How To Get Sober During Difficult Times

What a year. Let’s revisit the collective roller coaster of 2020: 


  • Tiger King marathon followed by two weeks of total isolation
  • Learning to look for the good followed by job insecurity or loss
  • Gratitude for health followed by the tensest presidential election ever


And it seems like the hits just keep coming. 


If you’re hoping to get sober or stay sober, the lows of this year might feel especially low. And you’re not alone. Studies show that alcohol and drug use are up, no doubt in response to the very real stressors brought about during this difficult time. (1)


We want to help. Let’s talk through the challenges you might be facing and what you can do to come out of this season better than you started. 


Stressful Seasons Making Getting Sober More Challenging


Go through a difficult time, addicted or not, and you’ll feel the real human need to cope. We all do. 


At the end of a bad day, we might find ourselves two sleeves deep in the Oreo bag or out for a late-night run in the blistering cold. For better or worse, we can usually make it through to the next morning and hope for a better day. 


But a stressful season? That’s a whole other story. The death of a loved one, job loss, the state of our country, a worldwide pandemic—these things take a toll that threatens to unravel even the best of our coping intentions.


And if the way you cope involves substance abuse or alcohol dependence, a difficult time can quickly devolve into a new addiction, a worsening addiction or a relapse.  


COVID-19 Offered Us A Whole New Version of Anxiety


Because of the unique stressors of this year, we’ve seen an increase not only in existing addictive behaviors but in people taking on new addictive behaviors as well. 


Add to this knowledge that people who struggle with substance abuse and alcohol dependence are both more susceptible to the virus itself and the psychosocial damage the virus causes. (1)


COVID and addiction are working together to create a vicious cycle: 


This year stresses me out, so I drink. And I drink too much. As a result, I find myself in situations that make me more likely to contract COVID. It worries me, so I drink. And I drink too much. 


Because of this, when I’m alone, I sink easily into depressive feelings and struggle to come out. So I drink. The only thing that relieves the complications of COVID is a drink. 


If this is where you find yourself this year, again, you’re not alone. 


A 2020 survey of 1,000 American adults discovered that in a span of 30 days, more than half admitted to an increase in drinking, with 18% reporting a “significant increase.” Nationwide alcohol sales backed this finding. And illegal drug use was also up– 36% over a 30-day period. (2)


Sadly, drug-induced deaths are on the rise as well—up 13% from the previous year. (3)


We can blame 2020, what with the pandemic and natural disasters and political tension, but there’s another factor we must consider: underlying emotional trauma. 


Underlying Emotional Trauma Encourages Addiction


By their very nature, drugs and alcohol work to suppress negative emotions and boost good feelings. So it’s no wonder that a person with longstanding emotional trauma, or new to this year’s emotional trauma, might reach for a substance cure. 


Unfortunately, as you well know, good times from a substance only last so long. Drugs and alcohol eventually work to rewire the brain, making happy moments harder to come by and leaving the moments between a high feeling bland. 


To get sober fast, and stay that way, you’ll need to recognize and address any emotional trauma that’s causing you pain. 


Work Through This Emotional Trauma Assessment 


Not sure if unresolved emotions are contributing to your substance use? 


Emotional trauma can come in a myriad of forms. Maybe you experienced a lack of safety or deep insecurity in your childhood. You might be recovering from years of financial troubles, marriage issues or physical suffering. You may even be working through 2020 trauma. 


As a simple practice, grab a pen and paper and jot down any unresolved emotional trauma that comes to mind. Think back on your youth and move into today. 


What things cause negative emotions for you? Remember that negative emotions don’t just mean crying. You might experience fear, loneliness, anger or even melancholy. 


List in hand, consider the ways you respond when each of these emotions well up inside of you. Do any of these emotions push you to drink or use drugs? If so, you’d likely benefit from emotion regulation training. 


The Value of Learning to Regulate Your Emotions


Thankfully, just like you don’t have to get sober alone, you also don’t have to get your emotions under control on your own. That’s a tall order! Here at The Right Step, we want to help you learn to respond to your emotions in a healthy way. 


Here’s why: 


Research in substance abuse shows emotion management and regulation as a hugely beneficial, and in some cases necessary, component of the recovery process. (4)


In Gross’ Process Model of Emotion Regulation, people struggling with addiction are trained to work through a negative emotion in five stages: beginning, situation correction, attention, evaluation and response. 


What does effective emotion regulation look like? Let’s walk through an example: 


Due to a COVID exposure, you’ll spend the next two weeks in isolation—again. Upon hearing the news, you feel both depressed and anxious. Being alone makes you more likely to drink. And you’re worried about how your boss will respond when you ask for more time off. 


  1. Beginning: You’re tempted to blow off quarantine, but know you should probably stay home and follow the guidelines. 


  1. Situation Correction: You decided to stay home but really feel the pull of a cold drink. Here you consider other options: daily activities like a walk outside, a long phone conversation with a friend or working on a new skill or old hobby. 


  1. Attention: You choose to spend your time picking up an old hobby, like playing the guitar. But when you grab it to play, you just end up staring off into space and feeling sad. In this stage, you might look for ways to focus more intently.


  • Evaluation: You find a great online course for increasing your skills on the guitar and decide to dedicate your evenings to the class. Here, you evaluate. You recognize that, for you, drinking feels more fun but playing the guitar is more rewarding. 

  • Response: In the final stage, you respond to the current situation. Here you might find yourself enjoying the guitar and appreciating the accomplishments achieved in two-weeks’ time. (5)

A pie-in-the-sky example, no doubt. But one that shows what’s possible through properly-managed emotions. And we can help you get there. 

In the meantime, give yourself grace. Study after study prove that beating yourself up over your shortcomings won’t help you get sober any faster. 

Willpower alone isn’t enough. You need emotion regulation, as discussed above, as well as healthy coping skills at the ready. (6)


Utilize Healthy Coping Skills to Maintain Sobriety


Learning to manage emotions is essential for getting and staying sober. But you can also plan for the future and get ahead of your emotions by instituting healthy coping strategies.


When thinking about what strategies you’d like to employ, consider breaking them into two groups: urge-specific strategies (think: in-the-moment ways to curb a craving) and general lifestyle strategies (think: everyday practices that encourage healthy living). 


Combining these two categories, researchers found a total of 31 coping skills that support sobriety. (6) They include: 


Urge-specific strategies


  • Thinking of the positive consequences of staying sober
  • Thinking of the negative consequences of drinking
  • Escaping the high-risk situation
  • Engaging in an alternate activity 
  • Using drink refusal skills
  • Leaning on a sober social support person
  • Thinking of something else for distraction
  • Utilizing problem-solving skills
  • Utilizing spiritual coping
  • Thinking through a behavior chain
  • Telling oneself one could wait


General lifestyle strategies


  • Sober ways for a good time
  • Keep yourself busy
  • Relax or meditate regularly 
  • Healthy food, sleep, etc
  • Avoid tempting situations
  • Work toward future goals
  • Remind yourself you’re a sober person
  • Tell others you’re not drinking
  • Talk over feelings with others
  • Work on problems regularly 
  • Meetings, aftercare or counselor
  • Work where alcohol isn’t used (6


You might choose a few from each category to have at the ready. As you work to get or stay sober, look for ways to make general lifestyle strategies a habit of everyday life. And sharpen your in-the-moment coping skills by practicing them when you’re not in a craving state. 


Professional Treatment Offers a One-Two Punch to Addiction


Of course, emotion regulation and healthy coping skills are no substitute for professional treatment. It’s welcome support for people hoping to get sober fast. 


You might wonder what treatment options work best for you in these COVID times. Thankfully, you can choose between the following: 


In-Person Residential: 30-day stay at our facility here in Houston


Partial-Hospitalization Program: Daily in-person treatment with a return to home each night 


Intensive Outpatient Program: Attend a few in-person sessions a week 


Virtual IOP: An intensive outpatient program completed live and online 


We’d love to talk through these options with you. 


No matter what you’re going through, there’s always hope. Here at The Right Step Houston, we want to help you get and stay sober. We’re here for you. 


Just give us a call at 844.768.0169 


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