When I met Nicky, a 33-year-old mom of two, and a recovering addict, she told me she’d been a cheerleader, sang in her church choir, and always held a job. But Nicky’s life took a downward turn early on. She started smoking marijuana when she was 11, moved on to using inhalants with her friends, and eventually began shooting heroin. When I interviewed her, she was committed to recovery, but she told me that every day was still a struggle. Her journey was not easy.
Addiction, Drug Overdose on The Rise
Although these topics have not been getting as much media attention as they did pre-pandemic, both addiction and drug overdose are on the rise. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 81,000 people died from drug overdoses between May 2019 and May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths the CDC has ever recorded in a 12-month period. Just as disturbing, suicide, depression, and self-harm also seem to be increasing, particularly among young people. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that if you, or anyone in your life, is struggling with addiction, there are lifestyle changes you can make—right now—to help you heal. While getting completely sober might not feel possible, lifestyle improvements make a big difference.
We tend to think of addiction as black and white. Either you’re an addict or you’re not. But when you take small steps to improve your mental health and physical well-being, you can move away from the severe end of what my coauthor, Dr. Paul Thomas, and I call the addiction spectrum. The goal is to get out of addiction and into good health.
The Addiction Spectrum?
Thomas, who is both an addiction specialist and a recovering alcoholic (he has been sober for 18 years), argues that there is a spectrum of severity when it comes to addiction. The first step, as we explain in our book, is identifying where you are on the continuum of mild to moderate to severe addiction. The next step is to be willing to make changes that will move you toward the mild end of the addiction spectrum, so that your substance abuse, or addictive behavior, no longer dictates your life.
“Over the last decade, addiction specialists have moved away from calling someone an ‘addict’ or an ‘alcoholic,’” Thomas explained. “We don’t want people to associate with labels that put you in a box. These labels keep you trapped. Just as a person can recover from cancer or some other chronic condition, why wouldn’t you be able to recover from an addictive tendency?”
The idea that we may be able to heal the root causes of our addictions, without embracing complete and total abstinence, flies in the face of the philosophy of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). But while Thomas supports AA (and personally credits this program with helping him find sobriety after years of struggling), he also points out that AA does not work for everyone.
Holistic Approaches to Solving Addiction
Find Your Right Tribe
As Johann Hari, a British-Swiss writer and author of “Chasing the Scream: The Search for the Truth About Addiction,” famously explored in a 2015 Ted Talk, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. “The opposite of addiction is connection,” Hari said. He pointed to a series of experiments, done in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, that confirmed this idea.
Dr. Bruce K. Alexander, now professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, built a beautiful habitat for rats: replete with colorful toys, climbing platforms, healthy food, and other rats to mate with and befriend. When his team then offered these residents of “Rat Park” the choice between plain water and morphine-laced water, the happy, socially connected rats eschewed the drug-laced drink. These rats, who were living a good life with plenty to do and lots of companions, even avoided the morphine when it was dissolved in their favorite sweet beverage.
Being socially connected is key, Thomas says. Find people who are spending their time in healthy ways. If you appreciate food, join a cooking class, and start a Thursday evening supper club. If you like to throw punches, and need an outlet for your anger, find the closest boxing gym, and start going to classes three times a week (if you can’t afford the price of membership, do a work trade). If you feel better when you’re out in nature—as nearly all of us do—seek out a local hiking group. If you love to read, join the monthly book club at your local library, or find one through your local bookstore.
This is not easy, especially if most of your connections revolve around your addiction, or if you live in a place where COVID-19 restrictions make gathering in person more difficult, or if you are shy by nature, or an introvert. You will likely feel awkward. Expect to try several activities until you find the ones that bring you the most joy.
One way to get started looking for your right tribe is to remember the things you loved as a child, and find people who are doing these activities as adults: drawing, scrapbooking, sculpting, frisbee, roller-skating, acting, in-person role-playing games, archery. If the tribe you feel the most connected to is other recovering alcoholics or drug addicts, you can regularly go to the 12-step meetings in your area (whether the 12-step philosophy resonates with you or not) and meet sober-minded friends.
An added bonus: An element common to the world’s longest-lived people is that they are part of social circles that support healthy behaviors and activities. In Okinawa, Japan, people get together in small groups (which they call “moais”) and often remain friends for life.
Smoking, drinking, and loneliness are contagious. But so is healthy living. So, when you join other people who are engaging in healthy activities, you will suffer less, engage in fewer addictive behaviors, and live a longer, healthier, more meaningful life.
Self-Medicate With Exercise
Most people who overuse drugs and alcohol, or lose themselves to gambling, video games, or food addiction, do so because they want to escape their everyday lives. Life’s anxieties can feel debilitating, the responsibilities overwhelming, and oblivion often seems like the only relief.
It’s not a bad thing to want to be anxiety-free, to take a break from the daily grind, or to want to have fun. The problem is when your escape route of choice ends up sending you into liver failure.
Try channeling your very human need for endorphins into exercising. Exercise not only floods your body with mood-boosting hormones, but it also helps you oxygenate your blood, build more muscle mass, and reset yourself when you’re angry or upset. And, unlike when you use drugs or alcohol, you won’t feel guilty or hungover after exercising. Instead, you will feel more centered and focused, better able to cope with life’s curveballs.
But how can you get yourself to exercise if you’re not in the habit? “I love tennis, but I don’t play anymore. I’ll take it up again when I’m back in shape,” a colleague once said. That kind of thinking serves only to keep you on the couch. By playing the games that you love—doing the exercises you enjoy right now—you get yourself into better shape.
Find an exercise buddy or join a group. Take a class. Start small and stay with it. Walk just one block on day one. Try walking two blocks on day two. On day three, slow jog the first block and walk three more. Baby steps count. If you used to enjoy team sports before you moved to the severe end of the addiction spectrum, it’s time to find a team. Walking soccer, ultimate frisbee, CrossFit, even bowling, are all excellent forms of exercise. A group activity has the added benefit of helping you become part of a community.
Change Your Eating Habits
Addiction often stems in part from feelings of unease. And one of the reasons so many Americans feel sluggish and anxious, is because we are eating edible food-like substances that makes us sick, instead of nutrient-dense, real foods that make us well.
We all know that a car can’t run on the wrong kind of gas, but most of us don’t realize that what we eat matters. A lot. Your body and biochemistry are made from the food you eat. If your body is starving for certain nutrients, it’s going to signal its unease. When we improve our eating habits, we have more energy and less anxiety, and we feel less compelled to turn to drugs, alcohol, and behavior addictions.
“I believe that a clean diet and eating extremely healthy, and eating only whole foods, is the hallmark of staying clean and sober: healthy body, healthy mind,” wrote Vicki Taylor, a substance abuse specialist at the Hawaii State Department of Health in Pearl City, Hawaii, in an email. “I, myself, was an addict for many years before I decided to pursue the substance abuse field, and I went on an all-raw diet in a health institute in the ‘80’s, which was my rehabilitation. That is how I became sober, and if I waver, I get depressed, and start back on a clean diet.”
Still, Taylor explained, it is very difficult to help mentally ill clients, who have substance abuse issues, make positive changes to their diets and lifestyles. “I taught a wellness class for years, purposely trying to help people with their diets, but finally gave up fighting the system. The staff were not very good examples, and they ate just as bad as the clients, and I saw very little change over the years of teaching the classes. Culture, staff, heavy medications, and people living in care homes, who were dependent on others feeding them, all worked against me being able to change my mentally ill and substance abuse clients,” Taylor admitted.
But, Thomas said, it is important to keep trying. “Lifestyle factors are the most important thing in your control,” said Thomas. “It’s simple but it’s not easy. Right? It’s simple to eat real foods and avoid sugar, saturated fats, and other inflammatory foods, but it’s not easy to implement. It feels like a drastic lifestyle change. And for some people it is. Implementing it on a consistent basis, isn’t easy. We continually find reasons not to do what we know we should be doing.”
Identify and Resolve Root Causes of Addiction
The difficulties from your childhood, your genetic predispositions, the hardships you have faced throughout your life, these are all part of what has gotten you to the discomfort and unhappiness you are experiencing today. To get to a better, healthier place, you have to do some deep thinking and excavation. You have to be open and willing to change.
People who go to Alcoholics Anonymous are told, “We are only as sick as our secrets.” To air your secrets, in order to move past them, you need someone to listen to you without judgment. Thomas recommends seeking out a wellness coach, psychologist, mentor, sponsor—or all four. Such trustworthy, grounded people can help you identify what your deep-seated and unresolved issues are. When you bring your unresolved pain to light in a way that feels safe, you can learn to let it go, and you will no longer need drugs or alcohol to dull the pain.
“Physical pain and emotional anxiety are two of the biggest underlying issues that lead people to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol,” noted Thomas. “Find the root causes, both emotional and physical, and you’ll no longer need to self-medicate with addictive behavior or substance abuse.” For many people, that root cause is a traumatic experience that was never fully acknowledged or resolved. Seeking support and taking the time to deal with this trauma—whether it be abuse, a lost loved one, or a personal tragedy—can transform a person.
Nicky stopped shooting heroin. She told me she will never go back. As hard as it can be, don’t lose hope, for yourself or for anyone else. There is always a way out. You can and will find your path to freedom.
Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is an award-winning science journalist based in Oregon and coauthor, with Paul Thomas, M.D. of “The Addiction Spectrum: A Compassionate, Holistic Approach to Recovery.” Learn more at www.JenniferMargulis.net.