6 Alternate Coping Mechanisms for When You're Not Drinking

By: Nicole Slaughter Graham, Staff Writer

Making a conscious decision to put down alcohol is a big deal. We live in a culture that pushes alcohol as the solution for everything from coping to parenthood to dealing with our mental health, even though it’s been well-documented that reliance on alcohol actually causes more harm than good. 

If you’ve used alcohol to cope with any number of difficult life circumstances in the past, you may be wondering what to do when you quit drinking. Calming methods and rituals like deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and mindfulness have long been touted as great ways to cope with the tough situations and emotions that we experience—and rightly so. These options work well to calm the nervous system and bring a little inner peace. 

That said, they’re not the only options when it comes to coping with hard circumstances.

“It is vitally important to have multiple tools,” says Rachel Michaelson, self-healing specialist and mindset coach at Brighter Horizons NE. The main reason is so you don’t get bored. If you constantly do just one thing, it will become more like a chore and you will stop doing it. 

She continues, “You also don’t know which (tool) will benefit and which won’t. What works now may not work in a couple of weeks. Or, what works for one issue might not work for another, so having multiple coping strategies means you can pretty much cover everything.”

Likewise, if you hate the idea of meditation, it’s likely not going to work for you. Coping mechanisms are activities and practices that help you get through hard times, so they need to be accessible to you. If, at this stage in your recovery, things like yoga and meditation sound like a huge stretch for you, then you won’t use them as tools. 

“People should tailor their coping skills to what they personally enjoy doing—I have had clients use art, music, gardening, singing, and dancing for coping skills,” says Dr. Katelyn Baker, Psy.D, a therapist at mental wellness startup, DiveThru. “It depends on what the person's unique interests are and what brings them joy.”

It’s important, therefore, to have many tools in your toolbox when it comes to coping with life sans alcohol. Definitely give the aforementioned ways a solid try, but keep in mind that there are many options. Here, we’ll explore those lesser-known tools and rituals to help you deal when things get hard.

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Talk it Out

Talking to trusted friends, colleagues, and family members can be incredibly helpful. When we keep things to ourselves, we can feel alone or isolated, and talking might be the remedy. Doing so involves some vulnerability, which can be hard for those of us in recovery. 

That’s why it’s so important to choose someone trusted. 

“People find that when they speak up and share their feelings, others also admit to feeling the same way,” says neuro-linguistic programming therapist Rebecca Lockwood. 

You’re not necessarily talking about what’s going on for advice or help, but rather to be heard. Feeling connected and heard makes us feel happier, safer, and more at ease, and when we feel supported, tough situations feel a bit easier to handle. If you are having an especially hard time, it can be beneficial to reach out to a mental healthcare professional who can help guide you.

Write About It

Getting your emotions out on paper is a great way to ease some of the tension that comes with difficult emotions or circumstances. 

University of Texas, Austin, psychology professor Dr. James W. Pennebaker has been conducting research on how writing correlates to mental health outcomes. His studies have shown that writing is a powerful tool in helping us get through difficult times.

From dealing with past traumas to a difficult and unexpected life event, Pennebaker’s studies conclude that writing has been documented to help people get through the tough times, process emotions, and move past things they might not have been able to otherwise. 

You don’t have to have a fancy journal—though we’re here for it if you do—to get started. You can simply brain dump on a piece of paper and then burn it, shred it, or ball it up and throw it away if you’d like. 

In order to make writing one of your go-to coping mechanisms, consider adding it to your morning or evening ritual.

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Go for a Walk

Inside or outside, a walk can really help improve how you are feeling. According to WebMD, just 10 minutes can make a huge difference. 

Walking, the site states, strengthens your cardiovascular system, thus improving heart health, and it gets your blood pumping, which is great for both your body and your brain.

“It has a positive influence on your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which is your central nervous response system," the article states. “This is good because the HPA axis is responsible for your stress response. When you exercise by walking, you calm your nerves, which can make you feel less stressed.”

An important consideration: walking is best for mental health when done with consistency. See if you can add 10-15 minute intervals into your day in the morning and at lunchtime, or, make the walk your sacred time where you turn off all notifications and just listen to the sound of your feet on the ground. 

Take an Emotional Break

Dealing with tough situations or people is draining. It all takes a mental toll, which is why many of us drank in the first place—to find relief. 

And that ideology isn’t exactly wrong. Sometimes, you just need a break from the hard thing, and that’s okay. In fact, taking a break is actually useful. 

“At the core, coping skills are anything that helps you get through tough mental moments,” says Baker. “Coping skills work as distraction methods, helping slow down the brain so it can process.”

So long as you’re simply taking a break and not avoiding how you feel about the hard things, letting go of the emotional whirlwind for a bit is perfectly healthy. Some great options to get you outside your stressors and into some fun include:

  • Listening and/or dancing to your favorite music
  • Playing video games
  • Watching a show or movie on your favorite streaming service
  • Coloring
  • Reading 

Get Enough Sleep

Getting enough sleep is another highly underrated method for dealing with what life hands you. Everything from memory to creativity to how well an NBA player shoots during a game is affected by sleep, according to Dr. Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep. 

How we cope with life when we’re faced with difficult circumstances is also affected by whether or not we’re getting enough sleep. In one of Walker’s studies, he concluded that participants who were sleep-deprived “showed well over a 60 percent amplification in emotional reactivity” than those who received adequate sleep when they were presented with emotionally negative photos. In short, getting enough sleep can greatly improve your ability to cope when life is hard. 

Adjusting to a sleep routine without alcohol can take a little bit of trial and error, but stick with it! Your quality of sleep actually improves when you stop drinking, so over time you’ll notice that you’re more well-rested. A few pro tips for getting better sleep include:

  • Cut off your caffeine earlier in the day
  • Eat at regular intervals during the day
  • Stop looking at all screens an hour before bed
  • Try a simple breathing exercise after getting in bed

Scream

No really. Whether it’s into a pillow or up at the sky, tap into your primal nature and scream it out. 

This, says Michaelson, is one of the easiest and most accessible ways to deal when life seems overwhelming. 

When you’re dealing with hard circumstances or trying personalities, difficult emotions like anxiety, anger, guilt, and overwhelm can build up in the body, and they need to be released. “A good ole scream is a great way to physically move the intensity of the feelings out of the body,” says Manhattan psychotherapist, Avi Klein for Pop Science

Will screaming solve your problems? No, but it might release enough tension from your body to allow you to think more clearly or at least inhale deeply. 

* * *

The good news? You can cope with life without alcohol, even when things are difficult. Luckily, there are many accessible ways to do so. The thing to keep in mind is that whatever coping mechanisms and rituals you decide to use, make sure they work for you. And don’t be afraid to try out different things. 

It’s hard at first, but a life without alcohol—even the trying times—can be really beautiful, so long as you have the right tools in your corner. 

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About the Author: Nicole Slaughter Graham is a Florida-based freelance journalist and editor, and Tempest's Contributing Editor & Writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Cosmopolitan, The Washington Post, and Shondaland. She’s an unapologetic book nerd and a yogi wannabe. You’ll likely find her with her two sons and husband, on a beach, or on her yoga mat. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.

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