Having a persistent mental health condition or an addiction, or even both of these things can make everyday tasks can seem overwhelming. It is actually common for two disorders to present alongside one another, in fact, something in the region of 30% of people who experience addiction experience having a co-occurring mental health condition, such as anxiety or depression. For those of us who experience co-occurring disorders, it is doubly important for our addiction recovery to protect and nurture our mental wellbeing.
When talking about mental well-being we mean those interconnected emotional, psychological, and social ways of being that help us to tolerate distress, regulate emotion, and respond interpersonally in an effective way. The importance of mental well-being in terms of maintaining sobriety cannot really be overstated. A critical component of lasting recovery from addiction is taking good care of your emotional and mental health. Three ways in which you can nurture your mental health at the same time as progressing in your recovery are:
- Develop a Healthy Lifestyle.
For many people in recovery, a healthy balanced lifestyle is really a new way of being. We are not used to listening to the needs of our minds, hearts, and bodies, instead, we have used substances and behaviours to fix our feelings. We may never have learned to take care of the basics, exercise, to eat healthfully, and to sleep well.
- Exercise – the integration of exercise into recovery programmes and therapeutic interventions is testament to the many, many health benefits of regular exercise for the mind and body.
- Eating a nutritious and balanced diet – deficiencies in various nutrients, such as thiamine, also known as vitamin B1 can really impact mood and energy levels. Diet can really impact how well we feel, not just bodily but mentally too, which a good reason why many therapeutic communities are pretty strict on rules like no sugar, caffeine, or junk foods, and instead provide a well-balanced diet that includes healthful fats, dairy, protein, fruit and veg. Much research has shown that people who have a diet that is full of empty sugars and carbohydrates are at higher risk for depression.
- Having good sleep hygiene – this means getting eight hours of sleep per night if at all possible! Research at Harvard has proved the correlation between sleep disorders and poor mental health and shown that a simple change in this area, and getting decent sleep, can really contribute to our overall wellbeing.
It sounds simple, but learning these new behaviours can be hard to put into practice when we have other ingrained ways of being. One of the things that a period of inpatient treatment at a rehab or therapeutic community gives us is an opportunity to develop some good habits in these areas.
- Take your Prescribed Medication
Having a dual diagnosis can complicate recovery a bit, in that it can be a little harder to get to know what the baseline of your mental health really is if you have been medicated for a long time. However, if you have a medical condition like bi-polar or diabetes or any disorder, you must take your medication as prescribed, not doing so puts you at risk for relapse. And finally,
- Get Connected
It has often been reported that addicts began to use their drug of choice out of a desire for connection with others, and a sense of loneliness. Tragically while drug use does temporarily seem to provide a sense of connection, addictive behaviour only serves to perpetuate destructive, unstable, and often disastrous relationships. Relationships formed in the context of addiction are often dysfunctional, sometimes dangerous and unhealthy, especially for children born into addicted families. Often these relationships only serve to create dysfunction and further the cycles of trauma, addiction, and isolation.
As per the advice of Joann Hari in his famous Ted talk, and the studies into drug addiction conducted in the late 1970s by Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander known as Rat Park, prioritising positive and meaningful connections with yourself, with family and friends, and with others in recovery is a powerful tool. Maybe one of the most powerful things that grassroots, peer-led communities like Narcotics Anonymous can offer is this sense of community and connection.