feeling depressed without drugs

How to Feel Better Without Drugs or Alcohol

03-01-2024Recovery Tools

When we first sober up, and sometimes into longer-term sobriety, we all go through natural ups and downs. However, sometimes we’re struck with feelings of depression or regret that we can’t shake.

When we’ve relied on mind-changing chemicals as our sole source of relief for an extended period of time, the fear that we won’t ever be happy again can be incredibly potent.

One of the most common concerns we hear from newcomers is, “will I ever feel happy without drugs?”

Whether you've been sober for a while or whether you've just hit rock bottom, it can be tough to regain emotional stability after using drugs and alcohol regularly. In this article, we’ll focus directly on actions we can take to feel better without drugs.

Why can be hard to feel better without drugs

One of the main functions of drugs and alcohol is that these mind-changing chemicals hijack our brain’s reward centers and make us feel good. In our program, we refer to this as one of the main features of being “under foreign management” when we’re actively using drugs.

In practice, what this means is that many of us actually feel worse after we sober up. If you’re in your first 90 days of recovery and feel worse, don’t worry – this is extremely normal.

It happens for two reasons:

  1. The brain has naturally adjusted the production of chemicals in the brain that make us feel good as a response to the drugs which emulate those chemicals.
  2. If we’ve made bad decisions while using, we don’t truly feel the normal repercussions of those decisions until after we sober up.

The result is that it’s common to feel as though we’ve been hit by a wave of depression and regret after we quit.

Note that this isn’t necessarily linked just to the early months of recovery. It’s also common to experience issues between the 6 and 9 month mark in recovery.

What to do: Move your butt, and your thoughts will follow

One of the most timeless sayings we get from the 12-step community is the saying that “we can’t think our way into better living, but we can live our way into better thinking.”

What this means is that in general, our emotional states follow our actions. While there is certainly a possibility that an outside issue is present (such as an underlying mental health condition), we usually find that the wave of negative emotions experienced upon sobering up subsides as we get more time sober, pick up the pieces of our lives, make amends, and commit to serving others.

Substance abuse and mental health issues can go hand in hand, but continuing to use will almost certainly muddy the results of any mental-health specific work that we do. For this reason, we are big believers in dealing with the substance use disorder first.

Note that this process is gradual – it often isn’t instantaneous like getting high is. The key is not to quit before the miracle happens!

How to feel good without drugs

Below are some basic suggestions we see work out again and again with the newcomers we work with in our programs. As with anything in recovery, make sure to be in regular contact with your sponsor and your friends in recovery; many of them have gone through exactly what you’re going through, and can provide guidance based on the specifics of your situation.

Have fun regularly

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention penciling some time to have fun in sobriety, especially in a social environment with friends in recovery. There’s no two ways about it – getting sober is hard! If all we ever do is heavy-duty emotional work, it can be hard to see the benefit in the short term.

One of the main benefits of recovery is that we get to have fun again – and having fun on purpose is one of the most immediate ways to feel good without drugs.

Take advantage of this benefit by participating in the social functions, get togethers, or events you have access to in your recovery support group or alternative peer group.

If there’s no events on the docket, call some friends and plan something!

Complete all 12 steps

Of course, completing the 12-steps is not an overnight matter. However, the spiritual “heavy lifting” required by the 12-steps is a long-term solution that works.

Most of us have an action that’s right in front of us, whether it’s completing the inventory you’ve been putting off or picking up the phone to make a much needed amend.

One of the most surefire ways to feel “stuck” in recovery is to stall out on our steps. Left unchecked, this will almost certainly lead to some guilt and depression.

Take care of the details in your life

One of the most certain paths to lingering depression and anxiety in recovery is when we’ve got an action right in front of us that we’re avoiding. This is most common during the sobriety Aftercare process when, for the first time, we’re having to focus on areas that aren’t specifically recovery-related.

In other words, these types of actions are usually things like: applying for jobs, submitting paperwork to get back into school, obtaining a driver’s license, paying back a debt owed, or any number of other things.

Whether you’re struggling to take care of life’s details because you have gotten comfortable in your recovery, or because you’re wrestling with false evidence appearing real (aka FEARs!), the one-liner “move your butt and your thoughts will follow” applies specifically to you!

Be of service to others

In recovery, we place a lot of emphasis on “getting out of ourselves.” Why is this? It’s one of the most surefire ways to get out of our own head and feel better. It’s often surprising how quickly this works.

A simple phone call to a newcomer, giving someone a ride, or helping a newcomer through a tough time pays dividends on our emotional state. In general, those who are the most successful in recovery have made service part of their lifestyle.

Develop a strong social support network

It’s hard to place more importance on any one given factor in recovery than on a strong social support network. If you’re in recovery, undoubtedly you’ve got access to some meetings or you’re aware of a support group that exists somewhere in your area.

If you haven’t taken steps to develop the vital connections that will support you over the long haul, do so right away! These relationships open doors to honesty and growth in our recovery that can impact our emotional state immediately.

Develop a spiritual life

Whether we’re participating in a non-sectarian approach like a 12-step group or a more pointed spiritual approach like Celerate Recovery, developing a spiritual practice in sobriety is cited by most sober individuals as one of the biggest game-changers for their emotional life.

If you’re struggling in this area, share these struggles with a sponsor, friend, or meeting group. It can be surprising the diversity of ideas you’ll get back from those you share this with, one of the most important being that you aren’t alone in this struggle.

How to feel good without drugs or alcohol

Achieving happiness without drugs is absolutely attainable, and worth it! The key is to realize that spiritual and emotional growth is not an overnight matter. The actions we take today can get us feeling happy in the moment, but often the change towards being happy overall takes place over the course of time.

As we say in the rooms, “time takes time.” Continuing to take practical action one day at a time will yield favorable results, so long as we keep at it and stay sober. As much as possible, relax and be patient. Note that one of the phenomena in recovery is that it’s common for our family members and friends to notice the change in us before we feel it ourselves.

If you’re looking for a recovery support group in your area, contact the FullCircle Program location nearest to you!