petroglyphs remind me that others have come before me; and more will follow. When I’m out there, I can’t help but be “right-sized.” And the crystal clear pool, despite the fact it hasn’t rained in a month? A metaphor for “the promises.” It’s all there. We simply need to put one foot in front of the other. And keep an open mind.
The best exercise is the one you want to do!
While I want to encourage readers to get active in recovery, there are some important things to consider first, especially if you’ve recently stopped drugging and drinking.
- In early recovery we are more prone health and injury problems. This is because we been sedentary, malnourished, and (probably) smoking; and the drugs/alcohol caused damage to our cardiovascular, nervous, endocrine, digestive, musculoskeletal (and other) systems.
- Addiction has not been kind to our bodies (or minds). Even though you might be starting to look better on the outside, your insides may not be keeping up with that progress.
- We tend to want to over-do it. “Make up for lost time.” There’s a saying in AA, “Time takes time.” Believe it. As much as you might want to, you cannot change the laws of physics or biology. Slow down.
- Think in terms of “journey”, rather than “destination.”
- Keep an open-mind. I have more problems with former athletes than I do with those who were not particularly athletic prior to addiction. Why? Because the former athletes tend to go too hard, too fast. This can lead to disappointment because of unrealistic expectations, or injury, or quitting.
- Remember, anything you do now is more than you were doing before! Think in terms of progress, rather than what “people” “should” or “must” or “are expected” to do.
- Your goal for each day should be suiting up and showing up. Just like they say in 12-step meetings, “Don’t drink or use. Go to meetings.” Same principle here.
- Make sure you’re cleared by a medical professional prior to engaging in any program of activity or exercise.
How can we develop new, productive exercise habits? We know that our old, drug-taking habits produced instantaneous, abundant neurotransmitter-cascade “rewards.” In fact, drugs provide approximately 10 times the neurochemical reward that “normal” healthy or desirable activities do (4). This was why it was so easy to get hooked.
Those addiction-oriented pathways will be with us forever. But the less we reinforce them (by abstaining from psychoactive chemicals and addictive behaviors like gambling, excessive shopping, etc.), the more they atrophy (weaken or deteriorate). Anyone who has had to wear a cast on an arm or leg for a month or more can attest to how a lack of use results in atrophy. We want our addiction-oriented thinking and old behaviors’ pathways to atrophy. One way to do that is to replace bad habits with good.
An action or activity is a habit when it is automatic. Learning to ride a bicycle or drive a car is automatic for most of us. We don’t need to think about how we do it; we just go do it! But learning that ability required practice and repetition. Making something a habit, (like eating right), takes conscious effort and perseverance over a period of about 90 days.
Remember, these new, healthy activities, like exercise, don’t have the same immediate super-strong rewards that psychoactive drugs gave us. So we must persevere even when we don’t feel so good, or so rewarded. We must continue to “exercise” that new behavior on a daily basis or else it will self-extinguish.
Programming new habits is critical because we all know from experience that willpower is not enough – whether it is in recovery or maintaining an exercise or diet plan. Therefore, it is critical that we invest the time, energy and commitment to develop exercise as a habit. That means regular, consistent action augmented by Small Wins SM each and every day, for at least 90 days.
To prevent relapse, new healthy behaviors must become an auto-pilot function — a good habit driven by our mid-brain.
Remember, in early recovery, your body cannot tell the difference between drug/alcohol cravings and food cravings!
Follow the following tips for success:
- Eat regularly. Do not skip breakfast or any other meal.
- Have five or six small meals per day. Example: breakfast, mid-morning snack, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner.
- Manage your cravings for sweets with fresh fruits such as apples, grapes, bananas, berries.
- Manage your cravings for fat with foods such as nuts, avocado, olives, dairy, salmon.
- Use the 3-2-1 rule of thumb to guide your dietary choices in early recovery. That means about half of your calories come from carbohydrates, one-third from protein and one-sixth from fat. With more consistency (time) in both recovery and as a healthy eater, you may wish to alter the ratios of carbs and protein.
- Eat until no longer hungry, not until full.
- Eat meals with others if possible. Eating while reading or watching TV makes us tend to over-eat.
- Have plenty of healthy foods available as snacks. These can be fruit, vegetables, protein bars, yogurt, etc.
- Plan your meals and grocery shop when you’re NOT hungry. Make a list and stick to the list. Avoid the impulse-items!
- Make sure you get plenty of vegetables, beans, lean meats, fresh fruit, dairy, grains, nuts/seeds and fiber in your diet.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Keep caffeine intake to one or two cups of coffee per day.
- Clean and prep food. Refrigerate. Fresh meals and snacks ready in a jiffy!
In my early recovery, I did not follow this advice. I didn’t know any better. And it hardly seemed important compared to all my other problems. Sadly, not only did I prolong the emotional roller-coaster, sleeplessness, cravings and overall struggle of early recovery, I gained 40 pounds.
Remember, the reason we crave candy and fatty foods is because they trigger the same addictive pathways in our brain that drugs and alcohol do! We have the benefit of knowing this now.
And to those who would state that it’s just too much to start a slow, measured approach to changing their diet, I say this, “Stopping drinking and drugging seemed like ‘too much’, too. Yet you’ve done it. So why not give yourself every advantage you can to feel better faster and get the totality of your life back on track?”
A recovery lifestyle is about more than surviving and white-knuckling it. It’s about thriving and reaching new heights – not just “getting back to where I used to be.”
Bring the best body and mind you can for the journey!
When I exited hospital detox September 10, 2001, I weighed 20 pounds over my healthy weight. Not age-25 weight. Not collegiate-athlete weight. Healthy, average, 40-year old woman weight. From there, over the next four months, I gained an additional 40 pounds!
Finally, my doctor said “Hey, you know what? You’re now officially obese. I know you’re trying to stay clean and sober, and I wasn’t worried about weight gain initially. Unfortunately your blood pressure is way up. You need to do something about this. Here’s the number for a dietician. Call her.”
I did feel fat. I was fat! But somehow I really hadn’t noticed it (or was in denial) because I felt so good about the fact that I was actually staying clean and sober – and felt that maybe I was getting a little bit better each and every day.
What was happening?
Well, in hindsight, it’s pretty simple to see. Not only was all the sugar and fat I was eating helping to satisfy drug and alcohol cravings, but I was eating to my feelings! In spite of the fact that I felt better in some ways, I still felt terrible about myself in many other ways. Little did I know that my eating habits were like pouring gasoline on a fire of mood swings, racing thoughts, irritability and fatigue …and, of course, cardiovascular disease.
The strange thing about it was this: my over-eating and bingeing on bags of candy and chocolate reminded me of that last vestige of sanity before I went over the cliff into addiction. Remember that moment when your sane brain said “Hey, this drinking/drug usage has crossed a line. This is no longer normal partying/using”? And your addictive brain responded, “F-U, I’ll do what I want!”?
So, I went to see the dietician. And immediately felt overwhelmed by her advice. Maybe I wasn’t listening. Or maybe I heard what I expected to hear. I simply felt that what she was telling me to do way too much all at once.
Why? Food had become my security blanket. I had just given up drugs and alcohol. I needed something. And darn it! I had earned that! (Anyone recognize the addictive and impulsive thinking here?)
That’s why, in the book, I emphasize the importance of changing our diets in recovery, but making small, incremental changes based upon the Small Wins SM approach.
Maintain a long-term outlook. But make small changes in the short-run. Set realistic, attainable goals. It shouldn’t be too easy. But it shouldn’t be too hard, either.
My first step in losing 60+ total pounds was stopping the Gummi Bears. I still over-ate other foods and chocolate. But this was a process — progress, not perfection. The key point was that I had become aware that my eating choices had become problematic both to my physical health and to my recovery. It was up to me to take responsibility for the change that needed to take place. Incidentally, it took me two years to lose the weight. And I did so by removing some foods from my diet, substituting for others, and introducing light, then moderate, exercise into my lifestyle.
And I won’t lie and say it’s not something I need to watch to this day. And my weight has bounced +/- 10 pounds at various times in recovery. But that’s who I am. I can’t do certain things like other “normal” people. I also can’t run anymore because of arthritis in my knee. I can choose to complain and make excuses, or I can choose to take full responsibility, make the necessary adjustments, and live life on life’s terms. I chose the latter. So should you.