This guest post comes from Suzy Morrison, recovery expert and counsellor specialising in alcohol use, addiction and substance use. You can find Suzy online here.
Mrs D: Hi Suzy, I really appreciate you sharing your expertise with the community here at Living Sober.
Suzy: Thanks for inviting me to contribute to this important topic Lotta. I want to clarify straight up, I’m not a mental health expert. My speciality is addiction.
Mrs D: Thanks for clarifying that. From your perspective and based on your extensive experience, how common is it for people to mask mental health issues with alcohol?
Suzy: Anxiety and the fear of failure is pervasive. We all experience it to some degree. People often think they are alone, which can add to anxiety. They tell themselves there must be something wrong with them. Stigma can also get in the way of talking about what’s going on – feeling judged for struggling with alcohol and other drugs leads to people isolating. It can get very lonely. Reaching out for something – an outside substance – to soothe anxiety is natural. And alcohol is right there. It’s in my local supermarket. Our friends drink and they seem to be doing well, and we want to be part of that, we want to relax, to belong.
Mrs D: Does alcohol help people manage mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression? If not, why not?
Suzy: What I’ve noticed for people who have a predisposition to addiction is that the alcohol and/or other drugs can give the illusion of taking care of the anxiety. It appears to work well initially. Ah… sweet relief. And then it doesn’t. Then things get confusing and scary. People do their best to manage the increasing anxiety by switching the drinks around in the hope it will work like it used too. They may go to the GP and get prescribed anti-anxiety meds and omit the bit about the alcohol use. The thing is, the medications don’t work if the alcohol use continues. It can become a scary spiral. Another thing that compounds anxiety is the attempts to hide what’s really going on.
Mrs D: It makes sense that people would lean on a substance like alcohol when it’s so readily available and normalised in our society.
Suzy: It makes total sense that people would lean on a substance like alcohol. Just look at the alcohol advertisements on TV and elsewhere. Everyone is having a great time. The sun is shining and healthy, happy people are having fun and connecting with each other, with glasses or bottles in their hands. Sadly, it doesn’t look like that in the detox unit or in people’s living rooms when they’re drinking late at night, alone with an empty bottle or two. Alcohol is legal and easily available. It’s not just normalised. In some settings it seems to be compulsory. Alcohol is embedded in the culture here. It is the only drug we have to justify not using.
Mrs D: Sometimes people feel cheated that they get sober and feel worse (because their underlying mental health conditions might become more acute), what can you say to them? Does it make recovery harder?
Suzy: When people are detoxing things can feel pretty intense. Many people in early recovery find they lack a “volume knob” for emotions and this can feel out of control. Things often feel like they get worse before they get better. And there’s the grief of letting go of the alcohol and fear of the unknown. Well, the healing process is just that. A process. And it can feel really difficult at times. It takes great courage to stop drinking, to let go of what used to work so well. Making and maintaining the change is a hero/ine’s journey.
Mrs D: Understanding that everyone’s story is different.. in general, what is the best advice you can give for people who might suspect they’ve got an anxiety disorder or depression?
Suzy: If someone is really concerned they may have a disorder its best to get checked out by a health professional. Preferably one who has an understanding of addiction and recovery.
Mrs D: Aside from getting proper clinical help, what are some holistic, gentle, grounding things that people can do to help ease the symptoms of anxiety?
Suzy: In many ways, recovery is an ‘inside job’. People are learning to develop a friendly, patient, tolerant and forgiving relationship with themselves. There are a variety of ways to support this. Talking helps. Groups help. That’s why places like Living Sober and 12 step meetings in the community are so great. Anxiety and low mood are common experiences, and realising there are others living with and managing similar challenges is a relief. It is possible to live well and manage the symptoms. One of my favourite ‘anxiety managers’ is Tara Brach. I listen to her regularly.
Mrs D: I love Tara Brach! She really helps me when I’m feeling anxious.
Suzy: Anxiety is about fear of the future. It’s important to do what’s enjoyable in the now. Here are some things I do to take care of anxiety:
- Conscious breathing is grounding. Three regular breaths in and out brings me back into the moment.
- Meditation helps heal anxiety. Even 5 minutes a day can make a difference. It doesn’t matter if the thoughts are busy. Just let them arise and depart. I do a guided meditation. Usually lying down. Repetition is key.
- When I’m feeling anxious and out of sorts I often make a soup. Chopping the vegetables and putting them together to make a meal brings me back to what is real.
- I tell on myself – share the anxiety with trusted others for a reality check.
- Caffeine winds me up so I don’t have any these days
- Walking is. great. A leisurely walk around the neighbourhood, noticing the plants and cats and trees and people.
- Going to the movies takes me out of myself.
- Regular 12 step meetings are grounding for me. Listening to others, sharing my story and supporting new people cuts through anxiety paralysis.
- I listen to Tara Brach on a regular basis. She has several talks and guided meditations about taking care of anxiety. Warm and compassionate guidance and reminders that we are all okay. We are enough.
Mrs D: Anything else you’d like to add?
Suzy: Journaling can bring immense relief. By that I mean uncensored writing that no-one else is going to see. Preferably in the morning. Get it all down on the page. Out of the swirling thoughts, down the arm, through the pen and onto the page. No matter how daft it may seem. No one is going to see what you’ve written. You can bin it our burn it. Whatever feels right for you. A process of letting go. I’ve been doing this every day for years and I love it.
Go well with your recovery. It’s a creative process.
“Let it go. Let it out.
Let it all unravel.
Let it free and it can be
A path on which to travel”
You can find Suzy online here.