How drinking hid my anxiety and how I manage it sober

This was originally published at The Recovery Village

For as long as I can remember, anxiety has been a part of my life.

In situations where most people wouldn’t bat an eye, my anxiety is always there, making me imagine the what-ifs and the worst case scenarios. I spend great deals of time analyzing my interactions with others, reading more into them than there is. If two people are talking and shut a door, I convince myself they are talking about me and I’ve done something wrong.

The list goes on. Living with anxiety can be consuming and exhausting some days. There are times I just want to get away from it all, to get out of my own head and have a break.

To be honest, that’s probably what drew me to alcohol. Drinking allowed me to feel normal and provided an escape. Here’s how drinking hid my anxiety:

1. It made me forget I was anxious.

When I drank, I truly forgot that I was an anxious person. When I had a buzz or was pretty drunk, I had no anxiety whatsoever. Situations that would typically have made me crawl out of my skin didn’t faze me. I could talk to strangers easily, handle conflict (or so I thought), try new things, be impulsive. I felt fearless and I liked that feeling because I had never known it before.

2. It gave me confidence.

One thing I have always lacked is self-confidence. I have always been very self-aware and worried what people thought about me, which contributed to my feelings of anxiety. But when I drank, this self-awareness disappeared. I felt like a lighter, happier, more relaxed version of myself. It was much less draining than always worrying about what people thought, so I saw nothing wrong with using alcohol to up my confidence. The problem was that when the alcohol wore off, I was back to square one because I was doing no real work to improve my confidence.

3. It helped me interact with people.

This goes hand in hand with the above point about self-awareness. When I was drinking, my awareness of self slipped away. Rather than worry about what people thought of me during a conversation, I was able to just have a conversation. It was a feeling I enjoyed. I thought it made me a more likable person to be easygoing and easy to converse with.

Though at the time I thought alcohol helped me cope with my anxiety, I’ve realized since getting sober that I was wrong. All alcohol did for my anxiety was cover it up for brief periods of time. Now that I have been sober nearly four years, I have had to find healthier ways to manage my anxiety. These are a few:

1. I take medication.

I’ve always taken an antidepressant and anti-anxiety medication, with the exception of a few months this past year. When I went off the medication, I found that my anxiety eventually returned full force. So I made the decision to start the medication again, which was the best thing I could have done for myself. I have never been ashamed of being on a medication to deal with my anxiety. I view it as I view any other medication. It’s used to treat a disorder and improve a person’s life, and there is zero shame to be had in that.

2. I see a counselor.

A few months ago, in the throes of a really bad month, I decided to start seeing a counselor again in order to find ways to better manage my anxiety. Even though I’ve been feeling really good recently, I’ve continued seeing this counselor because I know I’ll need the tools for times when my anxiety returns. At appointments, we talk about the ways anxiety presents in my life, why it does so, and what I can do in order to take control of it rather than let it take control of me. I always find it helpful to talk through these topics with another person, especially someone who is professionally trained to deal with them. Again, as with the medication, I see no shame in taking steps to ensure a better and healthier life.

3. I take slow, deep breaths.

Sometimes, in the midst of really bad anxiety, I forget to breathe or I end up taking really shallow breaths. This just makes the anxiety worse in its physical manifestation. In these moments, I have to stop and literally force myself to take deep breaths. I focus on the breath coming in for three seconds, then out for three seconds. I remind myself that I am lucky that I am able to breathe, that breathing is a blessing. Though deep breaths do not always make my anxiety dissipate, it has a way of grounding me and reminding me that I’ve been in this position before and survived.

4. I talk it out.

Talking about my anxiety used to be difficult for me. I found it embarrassing and I hated feeling so out of control of my own emotions. But over time I have realized that many people have struggled with anxiety on some level and have a good understanding of it. There are certain people in my life that I can talk to when I feel especially out of control of anything, and they have a way of saying what I need to hear. Though I can tell myself the things they tell me, there is something more comforting about hearing it from another person instead.

5. I think to the past.

Though sometimes difficult, if I am having bad anxiety I try to think back to other times I have had equally bad or worse anxiety. I remember how in those moments I felt like my world was crashing down, like I wouldn’t be OK ever again. But as things do, that anxiety passed and I found peace again. Reminding myself of this makes my current anxiety feel a little more manageable and a little less permanent. “This too shall pass” is a good mantra to repeat when it feels as if the anxiety is taking over.

Anxiety presents differently in everyone, and the things that work for some people may not work as well for others. The important thing is to be aware of what is happening when anxiety starts to set in and to try different, healthy ways to manage it.

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