9 Healthy Steps to Staying Sober During a Disaster

rain storm impact coconut tree

Our world seems to be spinning out of control from traumatic events. With Category 5 hurricanes, earthquakes, brush fires and another mass shooting on American soil, many people are finding themselves in the midst of unexpected calamities and natural disasters. If they are not personally affected, they may have loved ones who are.

These abnormal events can impact normal lives in painful and disruptive ways. They affect everyone. But people in recovery have a particular vulnerability under this kind of extreme stress.

In a perfect world, you can plan ahead for a catastrophe: Pack an emergency kit, board up the windows, evacuate and make sure you follow your recovery plan. But some situations force you to cope with unexpected calamities in the moment ― and you want to make sure you don’t return to your old way of coping.

“When faced with any crisis, but particularly in response to a catastrophic event, one’s sobriety can really be tested,” says psychotherapist Bren M. Chasse, LMFT. “The best thing someone under significant stress can do is identify and rely on their resources. This may include family and loved ones, therapists or sponsors, grounding exercises, and deep breathing.”

She says the key is to find effective ways of managing your anxiety. Here are healthy steps you can take when dealing with a crisis.

Tips for Surviving Life’s Storms

  1. Be aware of potential challenges. Prepare for heightened stress and emotions ― and urges to self-soothe. “During drug and alcohol recovery, some individuals will experience traumatic events like the recent natural disasters and other stressful events such as the loss of a job, the death of a family member or other emotional distress,” says psychiatrist Cyntrell Crawford, MD. “Unfortunately, the intense emotions and stressors can cause increased alcohol and substance use and lead to a relapse.”
  2. Recognize your trauma. When the initial danger has passed and the shock begins to wear off, take time to acknowledge the difficulty you’ve been through. “Be honest with yourself about your emotional state,” says Crawford. “Allow yourself to feel angry, sad, indifferent or whatever. Give yourself permission to feel what you are feeling.” Your responses are normal, she says, and it’s important not to judge yourself or others harshly. Addressing trauma as it occurs is important so that it does not turn into PTSD.
  3. Do a reality check. Once you assess the physical hazards, assess your emotional risks. Chasse says to ask yourself: What do I really need in this moment in order to ensure I maintain my sobriety? Most importantly, be gentle with yourself, says Chasse. “When we’re in crisis, it is incredibly difficult to make the best choices at all times,” she says. “If, at the end of the day, the best you can say is, I’m still sober! that’s a huge win!”
  4. Take it one day (or moment) at a time. In any disaster situation, you may not at first have all the facts or know the full extent of the damage. People running from the crumbling towers on 911 could not know exactly what was happening around them just as someone stranded in a home in flooded Houston without power will not know how or exactly when rescue will come. “Often it’s one second at a time in a crisis,” says addiction specialist Jeff K. Larsen MA, BCPC. “If recovery has taught us anything, it’s how to truly be present in the moment.”
  5. Trust in a higher power. In a crisis, more than any other time, you need to lean on your higher power. “The God of our understanding plays a huge role in every crisis,” says Larsen. People in recovery often are open-minded and have an understanding there is a spiritual force that can help and guide them. It’s OK to call out and pray for assistance.
  6. Be of service. When thoughts consume you, the best thing to do is take action in a productive or proactive way. Service to others is a healthy way to focus on something else. It can give you a sense of pride. Service is often the key to staying sane in a crisis. “No tenant of recovery is more important to practice than this one when faced with a crisis,” says Larsen. It can be helping someone right in your own home or out in the community.
  7. Self-care. Availability of food, water or other necessities may vary or be scarce. “Do the best you can to maintain a healthy lifestyle by eating healthy meals, keeping a normal sleep routine and exercising,” says Crawford. “Also, limit access to traumatic events through media or other sources of information.” As needed, as soon as you can, seek professional help from a mental health professional to discuss what you have been through.
  8. Make a gratitude list. Focusing on what’s working can shift your mindset, for example: Is your family is safe? Do you have food? Have neighbors come to help? “Recognizing all the things for which you are grateful despite the crisis is a powerful way to grounding oneself, of staying focused in the present moment and of seeing the crisis more objectively,” says psychiatrist Anna Yusim, MD, author ofFulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life. If you don’t have a pen, and can’t type it into your phone, quietly review it in your mind.
  9. Keep your recovery plan. A crisis should not be a hall pass to stray from your recovery plan. Crawford suggests: “If you attend meetings, attempt to maintain your meeting attendance. Contact those who support your recovery, such as your sponsors, others in recovery and your mental health provider.” She says to remind yourself why recovery is important to you and to have others around you to do the same.

Sobriety Is an Important Resource

“We all have difficult, even tragic situations in our lives and one of the easiest ways to turn any one of those (or a collection of them) from a situation into a problem is to pour some alcohol, or any other drug on top of it,” says addiction counselor Christopher Gerhart, LLC. “But not drinking or using drugs in response to a difficult situation gives a person in recovery one more resource to draw on when times get tough.” 

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