Coping Styles

Heading into Year 3 Sober produced one of the best and yet craziest summers I can remember. And by crazy, I don’t mean swinging-from-the-chandeliers, whooping-it-up fun, but more the anxiety-riddled claustrophobia played so well by Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window.

I say it was one of the best summers I can remember because I truly felt alive and blessed. My family enjoyed two week-long vacations at the beach and weekends at the pool, plus trips into the city for museums or into town for ice cream. We cooked out and camped out and caught lightning bugs and did all the things that scream summer. If summer were a meal, I ate the whole thing and feel satisfied.

And still I suffered and continue to suffer my share of Rear Window crazy.

But while Jimmy Stewart’s character was immobilized by an itchy full-leg cast during a heat wave, I rambled out for longish runs in the quiet cool of early morning in an effort to stay sane. And while Jimmy witnesses what he’s pretty sure is cold-blooded murder in an apartment across the way, all my battles happened in my own head.

In retrospect, Year 1 Sober was about learning to live life without alcohol. Year 2 Sober was about figuring out who I was without alcohol. Year 3 Sober seems to be – so far – about how to learn to live with myself without wanting to drink or otherwise give up.

And because I find myself blowing small things out of proportion and manufacturing drama out of everyday stressors, I think of the 11 signs of relapse. And I worry about where I’m headed and wonder what I can do to reverse the process if I am heading down the wrong road.

A paper on Relapse and Recovery published by the Caron Foundation says how we cope with stress matters.

The influence of stress as a relapse trigger appears to be lessened by the individual’s method of coping with it …It appears that problem-solving coping styles are more beneficial than emotionally focused coping styles.

Emotion focused coping strategies seem to be more about damage control and include:

    • Keeping yourself busy to take your mind off the issue
    • Letting off steam to other people
    • Praying for guidance and strength
    • Ignoring the problem in the hope that it will go away
    • Distracting yourself (e.g. TV, eating)
    • Building yourself up to expect the worse

(source: Emotion Focused Coping, Saul McLeod, 2009)

Oh boy, do these sound familiar. Especially the last three!

Problem focused coping strategies, on the other hand, serve to get at the root of an issue and include:

  • Taking Control – this response involves changing the relationship between yourself and the source of stress. Examples: escaping from the stress or removing the stress.
  • Information Seeking – the most rational action. This involves the individual trying to understand the situation (e.g. using the internet) and putting into place cognitive strategies to avoid it in future. Information seeking is a cognitive response to stress.
  • Evaluating the pros and cons of different options for dealing with the stressor.

(Source: Problem Focused Coping with Stress, Saul McLeod, 2010)

Hm, the “taking control” one fills me with a kind of terror, though I can gather information and evaluate the pros and cons like a pro.

It is important to note some stressful situations are beyond our control, such as illness or the death of a loved one or actions of others. In these cases, emotion based coping skills are our best hope at relief. But problems we do hold some control over benefit more from problem focused coping skills because these might actually help eliminate them.

Right now I’m applying both kinds of coping skills for a few stressful issues. I’ve even used emotion based strategies when my problem solving strategies fail. And these are not even serious issues, which again makes me wonder why I seem to be falling apart at times lately.

I think I’m feeling the cumulative effect of a dozen tiny stressors, mixed with one or two bigger ones. Some of the things I do to cope normally, like eating well and sleeping enough and reaching out to others, have fallen away and I’ve forced myself to get back on track, but not as often as I was doing before.

All I had to do was look through my blog posts from this time last year to notice a pattern. Apparently I struggle more this time of year. Don’t really know why and maybe it’s beyond my control, but it does help to be aware of it.

In writing all of this, I’m tempted to delete and start over with something more polished and positive. I don’t want the newly sober to think it doesn’t get easier over time (it DOES). I don’t want others to see me as weak and whiny or not where I should be at this point in my sobriety. Still, time has given me another voice that tells me perfection is not only overrated but impossible. The only way out is through the messy stuff and this sure feels like one messy post!

If you care to comment, I’d love to know if you feel triggered by stress at random or predictable times of the year and how you cope with it.

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27 thoughts on “Coping Styles

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  1. I generally deal with stress either by being loud right then (FOR FUCKS SAKE!!!) or bottling it up and slowly letting it seep out of me.
    Occasionally, taking deep breaths works.

    Probably not very helpful.
    Congratulations on three years!

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    1. Yelling falls under both categories because on the one hand, it vents frustration. It can also change others’ behavior. Maybe it’s not the healthiest coping skill, but sometimes it really works. I’m more like the seething seeper you describe (ew, I made it sound so gross). also, I worded it confusingly, but I am only heading into my third year sober. Still just a babe in the woods but thanks!

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  2. You are where you are…thanks for being open and honest about it! You are not scaring the newly sober (such as myself). It seems like recognizing patterns and thinking about different ways to cope with stress will be helpful to you in many ways, and you are being brave about looking at these things. Peace, Jen

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  3. These lists are incredible. For me, until I got a good dose of how I didn’t want to respond a new response was not forthcoming. It was so hard to look at me and see how ill prepared I was to handle stress. That look, however painful, was the one thing that changed everything. The more honest I get at seeing this stuff the better chance I have of choosing a response the next time. thanks for the eye opener for today.

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    1. You just described what I think might be bothering me so much…seeing how ill prepared I am and have always been to deal with stress. It feels so large and overwhelming and I must remember to just tackle each issue as it comes up and hopefully it will get easier over time. Thanks xoxo

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  4. UM…are you in my head?
    Thanks for this, I needed it. I loved the 11 signs of relapse. I totally agree that relapse starts way before you pick up a drink, and I needed to be reminded of this. I have just finished an incredibly stressful period in life, selling my house, moving, and, while I have been trying to stay on top of my emotions during this time. way too often I haven’t wanted to “bother” people, I have self-selected who I will share certain facts (Facts= honesty) with and it has not always been other sober people. Things are calming down now and I am back with myself, the self I try to avoid so often, and while I don’t want a drink I find myself itching for something, anything, to help me with the feelings. Prayer and meditation helps, meetings help (although I sure have gone to a lot of “bad” ones lately), the tool of HALT helps….but that L(only) looms large for me. I’m not gonna write a blog post here (ha!), but I hear you and am so grateful for the reminder. I actually had a thought last night flit through my head that ‘well, relapse is kind of inevitable”. It was fast and gone in a wink, but it happened. Scared me to death.
    Grateful for the reminder and , yes, probably the start of my own post!

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    1. You recently went through one of the biggest stressors. And because you shared openly and honestly about your experiences, it helped to see that setbacks and hard emotions are not only normal but necessary to move forward. I mean, literally, a person couldn’t sell and find a new place and move without at least a dozen frustrating and even scary challenges. So I thank you for being real and brave. Oh and I love HALT too but only ever think of it after the fact. It’s time for me to use it proactively, so thanks again!

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  5. There are certain times of the year (holidays, back-to-school, etc.) where I’m triggered more than others and those are the times I tend to use the emotion focused coping strategies. Sometimes researching why I’m grumpy just doesn’t hit the spot as much as a game of Candy Crush does. Like you said, there are some problems beyond our control. If I actually have a problem I can fix, I usually don’t feel stressed about it because I have a sense of control.

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    1. Back to school issues are a big part of my trigger now, so maybe I’ll remember and cut myself slack next year. And I can’t decide if Candy Crush is the solution or a sign of a bigger problem, but love it just the same. As always, I appreciate your calm, practical way of looking at things.

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  6. Ugh. It looks like most of my coping styles fall into the emotional category. Although, I’m happy to say that I have done the others – on occasion. I must’ve been particularly healthy on those days. πŸ™‚
    And yes, I do have triggers related to certain times of the year. My biggest trigger is the month of October…so it’s coming up. And at 9 months sober, I haven’t yet made it through that month without a relapse. I hope this will be the year. I am employing some of those healthy coping strategies-information seeking, and talking about it with others (therapist, sponsor, husband, etc) so that I am not alone with it.
    Thanks for this post, it definitely gives me something to think about.
    ~Jami

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    1. October was the month I feared most my first year sober because of Oktoberfest. I was a big beer drinker. Anyway, nothing stands out from that first October save for the normal pangs and mourning of something I never really had anyway (a peaceful relationship with alcohol). You can get through your first October too.

      I’m glad for your comment. Thank you.

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  7. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into your “messy” side. I think it’s better to be honest with people–newly sober or not–about what to expect, because then when it happens they’ll know it’s normal and not something to freak out about.

    You gave me a lot to think about with this post, and we were already on the same wave length about “how is this year sober different than the last two?”

    What stood out to me in the Problem Focused Skills was:
    Taking Control – this response involves changing the relationship between yourself and the source of stress.

    What I try to do with stress is change my own initial freak out reaction. Take a couple of deep breaths. Withdraw briefly if needed (the bathroom is a great place). Remind myself that a freak out is not going to fix or solve anything or make the stressor go away. I decide to deal with it or let it go, usually by asking myself, “will this matter a year from now? how about ten years from now?” Surprisingly, there’s a lot of stuff that simply doesn’t matter and won’t matter. If it’s a biggie or if I need to deal with it, then I usually try to understand the situation, unbiased at first, and look at both/all sides of it; I’ll immerse myself in information because knowledge is power, I’ll have a conversation if needed and share my feelings honestly and without confrontation, and I’ll do and change what I can, or accept what I cannot. (Serenity prayer?)

    Even when we cannot control our circumstances, we can usually control our attitude toward our circumstances.

    One of my favorite quotes is from the Dalai Lama XIV
    β€œIf a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it’s not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”

    When all else fails?

    Cookies.

    Fab post, Christy

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    1. I went back and cleaned up that messy post after hitting publish. Getting rid of the people pleasing perfectionist in me is hard, probably because that side keeps coming back to maybe be gotten rid of more perfectly the next time.

      I love the helpful advice and quote at the end. My brain is quick to jump in and point out worrying is just thinking and planning ahead, and also that it could use a few more cookies. Oh brains.

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  8. From my experience not’re just now in the having to live without it stage and for me this hasn’t ended sometimes are better then others but you have to just cope but my coping was always to drink and either ignore it or bluff and blunder through it. Now there’s sometimes more semblance of control not always though.

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    1. It is helpful to know this stage is more or less an ongoing process. I guess they all are to some degree, but it helps to know I’m not alone and that strong, wise, good people have experienced the same sort of thoughts and struggles.

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  9. There is nothing about this post that needs to be polished, and I believe you are a shining example of what recovery can be. You are an inspiration to me, anyway!

    Sad that distracting yourself with eating falls into the “not as good” category, because I’ve got that one nailed!!

    I tend to obsess about early relapse signs when nothing big is going on, so I can imagine that it is crossing your mind when you have some stress. I think the biggest sign that you are not in danger, however, is that you are opening up about it. Think about your behavior in active addiction… were you open and honest about your feelings? If you’re anything like me, you ran in the opposite direction of honesty when it came to sharing feelings. So this post tells me, first, that you have feet firmly planted in recovery, and, second, that you are actively seeking a way back to the peace and serenity you once felt. And what could be more recovery-minded than that?

    If you ever need to talk, I am a phone call or email away!

    Josie

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  10. What a great read! i think you said it best yourself when you mentioned that a comment made you feel ‘normal’. It’s not because we’re sober that our problems disappear. We still have to deal with stressors, only with one fewer tool. Unfortunately, that tool of alcohol stopped being effective for many of us awhile ago.

    For me, when i find myself stressed now, i have new tools:
    – i call another alcoholic
    – i get out of my own head (go to a movie, watch a TV show, play a video game)
    – i go to a meeting
    – i commit anonymous acts of kindness, that no one will ever know i did

    Also, lately i’ve been stressed over asking a young woman out and this video really helped:

    And in case the html doesn’t work: http://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend.html

    Anyway, thanks for being who you are and where you are, and for sharing that with us.

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  11. This is a brilliant post, really interesting and helpful. I love that you are honest and ‘messy’ not that it is very messy by the way ! (or did you tidy it up).. sometimes I feel bad too that I’m up over 2 years now and still moan and groan about feeling glum sometimes and stuff… empty holes…how I reach for bad foods.. I think, should I not be doing this at this point in sobriety? should I pretend things are great to make long term sobriety seem like peaches and roses? and then I think this must be normal life and actually it’s not about sobriety as much as just ups and downs that we sober people bang on about because we write blogs about being sober. now who is being messy? This is rambling. Sorry. But I do so appreciate your sharing honestly and bringing good information to the table.. one thing I seem to constantly want to do is read and research all about life and how to live it happily without reaching for our old friend booze. ok going now. lots of love xxx

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  12. My random stressful times come about once a month. (hey, not so random eh?) One thing that still amazes me is that my hormonal outbursts were such a surprise to me! Now that I’m sober I know that crazy feeling (Am I lecturing my oldest about how to not argue about getting dressed for school and it’s turned into a twenty minute monologue? Yep, crazymaking time.) and can try to step away from it before it escalates into a full blown tantrum on my part. Sometimes my best thing to do is to laugh at myself. (me to self: “OMG, you are being so you. LOL”) And breathe a lot. And to not be afraid of my “me-ridiculous”-ness. And also to just say, “That’s enough out of me” and walk away.

    This summer was hard, hard hard for me too. I just could not get a handle on things. All over the place emotions wise. I don’t think I expect that to change, but that may be just who I am. I have always been “dramatic”. πŸ™‚ Much less unreasonably so since sobriety. Now there isn’t the weekly Saturday morning rant and rave. Thank you sweet jesus on a biscuit. But there’s a lot of feeling to do, sometimes an exhausting amount. Which may require a cookie. Or some sleep.

    And, like I say about food: If it’s a bit messy it means you’re enjoying it. This is true for life too, I think.

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  13. I appreciate your honesty. Today I’m 90 days sober and yesterday was all about random stress making me question sobriety. Really??? Day 89 and I’m wondering if I need to keep it up, thanks for this post it makes me see that these things are going to come up wherever I’m at in sobriety and may never go away and that’s normal and ok.

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