Reducing Stress and Relapse Prevention with Exercise and Sleep. Reducing stressors in your life can significantly improve your chance at lasting sobriety. So much of how we process our emotions rely on the chemical makeup occurring inside our body. By reducing the stress hormone, cortisol, we can get out of a chronic stress environment and manage our feelings and reactions much more effectively. In this series, we will discuss four main ways to decrease cortisol- through our food, through physical exercise and sleep, through mindfulness, and by connecting with others, ourselves and nature.
Our bodies are truly amazing and were designed to protect us from danger, giving us the best advantage for survival. The “fight or flight” response is an urgent stress reaction that tells our bodies we need to leave a situation. At this moment, norepinephrine and epinephrine are released giving us that quick burst of adrenaline. These hormones quickly go away, and our body follows up with a blast of cortisol. When we are in constant crisis mode, cortisol fills our body and never fully goes away. Because cortisol receptors are in nearly every cell, this hormone impacts every system in our body and the health risks are vast. Everything from diabetes, heart disease, infertility, immune disorders, brain fog, mood swings, anxiety, and depression have been linked to increased cortisol levels.
One easy way to reduce stress hormones is by getting regular exercise. We all know that we need exercise to stay healthy, but we often forget just how powerful it can be to “walk off your anger.” Getting out of a stressful situation by getting exercise can quickly release relaxation compounds in the brain while simultaneously improving your mental health and protecting the brain from the effects of aging.
It is not necessary to engage in strenuous exercise to get the brain benefits of the activity. In fact, too much too quickly will actually make your brain think you are in danger and it will secrete more cortisol. A quick walk, a swim or bike ride is ideal to get you into calmer headspace. Regular practice of mindful activities like yoga or tai chi can also significantly reduce stress.
Sleeping is another thing that we often take for granted. Studies are increasingly showing the benefits of sleep our mental and physical being. Insomnia or disturbed sleep (SUD) in early recovery is very common. This can be very dangerous as a lack of sleep has been to increase your risk of relapse according to the Journal of Addiction Medicine. Getting proper amounts of sleep is good for addicts and non-addicts alike as cortisol levels naturally decrease when you sleep. This allows us to wake up alert and ready to face a new day. The National Institutes of Health have found that sleeping less than 6 hours a day can increase our stress hormones by as much as 80%.
Here are a few tips for getting adequate amounts of sleep.
- Get Exercise During the Day. We have already mentioned the benefits of getting regular activity. This also tires your body and allows for a good night sleep.
- Stick to a Regular Sleeping Schedule with a Bedtime Routine. Our bodies love routine. Get in the habit of taking 30 minutes before you go to bed at night to do the same rituals. Read a book, take a bath, or practice some nighttime mindfulness to prepare your body for rest.
- Eliminate Light. It is best to make your room as dark as possible so that you are not light-disturbed during the night. This includes removing your mobile phone from the room so you are not distracted by notifications or light from the phone.
- Take a Power Nap. If you find that you are not sleeping well at night, get in the habit of taking power naps. A quick 20-minute nap will blast lingering cortisol in your body, improving your mood and energy for the rest of the day.
A critical part of recovery is getting back to healthy practices and routines. Managing your stress with regular exercise and adequate sleep are great ways to recharge your body and mind, preparing you to take on the days stressors without triggering relapse behavior.