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10 Tips for Staying Sober During Difficult Times

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Self-care is critically important, especially in early recovery. Here are some methods to stay balanced, for 12 steppers and non-12 steppers alike.

My 2016 had a rocky start. It was all relatively manageable stuff — tremors, instead of earthquakes — but for a recovering alcoholic, the smallest of shakes can sometimes feel off the Richter scale.

I came down with a nasty, two-week flu, which left me feeling behind on work. That led to me feeling grumpy and stressed about my financial situation, which led me to being grumpy with my family and friends, and soon, I was looking at everything with anxious and hopeless eyes.

Fortunately, this isn’t uncharted territory for me and I have some tools to help pull me out of a downward spiral.

1. Be Happy for Others

“I have been sober for 90 days and I’ve loved every minute of it!” Do not punch the person who said this in the face. Perhaps you had this feeling and lost it — perhaps you never did. As much as you or I might resent such grinning residents of that pink cloud, try to see them for what they truly represent: possibility.

We are all recovering from the same insidious disease — condition, ailment, whatever you want to call it — it’s amazing any of us, at the bare minimum, made it out alive. When anyone suffering from this addiction manages to wrest something like happiness out of the detritus, it’s cause for celebration, and even gratitude. It’s a reminder of the kind of life that’s out there for us — sometimes it happens at 90 days, sometimes it takes a little longer, but those irritating Pollyannas are a symbol of hope for us all.

2. Get Outside and Get Moving

I’m terrible at taking my own advice on this, but I would be a much happier person if I did. In study after study, science has proven the effects of exercise on mood. I’m pretty sure even climate change deniers admit that 30 minutes of exercise a day can transform one’s outlook on life (denying climate change also probably improves one’s outlook on life but those who do so are in for a rude awakening down the road).

Perhaps Elle Woods said it best in Legally Blonde, ”Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people don’t kill their husbands.”

Having a dog really helps in this endeavor, and is probably the only reason I ever breathe fresh air. Plus, it’s extremely hard to be depressed when you are being kiss-attacked by a puppy.


While the 12 steps might not work for everyone, there are a few adages that are irrefutably sound. One of these is HALT. When you’re feeling crappy, ask yourself if you are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, and/or Tired. Whether you’re having a bad day or struggling with clinical depression, learning to HALT and take stock of the situation is one of the fundamentals of self-care.

When things are really rough, I usually find that I haven’t HALTed in ages. I’m Hungry, Angry, Lonely and Tired, and by the time I’ve dealt with all that, I’m Hungry again. HALTing won’t solve all your problems, but it will make you as well-equipped as possible to deal with those problems.

4. Lists

I love lists. Lists of things you can do something about, lists of things you can’t, lists of things you can do about the things you can’t do anything about — and so on. I’m a firm believer in writing to relieve anxiety, but it can also be a direct way to tackle problems. This will be familiar to those who have gone through the 12 steps, but it can be practiced in a distinctly non 12-step way.

In Feeling Good, David Burns outlines a way to examine and write through negative emotions. The tools he outlines are common in cognitive behavioral therapy and offer a framework for examining what is often seemingly impossible to objectively analyze: our own thoughts and feelings. There are a variety of worksheets and other tools to help with this on the Internet but, even though Feeling Good is an older book, it’s one I like a lot.

You can find a summary of the cognitive distortions and how to work through them on paper here. Although it’s specified for depression, it’s appropriate for everyone who feels like their emotions are a roller coaster and they are just hanging on for the ride.

5. Take a Load Off

Often, when I feel like I can’t keep everything together, it’s because I am trying to do too much, too fast, too often. Even though what I’m trying to do is more productive (work) than it was before I got sober (drinking), it’s still a struggle to realize that I am, sadly, human.

While more self-indulgent than HALT, which ensures you’re meeting basic needs, taking a load off is giving yourself permission to stop trying to manage all the different aspects of your life and just…enjoy. Marathon old episodes of Parks and Rec, get your favorite takeout, rewatch The American President for the 89th time (It’s just me? Okay, then) or pick up a book. We are constantly surrounded by a million different forms of entertainment, but it can be hard to slow down long enough to actually enjoy any of it. An evening of guilty pleasure TV or a mystery novel isn’t going to throw your life off balance. In fact, it may be just the thing you need to tip your emotional scales back towards the center.

For more tips to stay sober when life seems to be falling apart, visit the original feature article, 10 Ways to Stay Sober When Everything’s Falling Apart, over at The Fix.

10 Tips for Staying Sober During Difficult Times

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APA Reference
Guest Author, P. (2018). 10 Tips for Staying Sober During Difficult Times. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 2 Apr 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.