Fear is normal at every stage of recovery. Everyone enters rehab with some trepidation, even if they’ve been in and out of treatment for years. Likewise, most people leave rehab full of worry. What will happen when they leave the one place they know they can stay sober? How will they cope when the feelings they’ve been medicating come flooding back?
When you think about how the average person responds to a horror movie or passing a traffic accident, it is clear that, in some cases, fear actually draws us in rather than repelling us. Fear makes us alert to danger; it helps guide our decision-making process. But too much fear can be paralyzing in life and, in addiction recovery, can be a precursor to relapse. Here are some of the fears common among people in recovery, along with suggestions for facing them:
#1 Fear of Sobriety
Getting sober means replacing your primary coping mechanism – drugs and alcohol – with new, unfamiliar ones. The process can be uncomfortable, particularly for someone who is afraid of feeling in general. Will all of the hard work be worth it? Will sobriety be boring, sustainable? Staying stuck in this fear generally means staying stuck in addiction.
What to Do: Nelson Mandela said, “The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.” Rather than running from it, feel the fear and then take one step forward anyway – go to rehab, meet with a therapist or attend a support group where other people in recovery share their success stories. Once you try it, you may find that sobriety is not as scary as you once thought.
#2 Fear of Failure
Whether you have one day sober or 10 years, recovery presents challenges. There are times when you’ll doubt yourself and get pushed outside of your comfort zone. There are times when you will fall short of a goal. At this point, you can either conclude that you don’t deserve it or have what it takes, or you can try again.
What to Do: Many addicts are perfectionists who have difficulty accepting mistakes and taking strategic risks. True, about half of recovering addicts relapse at some point. But the other half doesn’t, and if you relapse and learn from it, you haven’t failed at all. Others have succeeded in spite of fear, and so can you. According to the Partnership at Drugfree.org, more than 23 million people in the U.S. have recovered from drug and alcohol problems.
#3 Fear of Success
The flipside of the fear of failure is the fear of success. Most people don’t consciously self-sabotage, but they have a deeply held belief that they don’t deserve to succeed and, in so believing, never really put forth their best effort. Feeling doomed from the start, many allow self-doubt and fears of what others think to keep them from trying.
What to Do: Fear is an emotion that is based on something we cannot control: the future. Instead of fretting over what might be, practice being mindful of the present. Feel the fear and breathe through it without resisting it or trying to change it – and then notice how the fear begins to dissipate.
#4 Fear of Rejection
Worried that they may be abandoned by the people they love or judged by others, some people refuse to admit that they have a drug problem or reach out to others for support. Yet without taking these steps, there can be no recovery.
What to Do: Fear of rejection can be overcome by pushing yourself to work a recovery program even when you don’t want to. Attend sober social gatherings, lean on family members and talk to people at support group meetings. Research shows that the simple act of putting your fears into words taps into the parts of the brain responsible for logic and emotional regulation, decreasing fear and anxiety.
#5 Fear of Losing Your Identity
After months or years of being fixated on drugs and alcohol, who are you if you aren’t an addict? What are your hopes, desires and values? These are some of the most difficult questions in recovery, and the answers may change over time.
What to Do: In recovery, you have a unique opportunity to redefine yourself. Spend some time thinking back to who you were before you started using drugs and revisit old interests. Also try something new, such as volunteering or taking a class, so you have a chance to develop new passions. Each of these steps will not only help you maintain your sobriety, but also move you closer to the ultimate goal of figuring out who you are.
#6 Fear of Perpetual Misery
Lurking in the minds of most recovering addicts is the question: What if I do the hard work of recovery and am still miserable? After drugs flood the brain with dopamine, some people find it difficult to feel pleasure from normally enjoyable activities. Others get clean and sober only to find that they still feel angry and depressed. Also known as “dry drunk,” these individuals erroneously believe that getting sober is where the hard work ends.
What to Do: Some of the damage inflicted by prolonged drug use will be repaired the longer you stay sober. Just as important as stopping the use of all mood-altering substances is actively engaging in a program of recovery. Only by investing in yourself and your relationships can life in recovery be truly joyful.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. He is CEO of Elements Behavioral Health, a network of mental health and addiction treatment centers that includes Promises, The Ranch, The Recovery Place, The Sexual Recovery Institute, Right Step, Clarity Way, Journey Healing Centers and Lucida Treatment Center.
About David Sack, M.D.
Dr. David Sack is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry and addiction medicine. As CMO of Elements Behavioral Health, he oversees treatment programs for sex addiction and drug addiction at The Ranch in Tennessee and The Right Step in Dallas.