8 Tools for Managing Stress and Anxiety Without Alcohol

By: Nicole Slaughter Graham, Staff Writer

It wasn’t until I was about 10 years sober that I was diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, and social anxiety

Yep. The trifecta. 

With 10 years in recovery, I really thought I had a handle on things. I’d been able to put the pieces of my life back together pretty quickly in recovery. I worked full-time, went back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree, and then obtained a master’s degree after that. I’m an active and present mom for my two boys and made sure to put time and effort into my relationship with my husband. I put my recovery first and have worked hard to build a support system

I thought I had it figured out. The one thing that I wasn’t addressing though, was my mental health. So years into recovery, the panic attacks started again. I had panic attacks when I was a child—they started at around six years old and were a result of a traumatic upbringing, but I’d never had one as an adult. Until I did. On top of that, an eating disorder manifested, though in truth, I’m now coming to understand that it’s been there all along, I just didn’t realize it. 

But you don’t have to be diagnosed with anything to experience stress and anxiety. These two things are a part of just about everyone’s reality. Many of us turned to alcohol to manage our stress and to quell our anxiety. I know I did. Now that you’ve decided to re-evaluate and change your relationship with alcohol, you might find that the effects of stress and anxiety are magnified. You might be looking for a healthy way to deal. 

I’ve been lucky enough to run across some really effective tools for managing stress and anxiety without alcohol. There’s also a ton of research on effective methods I’ve not yet tried. Here we’ll explore a well-stocked sampling of tools to consider.

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Breathing Exercises

It might sound a little hoaky at first, but deep breathing, according to the University of Michigan, is actually one of the most effective ways to reduce stress. 

Everything we do and think sends signals to the brain, and deep breathing is no exception. When we really focus on our breathing and take intentional, deep breaths, our brains receive a memo that all is well. Our physical symptoms of stress—fast heartbeat, sweaty palms, jitters—start to calm as a result, and then our mind can follow. 

There are simple breathing exercises and some that are more advanced. Give deep belly breathing a try first, and then experiment with more advanced options. 

Dance it Out

“When was the last time you danced it out?” 

That was a recent question my therapist asked me. At first, I just stared at her for a long time.

I know that at one time, I used to turn my music up as far as my ears could handle, both at home and in the car. I’d belt out my favorite songs while moving my body to the beat.

I couldn’t remember the last time I actually did that though. She suggested I try it that day, so I did. It felt weird at first. I was embarrassed even though there was no one home but me. I kept going though, and it didn’t take long for me to get back into it. 

Dancing makes the body feel good (once we get out of our heads and let our thoughts go) and when the body feels good from physical activity, endorphins are released, which make us feel better. Dancing is also an emotional and creative outlet, both of which help alleviate stress and anxiety. 

Get Into Your Senses

An effective and accessible way to calm anxiety or stress is known as the 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique, which is all about using your five senses. The University of Rochester Medical Center advises that before you try this method, it's important to take a moment to ground yourself through some deep, intentional breathing.

Once you feel like you can focus on your senses, it’s time to get started. Look around you and identify five things you can see. Then, identify and touch four things around you. It might be useful to come up with a couple of words that describe how the thing that you’re touching feels. Next, identify three things you can hear. Keep this up until you’ve used all five senses. 

This method of getting into your senses puts you into the present moment. Much of the time, anxiety and stress are rooted in planning and projecting (the future) or ruminating and reminiscing (the past).

Self-Expression and Creativity

Living without alcohol gives us the opportunity to get back in touch with who we were before drinking took over. We learn new ways—or reacquaint ourselves with cherished old ways—to express ourselves and get in touch with our creative sides. 

Several studies, says Cathy Malchiodi, Ph.D., is a psychologist, expressive arts therapist, trauma specialist, now point to the incredible benefits of creativity on our mental health. 

“Most of these studies concur that participation and/or engagement in the arts have a variety of outcomes including a decrease in depressive symptoms, an increase in positive emotions, reduction in stress responses, and, in some cases, even improvements in immune system functioning,” Malchiodi wrote for Psychology Today.

As a writer, poet, artist, and ceramicist, I can attest to the power of art when it comes to helping alleviate the symptoms of stress and anxiety. I’m most definitely out of practice with some of these mediums, but when I’m able to put my perfectionism and ego aside and just do art for the sake of it, the effect is pretty special. 

Even if you’ve never embarked on a creative endeavor in your life, it might be worth a try. Look online for a local pottery, painting, writing, or music class. You can also check for an online class or visit a local gallery or museum, live music sesh, or orchestra for inspiration.  

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Essential Oils

Lavender, rose oil, and clary sage are just a few of the many essential oils used in aromatherapy, ingested, and applied to the skin to help lessen the symptoms of stress and anxiety. 

Though aromatherapy was once a remedy used only by those who leaned left of woo-woo, essential oils have found some mainstream traction and science is backing it up. 

Interviewed by Cleveland Clinic, integrative medicine specialist Yufang Lin, MD says that when used properly, essential oils are a powerful tool in uplifting your mood.

“As you breathe in, the oil’s aroma immediately stimulates your central nervous system, triggering an emotional response,” explains Dr. Lin. “It can reduce anxiety and stress response quickly,” she told the nonprofit medical center. 

Essential oils can be used through aromatherapy, ingestion, or as a topical aid. But, Lin says, it’s important to use them properly to maximize effectiveness. She suggests not using them everyday, making sure to dilute them, and making sure you understand the risks of each oil, especially if ingesting or using them on the skin. 

Roll the Windows Down

If you’re in the car and have the opportunity, roll the windows down to feel the wind on your face. The sensation of the wind whipping against your body puts you back into the moment, much like the 5-4-3-2-1 Coping Technique, which can help you detach from whatever it is causing the stress and anxiety. 

For added effect, turn the volume up on one of your favorite songs and belt it out. You might even try doing so with a smile on your face, which is actually scientifically proven to improve your mood. 

Positive Affirmations

In the past, you’ve likely heard and seen sayings like “Good Vibes Only” and “Dream Believe Achieve” emblazoned on everything from coffee mugs to t-shirts. 

While these statements as they are written have some serious issues (we’re not here for the toxic positivity), there is something to be said for positive thinking. Affirmations really do work when they’re used the way they were intended. (At Tempest, we send daily affirmations to our members to encourage them to shift their perspective and break old thinking patterns.)

For those who might be a little skeptical (me), science swoops in to support the usefulness of affirmations. Our brains have an incredible capacity for adaptation, known as neuroplasticity, which means we can train it. Think about it: anytime you change or create a new habit, you’re retraining your brain. So that new workout routine you’ve stuck with for the last six months? You’ve retrained your brain. Getting up 30 minutes earlier to commit to a morning routine? Yep, you’ve retrained your brain. 

The brain can also be trained for a more positive outlook, which is where affirmations come in. If you can visualize yourself doing well at something or overcoming a fear, Healthline reports, actually tricks your brain into thinking you’ve already done well at that thing or overcome that fear.

The trick though, is to take regular and consistent action. The brain isn’t rewired overnight. If you want to, say, stay calm in the middle of a chaotic moment, you might say to yourself, “I am safe and in this moment I find peace.”

Take a Nature Break

Nature really does have healing powers, and sometimes, all we need is a walk around the block or half an hour planted on our butts in front of some waves to feel a little more connected to what’s around us. 

Even if you live in a city, finding nature is possible. One of my college professors did an exercise with us to help us see just how close nature is at all times. Our college campus was really close to a major six-lane highway. Not exactly a natural wonder. She led us down the sidewalk toward and she stopped at a retention pond that separated the highway from the school grounds. We all stood in front of this pond and she told us to just observe. 

At first, most of us saw nothing but the water and the cars racing by on the roadway, but the longer we stood, the more we saw. A crane swooped down and landed on the other side of the pond. A few dragonflies flew past. Tiny yellow flowers grew at the edge of the water. Nature really is close by, so long as we stand still long enough to look for it. 

***

Stress and anxiety aren’t fun, but they are a part of life. The good news is there are myriad ways to cope without alcohol. It might take a while to find what works best for you, but a little trial and error go a long way. Trust that with a little willingness to try, you will find something that helps you navigate the ups and downs of life.

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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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