A few months before my second attempt at sobriety, I was in a 1:1 meeting at work with Doctor Vegan. We were catching up, I was explaining that I was drinking again, and that this time I was consciously trying to employ other coping skills. I told him I had an alarm on my phone that went off every few hours to give me a positive affirmation mantra, was carrying around various herbal teas, and had a growing collection of guided meditations in my iTunes. He explained what I was doing was creating a coping mechanism Toolbox—a collection of items that I could turn to instead of alcohol—and suggested that I take it a step further and come up with a list of ten things that worked for me and stick the list in my wallet.
Me being me, I took it five steps further. I started a Toolbox spreadsheet to serve as my database of Toolbox items, replete with categories (cravings, stress, anger, exhaustion, PMS, depression, etc.). I printed out a list of my top ten tools and taped copies to my full-length mirror, my TV, above my kitchen sink, and my work bulletin board. I started purchasing physical items that would serve as tools, and bought a special little leather pouch to hold said tools. I went toolbox wild! and made it my mission to become the MacGyver of my own impending dooms. And it worked.
What is a Sobriety Toolbox and How Does it Work?
A tool is anything that we use as a coping mechanism or use to shift/relieve our current state. Tools can be unhealthy (e.g., alcohol, drugs, sugar) or tools can be healthy (e.g., breathing, meditation, herbal tea).
Most of us are not taught how to manage our bodies, emotions, states, discomforts, and feelings, and we end up turning to what is available to us—what we have learned will achieve the desired effect or release or relief. In 2012, my tools were food (overeating/purging), American Spirits, pot, alcohol, coffee, sugar, explosive rage, codependent relationships, work, yoga, Netflix binging, online shopping, gossiping/talking shit, Us magazine, any Bravo show, hysterical crying, and long runs. These tools were what I turned to if I needed balance out/couldn't deal/needed to feel/etc., and however destructive some of them were, they got the job done.
I was long on the unhealthy coping mechanisms and tools, and short on the healthy ones. What I started to do back in late 2012 was switch out the mix. I didn't eliminate all the unhealthy coping mechanisms right away, but I began to binge on the good ones. I went nuts finding them and collecting them.
When the alcohol was finally removed from my toolbox in April 2013, there was plenty to fill the void—including some unhealthy tools I wasn't ready to leave behind (like pot, you can read here on how I broke the pot addiction). The idea was to add in more healthy tools as I removed the unhealthy ones, and over time, I came to rely on the healthy tools entirely (mostly entirely). Please note, I quit one thing at a time because that worked for me.
Today, my toolbox consists of breath techniques, hot lemon water, herbal tea, hot baths, coffee, essential oils, yoga, meditation, Kundalini music, Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR), massage, French pastry, Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT), and many other things.
Who Can Benefit from a Toolbox?
Whether you are thinking about sobriety, are in the early stages of it, or are well into it, you can benefit from having a Toolbox. Actually, if you are human you can benefit from a Toolbox.
If you are still drinking/drugging/whatevering, you can start incorporating these things NOW. By doing this, you effectively soften the blow when you remove the harmful substance. Adding in healthy coping tools before the quit creates new habits, new synapses in the brain, new circuitry. You effectively train yourself to seek the healthy coping mechanism/tool, and as you move through quitting the bad stuff, your body has learned other ways to self-soothe/balance/cope.
If you are in the early stages of ditching the booze, now is an AMAZING time to start finding new release valves. Doing so can make the intolerable, tolerable, and increase your chances of not using the thing you are trying not to use.
If you are well into your sobriety OR just human, a Toolbox can help you both to become expert at understanding your states (to find the right tool, you generally have to dig into what is really going on/what is present), and an expert at self-management. My Toolbox has evolved as my recovery has, and it now helps me deal with things beyond cravings, like depression and heartbreak and basically, life. Everyone no matter where they are at can benefit from having a Toolbox.
How to Make a Toolbox.
1. Create a shortlist of go-to tools. Pick ten tools that work for you—your favorites—and write them on a slip of paper and keep it with you. If you're an overachiever you can categorize this list, or you can even type it up, print it out, and stick it in different places. KEEP IT SHORT! You do not want to be sitting there with too many options when you are freaking the fuck out. Find ten, stick with ten, refer to the list of ten when you need something, pick one of the ten, and then do it.
2. Create a physical toolbox. I have this cute little green leather pouch that I carry with me. It has essential oils, teas, lotions, a soothing eye roller, a rosary, a rock my friend gave me. It's not dissimilar to the Hello Kitty purse I carried when I was five.
Here are some of my favorite things to get you started. I have split them up by category, so some may appear twice. Note, some of these things you can do at your desk, others you will need to find a private space (like a bathroom stall or closet or empty room), and some you can do in your car, etc. You'll have to try them to understand how to best fit them into your life.
Use these when looking to calm/relieve anxiety/promote balance/break up stress.
Long Deep Breathing. This is the tool that I used so much, I now do it throughout the day without even thinking about it. You can do Long Deep Breaths to bring an immediate sense of calm. Set a phone timer for 3 to 5 minutes, or do ten Long Deep Breaths in a row.
Breath of Fire. I use this tool almost daily as well (I actually used it as I was writing this sentence). Breath of Fire is a somewhat challenging breath technique that is slightly uncomfortable at first, but the reward at the end is worth it—it packs a big punch. You can use it to calm yourself, to move out of a reactive state, or to move out of a craving state. There is NOTHING I have found that is more powerful than this practice; it floods your body with fresh oxygen and it never fails me how powerful that is. Set a timer for 3 to 5 minutes and practice it, or count to 108.
Caliber of Life Meditation. This is my go to when I am feeling anxious or in panic. It is what effectively broke me out of panic attacks. Set a phone timer for 3 minutes, and build up to 5. Unlike Breath of Fire or Long Deep Breaths, you can't really practice this out in public, so find a private space.
Left Nostril Breathing. You can watch the tutorial on how to do this breath technique, but the basic idea is to close off your right nostril and breathe through the left nostril for a period of time, doing Long Deep Breaths. Breathing through the left nostril allows you to tap into your ida nadi, or your cool/feminine/shakti/creative side. It brings a sense of calmness. It's good when you need a more sedative breath. Set a phone timer to breath through the left nostril for 3 minutes, or do 10 Long Deep Breaths through the left nostril.
Tattva Balancer Meditation. This meditation brings a deep sense of mental clarity, a sense of balance, and is great at relieving stress. I've used this when I'm in extremely uncomfortable situations. It's a LIFE SAVER. Learn the practice by watching the linked tutorial above, or this YogaGlo video, and cut the time down to 3 minutes.
Kava Tea. This is one of my favorite go-tos for calming me down immediately. I keep bags on me and pull them out when I'm feeling over-caffeinated, or too amped up. They live in my little green bag. You can also try Yogi Bedtime Tea, which has valerian root (this knocks me out). Other favorite teas of mine for calming are Tulsi Sweet Rose, peppermint (Trader Joes has my favorite), and I Love Lemon! herbal blend.
Bonus, Kava tea comes with a fortune.
Lavender Essential Oil. Essential oil is one of my go-to tools to bring me back to center (these things also live in my green bag), and lavender is by far my favorite. My other favorites for calming effect include doTerra Breathe, doTerra Clary Calm, and NOW brand eucalyptus. Put a few drops on your palms, rub your palms together, cup your nose, and inhale deeply. Immediate relief.
Hot baths! Okay so this is not something you can carry around with you or access at all times, but if there is a bath available and I need to calm down, you better believe I will find a way to get in it. In the early part of recovery, I spent the better part of my life in the bath. I'd throw a few cups of Epsom salts (detoxifying!), some drops of essential oil, turn on some new age/spa music (here is my favorite mix), grab some tea, and melt away. I can't recommend this more.
ASMR. One of my clients told me about ASMR videos on YouTube. She was using them to relax and get the same instant melty feeling she got from alcohol, and she told me "it's weird and it doesn't work for everyone but check it." So I took a spin through YouTube, and I was hooked.. I now listen to these videos throughout the day when I am uncomfortable/need to bring it down/over-caffeinated/wound up.. If you want to try it out, just go to YouTube and search for ASMR and you'll find thousands to choose from.
The Original. If you liked Bob Ross, chances are you'll dig ASMR.
To Release Anger.
Use these to release anger or a highly charged emotion.
Pigeon Pose or other hip opening yoga exercises allow for you to release held emotions. If you practice yoga, get yourself into Pigeon Pose and imagine as you are doing it that the charge is draining out through the hips into the ground. Bonus, if you can, press your third eye (place between your eyebrows) into the ground, your fists, or a block as you bend forward to activate a sedative response.
Screaming. Do not underestimate the power of screaming your fucking face off. I scream into pillows, while driving, in the closet, in the bathroom, or basically any time I need to and can get away with it. It is the fastest way to open the release valve and let anger or frustration out.
Anger meditation. This is a short, 3 minute Kundalini meditation that I use when I want to fork someone's eyes out. This is another one you can't do just anywhere—you need to be able to expand your arms out—but it's effective.
To Feel Grounded.
Use these to feel grounded or supported. For instance, if you feel like you are untethered, or feel like you are alone, or feel like you want five thousand kittens to lay on top of you. These tools are also good for "collecting your energy" when you feel pulled in different directions.
Hot water with lemon. While hot water with lemon does 9,796 magical things for you, the most important use I've found is that it tends to give me a sense of deep comfort and helps me feel connected, nourished. I've also found that if I look hard enough, I can find it almost anywhere.
Suni(a) Meditation. I love this meditation more than words can explain. It's a Kundalini meditation, and you start by drinking a glass of water, and then proceed to hug yourself Mary Katherine Gallagher style, while doing a specific breath pattern. I tend to use this when I feel raw or unsupported. It works every time.
Grounding Meditation. This is a great guided meditation I got from my psychic Leon LeGant (recorded in my voice). This is perfect for you to use when you feel like your ungrounded/untethered/hurtling through space, when you feel like you've handed your power over to someone and would like to collect it back, when you feel scattered, when you feel like your light could shine a little brighter. It's about ten minutes long.
Green Juice. It seems obvious, but it's not. One of the quickest ways for me to feel grounded and supported is to support my health by downing a green juice. Look for something without fruit in it. My favorite is fennel, celery, beet, lemon, kale. But really any non-sugary juice will do.
To Move Cold Depression.
While my best tool at moving cold depression is to allow it to hang out (discussed in our HOME podcast 13), there are some go to things I do to help move it along.
Dance your ass off. When I feel cold dread, one of the first things I try is dancing my ass off. It's not pretty, I look like one of the thriller dancers at first, and I have to make myself do it. But 5 minutes of dancing like a freak to good music makes me feel happier. Here is the mix i use.
One month sober, shaking my ass.
Citrus Aromatherapy. I inhale a lot of citrus when I'm feeling down. My favorite essential oils are doTerra grapefruit oil and doTerra lemon oil, and my favorite spays are by Frankie & Myrrh, Hippie Go Lucky or Hello Sunshine. I drop a few drops of essential oils on my palms, rub them together, and inhale, or I simply spray the Frankie & Myrrh potions on my face/body/environment.
Sing! Singing is another way I've found to lift me up quickly. My go-tos are You're Just In Love by Kay Starr , and I love chanting the Mul Mantra by Snatam Kaur (Kundalini (Sikh) chant, words are here).
Fro-Yo. Sometimes, I just need a treat, and Fro-Yo tends to be my cure-all. Maybe Pinkberry isn't your thing, but if you need comfort, there is nothing wrong with using food. If that feels like a dangerous sentiment to you, I urge you to get familiar with Isabelle Foxenduke, her take on emotional eating is wonderful. . Anyway. A big cookie, a pumpkin latte, an ice cream cone, a cheeseburger. Whatever. Remember, you’re in recovery from drinking alcohol, and that is a big, huge, freaking deal. Do whatever it takes to take care of you.
Amy Cuddy Power Poses. I wasn't really sure where to fit this one in, but sometimes when I'm feeling like a little sucky shrinking thing, I try on one of Amy Cuddy's Power Poses. Check out her TED Talk, and then try one on yourself. It will not cure depression, but it for sure gives you a spike in feeling your power.
Use these tools to bust through a craving for something you have either quit or are trying to quit.
Breath of Fire. See above for details on breath of fire; it is SO GOOD for cravings.
Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). I've been using EFT (tapping) since 2009, when one of my doctors introduced me to it. For years it didn't really make sense to me, and then in early 2014 at a Gabby Bernstein event,when I was quitting pot and cigarettes, I finally learned how big of a deal it is and how easy it is to use on yourself. EFT is a combination of acupressure and neural repatterning talk and it's meant to move trauma or stuck energy out of your body (I tend to yawn after I do it). I've used it to release old stories and traumas, and have more importantly used it in real time to move me out of a state or an anger or an anxiety. For instance, I used it on the train on my way to give my first talk on addiction, I used it when I wanted to quit smoking cigarettes and pot, and I most recently used it when I was hanging on to a negative comment and some anger surrounding it. Here is a great video that you can use to bust through cravings by Gabby Bernstein. It focuses on sugar, but I've actually taken this same script and changed it to accommodate things like smoking tobacco and pot. I have taken a few courses on it, you can start looking into it by checking out Nick Ortner's book, The Tapping Solution.
Stop Defeating Thoughts.
Use these tools to stop you from shame-spiraling or going to crazy town.
People. I have a short list of people I know can pull me back to center. They are people I trust, that understand where I am at, know what I am going through, and are able to get through to me when I'm going down the rabbit hole. I've used coaches (paid) and a handful of friends (unpaid). You can search out a life coach, find a sponsor through AA, use our program to find a support network, or rely on a few trusted souls in your existing network. Note I'm not talking about therapy, I'm simply talking about keeping handy a list of people who can help you see the light, and quickly.
Mantras and words. My house is a post-it museum, my Instagram feed is a never-ending self-help book, my phone vibrates on the hour with a mantra, and I own various iPhone apps that drop some dharma once a day (Spirit Junkie App, #TruthBombs). Basically, my life is a motivational quote. And for good reason: words work. And they work well. At halting our behavior, at raising our spirits, at changing the story, at reminding us the truth, at pulling us up. I recommend starting a collection of words that speak to you in some document, and writing ones that really move you on post-it notes and keeping them in your face. When you're in a spin, go through the document/open the book/look at the post-it. It works. You can also this forty-day mantra program I co-created with Tammi Salas.
The apartment I got sober in, which was a Post-it museum.
Any of the exercises above. When you are going down the path of throwing a raging self-hating-world-is-ending-I'm-fucked-forever pity party, literally ALL of the exercises above will apply. Terrifying thoughts can be interrupted with meditation, screaming, Yogi tea, Fro-Yo, or a mantra.