feeling worse sober

What to Do if You’re Feeling Worse After Getting Sober

04-30-2024Recovery Tools

One of the phenomena common to the early recovery experience is to have an early “pink cloud” phase, during which we feel happy and grateful for the first few weeks, followed by a dramatic emotional downturn during which we actually feel worse after becoming sober.

On it’s face, this seems illogical – why would a decision to change for the better lead to us feeling worse?

Feeling worse after getting sober can be attributed to the brain needing time to readjust to normal functioning without substances, along with confronting the emotional repercussions of past decisions. It's a challenging part of the recovery process, and it does get better with time and positive action in recovery!

In this article, we’ll go over the primary reasons that it’s so common to feel worse after quitting drugs or drinking, and provide some practical tips for getting through the uncomfortable early phase of recovery from substance abuse.

The two main reasons we feel worse sober

1. Your brain needs some time to adjust back to normal

The main reason that drugs are so appealing to us is that they hijack the reward centers in the brain and emulate the feel-good chemicals which naturally occur. The brain compensates by downregulating the production of these natural chemicals.

This is one of the reasons we develop the phenomenon of tolerance, meaning we need more of a given drug over time to achieve the desired effect.

The flip side of this phenomenon is that when we remove the drugs, there’s an absence of these chemicals present at all. This absence can lead to all sorts of nasty symptoms like physical symptoms, withdrawals, depression, sleepless nights, and more.

Depending on the individual and the drugs used, the first 30 days of sobriety can be extremely tough for this reason alone. Post acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) can last for a few months.

Over time, our brains return to their normal functioning patterns and the artificially amplified feelings of depression and remorse get better on their own.

2. You’re likely feeling the emotional repercussions of some of your decisions from the past

It’s rare to escape serious drug use without having made at least a few decisions we regret. In some cases, we’ve made quite a lot of them.

The trouble is that when we’re using, we’ve artificially enhanced our emotional state. In other words, we never feel the natural repercussions of our actions.

One of the things that happens to most of us, especially after we’re through the “pink cloud” phase of sobriety, is that we’re suddenly confronted by memories from the past which begin to haunt us.

Three tips if you’re feeling worse sober

1. Accept that there will be normal ups and downs

One thing that’s a struggle for most of us when we stop drinking or using is that we have a hard time accepting that some days we’re happier than others. When we were using, we only felt two things: awesome or horrible.

On a scale of one to ten, we were always either a one or a ten!

It’s normal to carry this type of thinking into recovery with us, leading to mood swings and skewed expectations. One of the things we discuss in our program is that we’ve got to learn to “live in the fives, sixes, and sevens.”

What this means is that when we learn to accept that most days are generally good, even if we don’t feel awesome. This simple mental switch can be a game changer for some people in early recovery.

2. Don’t take temporary for permanent

Another mental switch we’ve got to make is that it’s hard for us, when we’re in the early stages of recovery, to accept that what we’re going through is temporary. In fact, it’s common that by the time we’ve been sober for about 90 days, we’re starting to feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually good again.

In other words, the fear that we’ll never feel good again turned out to be false evidence appearing real. Think about it:

If recovery was horrible, nobody would stick around. The folks you know who have two, five, or ten years of sobriety are still around because they’re getting something out of it!

What this means for us is that we’ve got to take a deep breath, and accept that whatever depression or low point we’re going through will get better as long as we:

  • Stay sober, and
  • Take the necessary action to deal with the issues present in our lives.

3. Take action!

As we discussed in our article on how to feel better without drugs, one of our favorite sayings in recovery is “move your butt and your thoughts will follow.” In other words, take action towards growing emotionally and spiritually. Over time, the feelings of guilt, regret, and anger will subside.
Some examples of actions you can take right away are:

  • Make sure you’re regularly hitting meetings and participating in your support group
  • Call a 12-step sponsor or a trusted friend in recovery and share with them (remember, “pain shared is pain halved”)
  • If you’re putting off some step work, get it done!
  • Call or meet with a newcomer for the sole purpose of being of service to them
  • If there’s a life-decision you’re putting off, like getting a job, applying for school, or making an amend, go do it today

All of these (and many more) are examples of things we can do immediately to get ourselves on the beam and on the road to feeling better.

Will you feel worse before feeling better?

Unfortunately, it’s very common to feel worse in early recovery. So much so, in fact, that we often have a talk with newly recovering individuals about how it may get worse before it gets better.

However, it doesn’t tend to last more than a few months. We often find that by the time newly sober individuals are wrapping up their 90 meetings in 90 days, they are starting to feel much better already.

What’s more, getting through the early recovery phase has immense rewards for the future. We can think of no better description of what’s in store than the authors of the Big Book themselves:

“If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word Serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook on life will change, fear of people and economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.”

Alcoholics Anonymous, pg 83-84

God bless!