Physical Activity, Staying Busy and Living Sober

Physical Activity, Staying Busy and Living SoberStaying sober is not as simple as white-knuckling it through life. It’s not about constantly saying no to drugs and alcohol. It’s not even ultimately about how accountable you make yourself to others. The secret to long-term recovery is actually building a healthy new life—one that involves fun and challenging experiences, invigorating physical activities, meaningful relationships and rewarding times spent serving others. One of the most powerful truths about successful long-term recovery is the power to say yes to an exciting and engaged life. Such a life leaves little time or emotional interest in escaping through drugs or alcohol.

Pleasure, Addiction and the Human Brain

Pleasure is one of the most critical components of human life. The brain uses pleasure as a way of reinforcing behaviors. In fact, the following functions are all driven by an intricate system of chemical signals in a particular part of the prefrontal cortex of the brain:

  • Emotion regulation
  • Sleeping and waking
  • Sexual function
  • Appetite and satiation
  • Pain and discomfort tolerance
  • Motivation
  • Learning
  • Habituation
  • Delayed gratification
  • Anxiety and stress management
  • Motivation to exercise
  • Social integration and relational bonding

Tiny bursts of feel-good substances such as endorphins, adrenaline and dopamine are released into the bloodstream during and after exciting, dangerous, humorous, painful and pleasurable experiences. Specialized chemical receptors in the brain recognize the presence of these substances and trigger corresponding feelings of relief, satisfaction and euphoria. In a healthy person, this process reinforces beneficial things such as hard work, relational closeness, belonging, serving others, education and eating good food. The feeling of pleasure distracts us from emotional and physical pain and discomfort. When drugs and alcohol or compulsive behaviors hijack this fragile system, however, serious dysfunction occurs.

Some people are much more sensitive to the pleasure response created by activities such as sex, eating or what might be generalized as thrills. Underlying psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, loneliness or self-esteem deficiency are quickly medicated by these behaviors. The brain then seeks that relief constantly leading the individual to compulsively engage in the behavior. That compulsion then leads to feelings of shame, remorse or regret, and those negative feelings are again medicated by more of the pleasure response from the corresponding behavior.

Drugs and alcohol provide an immediate and powerful boost of these feel-good substances in the brain. The corresponding pleasure response provides short-term relief of any physiological or psychological distress. The euphoria created through substance abuse is exponentially more powerful than the pleasure that results from things like exercise, laughing or eating. The brain quickly adjusts to this intense new pleasure and fixates on replicating it as often as possible. In time nothing else in life—not friends, family, work, creativity or anything else—can compete with the desire to get high.

Suggested Activities and Experiences for Encouraging Sobriety

In years past medical professionals, law-enforcement officials and even spiritual leaders believed that substance abuse and addiction was related to poor character or even evil spirits. Recovery, when it was even considered, focused on punishing the behavior and preventing access to intoxicants. This negative treatment approach simply created more intense distress and pain, which then led to further self-medication. While certain aspects of this thinking can still be found in modern drug policy and enforcement philosophies, a much more successful model for treatment has arisen around the understanding that long-term sobriety requires deep healing in the pleasure center of the brain. Therefore, addicts must find new and better ways of feeling good, or they will not successfully avoid alcohol, drugs or compulsive behaviors. This is why physical activity, fun and staying busy are such important tools for sober living.

The goal of holistic recovery is to re-program the pleasure center of the brain back to its pre-addiction functioning. In the early days of recovery these rehab programs focus on relieving the physical withdrawal symptoms the addict experiences as intoxicants leave his or her system. It is also important, early on, to identify any and all co-occurring emotional issues these substances are being used to medicate. By developing a comprehensive analysis of all aspects of the individual’s mental and physical health, an increased level of mindfulness can be accomplished. Through a combination of counseling, education and peer support, the addict can then find new and healthy ways to feel good. The following are examples of the kinds of things that can create feelings of pleasure and wellness in the mind of the recovering addict:

  • Running
  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Yoga
  • Dancing
  • Painting
  • Songwriting
  • Creative writing
  • Camping
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Writing or reading poetry
  • Cooking
  • Gardening
  • SCUBA diving
  • Sailing
  • Rehabbing old cars or machinery
  • Filmmaking
  • Musical performance
  • Singing
  • Comedy / laughing
  • Work projects
  • Mentoring

Even something as simple as a regular conversation with good friends can be an incredibly powerful support for sober living.

It is important to understand that cravings and temptations will come. You can’t stay active and busy forever. Building a full, rewarding and busy life, however, will greatly reduce both your feelings of boredom and loneliness—both of which are strong abuse triggers—and will increase your accountability to others in a positive way. Again, it’s about saying yes to so many good things in life that you don’t have time or interest for the stuff to which you need to say no.

24-Hour Sobriety Support Helpline

If you would like more information about the recovery benefits of an active, busy, and connected lifestyle or would like to be connected to groups that offer these types of activities in a sober setting, please call our 24 hour, toll-free helpline right now.