How Social Workers Help Addicts Learn Stress Reduction

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August 9, 2007 at 10:44 am  •  Posted in Addictions by  •  0 Comments

By Jennifer Amlen, MSW, LCSW
 

Introduction
Addicts and Stress
Benefits of Stress Management
How to Use Stress Reduction as a Means of Stress Management
How Social Workers Can Help
Individual Counseling
Stress Management Groups
Self-help Groups
Conclusion

Introduction

It can be extremely difficult to conquer an addiction. When a person is trying to be clean and sober, he or she may be tempted to take use more drugs or alcohol just do deal with the stress involved.  A person may seek gratification though external resources by looking for the “quick fix.” Addicts often have a very difficult time learning to live with frustration and uncomfortable feelings. This is why relapse is so common and long term recovery so hard to attain.

An addict’s mind is analogous to clothes in a washing machine. They have various colors, shapes, and forms that are constantly changing. The washing machine is rapidly spinning around and its thoughts are going in circles, mixing together seemingly out of control. This “vicious cycle” inevitably leads to a chronic state of stress and anxiety.

Addicts and Stress

Stress is one of the most commonly reported causes of drug and alcohol use and is considered the number one cause of addiction relapse. When the human body is under stress, hormones rush to the adrenal glands to suppress levels of cortisol, which affects other hormones and neurotransmitters in the brain. Chronic stress can also reduce the levels of serotonin in the brain, which often leads to anxiety and depression.

There are two subsystems of the autonomic nervous system (ANS) that respond to stress – the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS). When the body is exposed to high levels of stress, the SNS reacts by increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure, constricting blood vessels, stressing the digestive system and preparing for the “fight or flight” response. In contrast, the PSNS reacts in the opposite way by slowing the heart rate and relaxing the muscles.

Without having a mechanism to control stress, people often turn to drugs and alcohol to calm the nervous system. Many addicts are simply “self medicating” by trying to control or decrease the symptoms of these emerging levels of stress. However, over a prolonged period of time, the body adapts to the drug or alcohol by developing a tolerance to the substance, and more amounts are needed to achieve the desired tranquil state. Over time, one’s judgment becomes increasingly impaired and impulse control decreases leading to substance abuse and/or dependence.

Benefits of Stress Management

Stress reduction alleviates stress, relaxing the body and mind by calling on the parasympathetic nervous system. Today many people are using meditation and other exercises in stress management as a means of the recovery process, as well as maintaining and keeping a balanced life. When an individual finds a few workable strategy, a permanent change in attitude toward stress may develop. The person is then able to better cope, without turning to substances such as drugs or alcohol.

For example, meditation not only relieves stress by relaxing the body and mind, it also helps to develop frustration tolerance, and helps one learn to delay immediate gratification by increasing cognitive functions.

Research has shown that many physical and emotional ailments are caused by stress. Therefore, practicing effective stress management can have lasting effects in improving one’s emotional and physical well being. It improves one’s sense of control, increases self-confidence, and helps one experience a greater quality of life.

How to Use Stress Reduction as a Means of Stress Management

Stress reduction can be practiced as little as 10 minutes a day to have a lasting effect on one’s body, mind, and spirit. Stress reduction exercises can be practiced in a group and/or in individual sessions, at centers and communities. It is most important to have a comfortable environment.

Stress reduction focuses very much on the “here and now”. One technique can simply be closing one’s eyes and focusing on one’s breathing. Techniques of stress reduction include deep breathing, mental imaging, and focusing on one word or thought which relaxes the mind and body and can also incorporate muscle relaxation. Daily practice has been shown to have many long-term affects on health and mental well being.

How Social Workers Can Help

When an individual enters treatment, social workers can give him or her many stress management tools.

Individual Counseling

Social workers can teach their clients simple breathing techniques in a counseling session and then discuss it afterwards. Often, more concrete methods of stress management are required. These might include time management, financial planning, or career development. In the areas that a client feels blocked and/or resistant, further exploration of issues may be necessary.

Stress Management Groups

Social workers often have groups for stress reduction and management. Whether it is open ended or closed, groups generally have 6-8 people. Members have the opportunity to share their experiences with each other and foster each other’s growth.

Self-help Groups

While not formally led by a social worker, the social worker may provide referrals to such community resources. Alcoholics Anonymous, a 12-step program, recommend meditation in the 11th step as a means to achieve abstinence. Additionally, there are specific 12-step “meditation” meetings throughout the country and online. There are many  meditation centers that offer weekly or daily stress reduction classes. People learn to practice meditation and relaxation techniques as a part of their daily routine.

Conclusion

Practicing effective stress management techniques helps to put the focus back on oneself. Such techniques aim to help calm the mind, while increasing awareness of one’s internal experience (thoughts and feelings). By learning how to effectively manage stress in ones life, one is able to better manage life itself – thereby decreasing the need for drugs and alcohol. It is the pathway to a healthy and more productive life for everyone.

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