Spring has sprung! The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, and birds are singing. While you are replacing your boots with sandals and pants with shorts and skirts, you can feel the energy buzzing in the warm spring air. Sounds great, right?
As you work to cultivate a life of mindfulness and present-moment attention, you may start to notice another side of spring. The change of season can bring on a whole new set of challenges which may come as a quite a surprise for those trying to change their use of substances.
The sidewalk cafes are bustling with brunch-goers drinking wine and laughing. You may find yourself wondering, “Why can’t I have just a glass? It feels so good to finally get back outside after a winter of being cooped up indoors.” “Perhaps smoking a joint would make me feel even better?” “How can I go to a baseball game without a beer to go with my hot dog?” You may find that the impulse to pair fun, social, or just outdoor activities with the use of substances can grow much more intense as the weather heats up.
For people who do not struggle with substances, the decision to use a substance (including alcohol) or not can carry about as much weight as whether to have the steak or the fish for dinner. However, for people working on changing their relationship with substances, situations like these can be challenging, difficult, intimidating, and even overwhelming. External triggers (sidewalk cafes, concerts, sports, beaches, longer days) and internal triggers (feeling good, memories of warm weather past, relaxation) can become more apparent with the change of season.
So what can you do if you are looking to make changes? What can you do if you find yourself wrestling with these thoughts and feelings? How can your loved ones best support you? Improving your Awareness and Coping skills and well as building your ability to Tolerate is a threefold approach to relapse prevention which can be applied to coping with the change in the season.
To start, try to increase your awareness of the high risk situations, people and feelings that might increase ambivalence about your goals in this season of change. This will allow you to prepare yourself and plan for ways to stick to your goals. For example, you might take some time to think through your triggers and identify that seeing people at a sidewalk cafe drinking is triggering to you. Then you can plan your route home to limit the number of cafes you pass, or perhaps you make sure that you have an alternate form of decompression ready for you when you get home. Either way, your awareness of what triggers you allows you to prepare yourself in advance.
Next is coping. How does one cope with all of the new “triggers” brought about by the spring? One action for this might be making the decision to avoid certain events. Is a backyard BBQ full of beer too tough for you right now? How about planning a massage or lunch with a friend you don’t strongly associate with drinking? Another strategy might be to reduce the time you spend at these events and/or to bring a safe friend along. Maybe you can go late to the concert just for the music you want to hear and leave as soon as it’s over? Maybe you can bring a supportive friend or family member to the beach, since there is no need to do it alone. Find a way to have a (non-alcoholic) drink in your hand and partake in the food that is available in order to avoid people pushing drinks or craving a drink because you are hungry. Finally, if you find that your emotions start running high or your capacity to stick to your goals is weakening, have an exit strategy planned in advance. You can also book-end events with healthy people or things on either side of a potentially tricky situation.
And what about the all-important role of tolerating? What exactly does this mean? In this case what might be most important to remember is that cravings and feelings (both negative and positive) are time limited and they do pass. In the moment of intense cravings or feelings, it may seem as though the desire to use will never end. The reality…is that cravings always end.
If you are trying to really change your relationship with substances, it’s important to build up your ability to tolerate cravings and feeling of ambivalence without doing something that goes against the goals you set for yourself or makes things worse. Here are some suggestions to increase your ability to tolerate these tough moments…
- Have a friend to call who can remind you that you will get through this moment and that you have before.
- Make a note and put it in your wallet to remind yourself of your reasons for wanting to change and ways you have tolerated these moments in the past.
- Create a mantra that you say to yourself over and over until the feeling or craving passes.
- Cheerlead yourself with positive, supportive feedback. The way you “talk” to yourself really matters!
- Practice meditation on a regular basis.
- While none of these suggestions are a quick, easy fix, that all will build your capacity to tolerate difficult situations that may arise.
If you are new to making changes, getting through this change of season can seem a little daunting, but if you embrace and use these skills you can get through! If you’re a seasoned veteran of behavior change, it’s good to remember these skills! Each experience you have for the first time may challenge you in unexpected ways. Some things may be easier than you expected, some may be harder, and some may be just what you anticipated. Whatever the case, your decision to change is admirable and inspiring. Using these skills can help you achieve and maintain your change goals.
Julie Jarvis, Ph.D.