8 Tips for Getting Through a Breakup Sober
Breakups are hard for everyone, but for recovering addicts, heartbreak can open the door to a relapse. Whether you are a few months into your recovery journey, or several years along, a breakup can throw you off course. Learning ways of getting through a breakup without turning to substance use, and how to stay sober when faced with an oncoming relapse, are essential for your long-term health and happiness.
How a Breakup Can Lead to Relapse
Most addiction treatment programs and support groups recommend that people avoid dating in early recovery due to relapse potential. Romantic relationships impact all areas of life, and manipulate the hormones and neurotransmitters in charge of your feelings and motivations. A breakup is particularly rough on recovery because being suddenly distant from a person who once stimulated your brain and body with thoughts and chemicals and sensations that produce pleasure, contentment, and connection can cause a withdrawal experience complete with intense cravings and symptoms such as insomnia, chest ache, increased or decreased appetite, digestive problems, restlessness, depression, and anxiety.
8 Tips for Getting Through a Breakup Sober
1. Review Your Relapse Prevention Plan
If you attended rehab, then you probably worked on a relapse prevention plan before you were discharged. This most likely lists consequences of relapse, new and healthy coping skills, and how to stay sober in the face of high-risk trigger situations. Going over your original relapse prevention plan will remind you of everything you discovered about yourself in rehab, and will reorient you to the practical plan that you and your treatment providers worked out to keep you on the right track.
2. Practice Self-Care
Most people drink or use drugs to relax, escape, or reward themselves. Drug or alcohol use can be a shortcut to use in place of good self-care, but unfortunately, it provides diminishing returns—as in, it produces less reward, escape, or relaxation over time—while also causing additional life stress, an overactive stress response, physical illness, and mental health issues. Learning how to be good to yourself in healthy, productive ways is one of the most important and overlooked parts of substance use recovery.
When you are down due to a breakup, it can be easy to neglect yourself, especially for people recovering from addiction. Self-care means taking care of all parts of yourself and your life, including:
- Physical: Keeping your body strong requires quality sleep, nutritious food, good hydration, exercise, and attention to medical and dental care.
- Emotional: Acknowledging and processing all your feelings, positive and negative, is another way to care for yourself. Deal with the bad feelings instead of repressing them, and notice and really enjoy all the good feelings.
- Practical: Keeping the practical side of life running smooth is essential for avoiding stress and taking care of yourself. Meeting expectations at work, paying bills, and getting the oil changed in your car may not be fun, but doing them is what allows you the peace and freedom to have fun.
- Spiritual: Whether you are religious or not, connecting with anything larger than yourself, such as creating something, meditating, spending time in nature, or getting involved in your community, is a way to nurture and grow your spiritual side.
3. Confide in Friends
In addiction treatment, you probably learned that forming a healthy support network of friends and family is essential for recovery, but it can be easy to forget to turn to that network and actually ask for support when you need it. Venting and discussing the loss of a relationship is a necessary step in getting through a breakup for anyone, but especially for someone in addiction recovery. Research has shown that the emotional stress of isolation impairs the brain functions that you need for recovery, and stress is a major contributing factor to substance use, addiction, and relapse. Don’t be afraid to talk to your loved ones. Most people will be very happy to talk you through a breakup; it gives them an active way to make a difference. Just make sure to only turn to friends and family members who do not misuse drugs or alcohol, and who will not suggest substance use as a way of coping.
4. Keep Busy
If you are tempted to hide out and do nothing in response to heartbreak—resist! You need to stay busy, or else you will concentrate too much time and energy entirely on your breakup, making your romantic withdrawal symptoms worse. Keep going to work and spending time on hobbies. Many people find a breakup to be the perfect motivation to finally tackle projects like reorganizing their closets or doing a top to bottom deep spring clean. Not only is this a healthy distraction, it gives you an environment perfectly suited for a fresh start. The secret to a successful recovery isn’t just not using or drinking, but creating a new life that makes it easier to not use or drink.
5. Try Something New
Happiness requires challenge and novelty. Human beings have a way of getting used to things, so that the initial joy we felt about our new car or career success always fades over time. Scientists call this effect “hedonic adaptation,” but there are ways to outsmart it by regularly introducing new things into your life. Start by figuring out what level of novelty works best for you. If you are a routine loving person, then you may want to try biking to work, or going somewhere new for dinner. If you are more of an adventurer, you may want to switch careers, or travel overseas. Stepping outside of our “norm,” challenging ourselves, and experiencing something different can be a big boost to happiness, and a wonderful way of getting through a breakup. Trying something new can give you the same rush of excitement that a new relationship can, while also strengthening your emotional resiliency, so that you bounce back from disappointments more easily. Novelty also keeps you from getting bored and reminds you of all the sober fun that is possible in addiction recovery.
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6. Spoil Yourself
“Spoiling yourself” from time to time is an aspect of good self-care that people who struggle with addiction tend to strongly resist. This is partly because most addicted people have a tendency to take less than they actually need, which leads to resentment, exhaustion, and a craving for the temporary escape and stress-relief provided by substance use. An important step in your recovery will be learning how to be generous to yourself. You will not have the resources to be good to other people if you are not first good to yourself, and a great way to remind yourself that you deserve good things is to give yourself treats or luxuries that can lift you up when you’re feeling down. Make a list of how you would most like to be spoiled, then, instead of waiting for someone else to come along and treat you, choose something doable from the list and spoil yourself.
7. Attend Support Group Meetings
If you have been in recovery for a long time, you might have cut down on your participation in 12-step or other addiction support groups. Maybe you got tired of focusing so frequently on your addiction, or maybe you feel like you have already learned everything there is to learn in support groups. You might even be embarrassed to publicly admit that you still sometimes struggle with issues you thought you’d be 100% over by now. But don’t give up on meetings! When you’re figuring out how to stay sober while getting through a breakup, peer support groups can be one of the best resources available to help you. Connecting with other people in recovery within this setting can be a way of kindly forcing yourself to work through problems, deal with negative emotions, and accept and enjoy positive emotions.
8. Call a Helpline
The heartbreak felt on both sides in a breakup was not created or experienced by one person alone, so why should you try getting through a breakup on your own? Turning to friends and family or your peers in addiction support groups are the best ways to process the emotions you are going through right now, but sometimes you may need support in the middle of the night, or when you can’t quite make yourself leave the house or reach out to the people you know. At times like this, calling a helpline, many of which are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, can be a great option to see you through a crisis and prepare you for positive action.
Recognizing an Oncoming Addiction Relapse
Relapse rarely happens all at once, even if it feels that way. Sometimes relapse starts weeks or months before someone actually drinks or uses.
It usually begins with an emotional relapse. At this point, you may not be consciously thinking about using an addictive substance, but you are feeling and acting in ways that make you vulnerable to it, such as:
- Isolating yourself
- Bottling your emotions
- Skipping or failing to participate in meetings
- Focusing on other people (blaming, over-helping, or simply dwelling on someone else when you need to consider yourself)
- Neglecting self-care
When this pattern of poor self-care continues, emotional relapse creates a feeling of discontent, irritability, and restlessness that brings to mind thoughts of drinking or using. This is mental relapse, a state of internal conflict where part of you wants to stay in recovery, and part of you wants to use. Occasional drug cravings and thoughts about using aren’t the same as a mental relapse. You only need to worry when these thoughts take on a new tone, become more forceful, or start happening more often. The longer you wage this internal battle, the less resistance you will have.
Signs of mental relapse include:
- Craving drugs or alcohol
- Reminiscing about places, people, and things you associate with your active addiction
- Glamorizing substance use
- Minimizing the consequences of use
- Bargaining (thinking of ways to justify using, like telling yourself you’re allowed to drink on New Year’s Eve, or that misusing prescription medications is okay because you were addicted to heroin)
- Coming up with plans for controlling your substance use
- Looking for opportunities to relapse
- Planning for a relapse
After mental relapse comes physical relapse, when you return to drinking or using. Some people don’t experience a full relapse, but only a “lapse,” where they drink or use again once, but stop before returning to compulsive use. It’s important to recognize that recovery isn’t all or nothing; experiencing a lapse doesn’t mean you’ve lost everything and you may as well give up. It’s merely a sign that you must take action now to protect your health and well-being.
It’s also important to remember that avoiding physical relapse isn’t just about saying no to drugs or alcohol, it’s about avoiding situations where the opportunity to use will be presented, and developing an exit plan when you accidentally put yourself in an environment with drugs or alcohol. Emotional and mental relapse wear you down until you will find it almost impossible to refuse substances if they are offered to you. Your best chance of recovery success is to recognize an oncoming relapse in the early stages and make changes to protect yourself.
Knowing When to Get Help
If you are showing any of the signs of emotional or mental relapse listed above, you must make time for good self-care, support group meetings, and counseling sessions to discuss and make plans to change your unhealthy behaviors.
If you have physically relapsed, and have resumed chronic use, you need to seek an addiction treatment program. Relapse is not a failure, but rather a sign that you need to re-examine your life and make adjustments that will make it easier to stay sober.