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By: Rick Fannin
Fear is a Liar: Dealing with Fear in Early Recovery
Early recovery can be a very frightening and anxious-filled experience. Why wouldn't this be a fearful and anxious time? Anytime we attempt to make significant changes in our lives, it is frightening, and we often feel anxious as we begin to implement these changes in our lives. However, for the person attempting to recover from addiction, we are changing so much more than just discontinuing using drugs or alcohol. We are changing the people we associate with, the places we go, the things that we commonly did, the dysfunctional thinking patterns, and how we have coped with life. Basically, we are changing everything as we begin our recovery journey, so, why wouldn't we be afraid.
However, fear is a liar, and these fears in early recovery will leave us frozen from moving forward, running from the solutions that will save our lives, and fighting the ones who love, care, and want to help us. Yet, dealing with fear in early recovery is doable. This article aims to help you gain awareness of these common fears in early recovery and provide you with tips and strategies to help you face and overcome these fears.
What Is Fear, and is Fear in Early Recovery A Bad Thing?
Fear is one of the six universal emotions experienced by everyone around the world. Fear arises with the threat of physical, emotional, or psychological harm, real or imagined. It is a significant element contributing to brain activity, such as our perceptions and emotions. Fear is a signal that says you don't want to be hurt or avoid pain at all costs. You know, certain things may lead to physical or emotional harm. Therefore, the fear aspect leads to you taking steps of action or precautions to avoid consequences.
When you feel scared or experience fear, your body is reacting to something. That something stimulates your brain to respond with fear, and your brain signals your mind and your body to become alert and respond. Sometimes fear is associated with an experience of prior hurt or harm. Other times you're thinking of the worst possible outcome or something that may not be true at all. Once you understand what causes your fears, you can take appropriate steps to overcome it.
Is fear a good thing? That depends on what type of fear that it is. While traditionally considered a "negative" emotion, real fear serves an important role in keeping us safe as it mobilizes us to cope with potential danger. In this case, fear is a truthful emotional response to a real possibility of harm. However, imagined fear, or irrational fear leads to us making irrational or poor choices that work against the goals we would like to achieve. In this case, fear is a liar.
Normal Versus Irrational Fear
You can experience fear which is considered normal, healthy, or lifesaving, depending on the situation. The body's fight, flight, or freeze response allows the body to be alert and ready to protect itself when you are fearful. A person may fear something, but the actions taken in response to this real fear may help keep them safe. At this point, this kind of real fear may be expected and healthy, even if it doesn't seem positive.
However, fear can also be a liar. Some people deal with irrational fears that prevent them from living their lives to their fullest potential or engaging in new experiences. Such fears result from exaggerated or irrational fear. A person may be afraid of something that isn't true, or there is no evidence to be fearful in the first place. A person's childhood and past experience can significantly contribute to developing these irrational fears, especially if this past included traumatic experiences, abandonment, or neglect.
When you think about how the average person responds to passing a traffic accident in some cases, fear actually draws us in rather than repelling us. This kind of fear draws us into the real potential of harm when we drive the road, and we may begin to drive more cautiously after we pass the accident. Fear makes us alert to danger; it helps guide our decision-making process. But too much fear can be paralyzing in life. Irrational fear can lead us down the wrong path and, in addiction recovery, can be a precursor to relapse. Here are some of the fears common among people in early recovery:
Common Fears in Early Recovery
Fear of Sobriety
Getting clean and sober means replacing your primary coping mechanism, drugs, and alcohol, with new, unfamiliar but healthy ways to cope with life. The process of letting go of dysfunctional coping skills and beginning to utilize a new healthy way to cope with life can be uncomfortable, particularly for someone who is afraid of feeling in general. You may question many things, such as: "Will all of the hard work be worth it? Will sobriety be boring? Will I be able to have fun and enjoy life without being drunk or high? Will I fit in with others sober?" Staying stuck in this fear generally means running from recovery and staying frozen and stuck in addiction.
Rather than running from this fear, allow yourself to feel the fear and then take one step forward anyway. Go to detox, rehab, meet with a therapist or attend a support group where other people in recovery share their success stories. Open and talk about these fears that you have. You may be surprised that many others in recovery have experienced similar fears, and you can learn from the old-timers how these types of fears are a liar as they describe the new and wonderful life that they now have in recovery. Addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful, but once you get an authentic taste of recovery, you may find that sobriety is not as scary as you once thought, and you may discover that fear has been lying to you.
Fear of Withdrawal
When we first used drugs or alcohol, we did so for the rush, the euphoria, and the high. We can't deny it. It was a pleasurable experience. However, over time, the pleasure we experienced diminished, and we continued with addiction just to be well. Being "dope sick," otherwise known as withdrawing, is not a pleasant experience. As a result, we would go to any length necessary to avoid the uncomfortableness of being dope sick. However, this solution was only temporary, and we would have to feed the addiction beast again as soon as the high wore off. This fear of withdrawal kept us frozen in the cycle of addiction and running from the only solution, sobriety, which would provide a permanent cure from ever having to experience being dope sick and withdrawing again.
With dope sickness, you challenge your body emotionally, physically, spiritually, and mentally. It doesn't feel right. All you can think of during these symptoms is that drug because you know that it will provide temporary relief. However, in early recovery, you are also gaining self-awareness of how this temporary solution is creating an increasing amount of unmanageable pain and suffering in your life and in the lives of those around you.
The fear of physical repercussions when you quit drinking or using drugs is genuine and should not be diminished. Withdrawal can last 3-5 days and can be filled with many terrible symptoms. Most recovering addicts face a few days to a week of some awful withdrawal symptoms, like cold sweats, vomiting, delirium, body aches, hallucinations, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, and high-grade anxiety. It feels like the nasty flu, and you lose control of your mind and body.
At the moment, it might seem like it is never going to stop. You might feel like it's not worth it. Or you may think it takes too long. This is addiction lying to you and filling your head with fears of what withdrawal will be like. This fear of withdrawals is a liar. If you believe those thoughts, chances are you will relapse. However, if you can change your thinking to realize that in the grand scheme of things, it's not that much time that you are giving up, you might feel a lot better about recovery. Thus, making you less likely to relapse.
It is true that withdrawal isn't easy, some symptoms can be severe, and the withdrawal from some substances, like alcohol and benzos, can be life-threatening. However, with supervised medical detox, chances of serious harm are significantly reduced, symptoms will be much less than if you tried to go "cold turkey" on your own, and the symptoms are likely to ease up by the 3rd day. In addition, you will begin to see that you are not alone and that in and of itself helps to deal with the uncomfortableness of withdrawal. You become encouraged and motivated as you watch others with you, and as the new person arrives, you begin to encourage them too.
There is no doubt that withdrawing from drugs is unpleasant. However, in early recovery, you gain self-awareness of just how much more painful active addiction was which puts the possible unpleasant experience of withdrawal looks much more tolerable. As you face one of the most substantial fears of recovery – fear of withdrawal – it helps to know that you have support. You don't have to do it alone, and medical technology can help lessen the physical symptoms.
Fear of Facing the Reality of the Unmanageability and Damage Caused During Addiction
Overcoming the use of drugs and alcohol is but one of the problems we face and work to overcome in recovery. While in active addiction, we have tended to be a bit of a wrecking ball. We wreaked havoc on our lives and in the lives of those around us. We may have significant financial problems, no job, neglected health issues, damaged relationships, child custody problems, pending legal matters, an angry probation officer, and an impatient Judge included in the "other problems" to overcome. You may also fear the toxic shame or humiliation you might experience by facing how you've acted when high or drunk. With the mountains of problems that have mounted up over our years in addiction, why wouldn't we fear beginning to face this reality? Especially if all we know is to tackle our problems alone.
However, tap into the front part of your brain, the prefrontal cortex, which is used for logic and reason for just a moment. How could avoiding these problems ever make them go away? If you look at the issues, you are facing now, compared to the ones you had one or two years ago, how much greater are they now? If you run from recovery and continue to fear facing these problems, do you anticipate that the list will be ever larger a year from now than it is today? You are likely to agree that over time, your problems have gotten progressively worse. On the one hand, it is easy to see how you would fear facing this reality. However, on the other hand, do you fear that the list of problems keeps getting longer with each day that you remain in addiction and avoid facing these fears and taking steps of action to clear the wreckage of the past?
The good news is that you do not have to face this fear and resolve these problems independently. Building solid, sober social support is a critical aspect of successful recovery. Sponsors and peers in recovery can be valuable resources as they share the steps that they took to overcome these fears and how they resolved similar problems in their life. Case managers are skilled professionals that are experts in finding and linking you with various community resources whose job is to help you overcome these problems. You may face a mountain of problems, and your fear may be accurate that you cannot overcome these alone. However, don't let fear be a liar to convince you that with the right help, support, and with God, there is nothing that you cannot overcome.
Fear of Negative Emotions
Can you think of anyone who actually enjoys experiencing guilt, shame, sadness, embarrassment, loss, or anxiety? No, no one enjoys these emotions. And we became experts of how to attempt to live life avoiding these emotions with our utilization of drugs or alcohol as a way to numb the pain that these inevitable emotions would bring medically. However, you can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig. Addiction is cunning, baffling, and powerful, and our use of drugs would lead us to believe that we are not feeling these things. However, these dark emotions lurked below the surface, waiting to spring up the moment we sobered up.
When you stop running and numbing these feelings and face them head-on, they can seem overwhelming. However, this fear of avoiding negative emotions keeps us stuck in addiction, where we pile up an even greater amount of inevitable negative emotions for us to face eventually. However, if you focus on the outcome that you are trying to achieve, sobriety, and a more fulfilled, authentic life, the promises of recovery will begin to come true in your life.
It isn't the guilt, shame, sadness, embarrassment, loss, or anxiety that is the problem. It is our fear of these emotions that are the true problem. Recovery will equip you with the comfort, encouragement, and motivation from knowing that others have faced their fears of these negative emotions and not only survived but also thrived in recovery despite the negative emotions that they may have experienced along the way.
The good news is that you got your feelings back. The bad news is that you got your feelings back. Overcoming your fear of feeling negative emotions can be difficult. You are going to start to feel things, and you cannot stop those feelings from occurring. It is important to remember no matter what, you are braver, smarter, and stronger than you know. It's important to embrace your feelings and move forward with them. Others around you can help you understand complicated feelings without putting your recovery in jeopardy. Surround yourself with strong sober support and equip yourself with the healthy coping skills you will learn in recovery and from counseling that will allow you to stare this fear in the eyes as you finally conquer it like the warrior you are!
Fear of Rejection and Abandonment
During addiction, we are likely to have damaged many important relationships with the lies we told, the broken promises that we made, and our constant manipulation of others. You may fear that you have damaged these relationships beyond repair, fear that others will not be here to support you as you finally do it this time, and fear that the ones you love will never trust you again.
You may also fear that now that the truth about your addiction is out in the open, others may look at you or treat you differently than they did before. You may fear being judged by others or looked down upon because you are afflicted with the disease of addiction.
These are all real and valid concerns, and it is reasonable for you to feel anxious about what your relationships will look like in recovery. When worried that they may be abandoned and not supported by others, we allow this fear to be a liar and convince us that "what is the use in even asking for support, I have already destroyed things." This lie convinces you to reject yourself and abandon the hope of a better tomorrow. So, convinced of this lie, we do not even attempt to make amends in order to repair the broken relationships or build new healthy supportive relationships, and we begin to walk the scary road of recovery alone, where we stumble, fall, and give up.
While you may have damaged your past relationships, there is a world of others in recovery that are more than willing to help you and support you on your recovery journey. In addition, counselors, case managers, sponsors, and peers in recovery are here to encourage you, motivate you, show you will the pitfalls are that lie ahead. They will help equip you with the skills that give you the best odds of making amends and repairing repairable relationships. They will also help you with radical acceptance of the relationships that cannot be repaired, develop a deep sense of gratitude for the relationships you have, and let go of the insatiable desire for those you don't.
Fear of Failure
Addiction is so cunning, baffling, and powerful that it may have convinced you of the lie that "You are a failure and broken beyond repair," and you may fear even attempting recovery for fear of failure. Honestly, if you believe that you are a failure and broken beyond repair, then why wouldn't you fear failure, and why would you even attempt. What you believe you will achieve. If you believe that you will fail, then you probably will. If you believe that recovery is possible, if you are open-minded to take suggestions and willing to do things differently, then recovery is possible and probable.
Would it surprise you if I told you that it is a FACT, that you have already been successful at what nearly 90% of others have failed to achieve? Yep, research shows that only 11.2% with an addiction issue ever even attempt to get help to recover from the disease. Even by reading this article and taking the steps you have already taken, you have already beat some really big odds! That does not sound like a failure at all!
However, your fear of failure is a real and normal one to have. Research shows that within the first year of recovery, 60-75% will relapse. This same research shows that 86% remain sober, but only if:
- They complete treatment
- Follow through with aftercare recommendations
- Maintain regular 12-step meeting attendance
However, less than half complete treatment, follow through with aftercare plans or incorporate regular 12-step meetings into their recovery life. Of these, 80% relapse within 90 days! And for the ones that do complete treatment, follow through with aftercare, and include meetings, the long-term outcome looks very promising. After four years of sustained recovery, the relapse rate drops to just 15%.
But is a relapse a failure? That all depends on what you do following the relapse. If you allow guilt and shame to keep you running from the solution of recovery and stuck in addiction, then yeah, that kind of looks like a failure. However, if a relapse does occur, and you know what to do following a relapse, then a relapse can teach you valuable things that can ultimately strengthen your recovery. These hard lessons gained from processing a relapse can be the asset that allows you to achieve long-term sobriety and wonderful life that is just waiting for you.
Your fear of failure is real in that relapse can and does often happen. However, this fear of failure should not convince you of the lie that it is not possible to recover. The great thing about this particular fear is that YOU GET TO CHOOSE. If you want to succeed, believe it is possible, and you are willing to go to any length to recover, I promise you will win in your battle with addiction!
Fear of Success
The flip side of the fear of failure is the fear of success. Although this seems like a paradox, the fear of success is actually a common fear.
The fear of success involves being afraid of achievement, often to the point that one will sabotage themselves. The fear of success isn't always easy to spot. Symptoms of the fear of success can include having a lack of goals, giving up, procrastination, or self-handicapping by placing people or situations in your path, which decreases your odds of success. An addict may not consciously attempt to self-sabotage their recovery. Yet, feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt can derail even the best effort to break free from addiction chains.
It is essential to recognize is that we often don't fear success itself. Instead, our fear is centered on the potential consequences of success and the realization that we deserve a better life. Because the expectations of success in recovery are often based on the idea that achieving your goals means making sacrifices or enduring losses, it is perhaps not surprising that people may be wary of what success might ultimately cost them.
Success in recovery might mean that I need to face the reality that my relationship with my significant other is toxic for those of us overcoming addiction. It needs to end, I need an entirely new set of friends, and some family members are unsafe for me to be around if I want to succeed in recovery. At a subconscious level, we realize that there may be a steep cost if we are successful in our recovery efforts. So, we allow this fear to lie to us and convince us that it would be far less painful if we just stay stuck in the vicious cycle of relapse after relapse
Many people in recovery suffer from low self-esteem. This means that they don't think they deserve a better life somewhere in the back of their mind. Negative thoughts like these can come from many places. Perhaps you were raised in an invalidating environment, have survived trauma, neglect, or abandonment. Unfortunately, this thought pattern often leads to self-sabotage. People use it as an excuse to relapse.
Don't buy into the lies that come with the fear of success. No matter what you've done in the past or what you may have experienced, you deserve a wonderful, joyous, and successful life. You didn't get to choose the family you grew up in or many of the painful things you have experienced, but you do get to choose to be free from addiction and to become a new person. Over time, sobriety will help you see things more clearly. You deserve happiness just like anyone else.
Fear of Losing Your Identity
After years of drinking or using drugs and living the addiction lifestyle, you may not even remember who you are without these things. This lifestyle of doing whatever we needed to do to chase our next high became a significant part of the identity of who we are. This identity prescribed to us what we considered fun, where we would go each day, what time we would get up, how much money we needed to hustle, who we needed to be around, and who we needed to lie to and manipulate along the way.
The addictive and dysfunctional version of ourselves was often there to give us courage, to light a heavy mood, protect us from remembering painful events of the past, and provide us the courage to face our fears of today. In many ways, this was our best friend, and letting this best friend go, as toxic as he may be, still will not be easy. If you have ever lost someone you care about, you are likely to have experienced the five stages of grief, and you may even notice that you are mourning and grieving the loss of the addictive version of yourself.
Do you even remember what your hopes and dreams were before drugs or alcohol became an all-consuming part of your life? What were the set of values that became altered over the course of addiction? These can be some of the most challenging questions to answer in recovery, and these answers may change over time as you begin to reintroduce to the authentic version of yourself. While letting go of this old identity can be frightening, this can also be a very exciting time for you. You are provided with the beautiful blessing to rediscover and reinvent yourself, like the phoenix rising from the ashes. You may be wonderfully surprised at the version of you that has been hidden away behind the mask of addiction.
Fear of the Future
Now that you are sober, things will change. How? Nobody knows. Some in recovery may see positive changes right away. For others, things may continue to be a struggle before they can see the light of day. A passage from the Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book does a great job at summing up this experience as it summarizes the ninth step promises by stating, "Are these extravagant promises? They are being fulfilled among us – sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them."
Until these promises begin to materialize in your recovery, you may struggle with what the future will hold. Your previous life may have been totally consumed with the addictive lifestyle, and in early recovery, you are likely to find that you have a lot of time on your hands. You may struggle with boredom and fear that a life in recovery will be dull and boring. You may even fear if you will ever be able to have fun without your best friend, the addictive version of yourself, and without being drunk or high. You may become glum at the thought of no more parties, no more going out with friends and no more crazy adventures.
If you don't want this to be true, it doesn't have to be. Many people in recovery learn to enjoy social engagements without alcohol or drugs. Sobriety is far from boring. In fact, a clean and sober life opens up many opportunities, new experiences, and new healthy, supportive, and fun relationships.
The money you spend on drinks and drugs can now be put into a new hobby, doing things with family, or going on a trip. The days you were in bed hungover will be much more productive. Some people have neglected school or work because of their addictions. Being free from them will allow you to focus on getting ahead in life.
While the unknown of the future may appear frightening, this also becomes a fantastic opportunity for you. This is your chance to reinvent yourself. Not just restore to who you were before, but to architect version 2.0 of yourself and build a new life that makes going back to your old life seem like a total waste of time. Does this seem farfetched? Well, it is not. Thousands, if not millions of others, have achieved this type of passion and purpose-filled life in recovery.
Why Conquering Fears Is Crucial in Early Recovery
Some people may think they can move forward and overlook their fears, deny they have any or doubt it is anything they need to worry about, but that may not be the case. Fear has a way of taking over your life, leaving many crippled and powerless. People may not recognize how fear has been holding them back and impacting their actions which block them from achieving their goals, or how fear and anxiety have contributed to the cycle of addiction. They may not see how fear has played a leading role in many of the problems in their life. Others know what their fears are but rather hide behind them and instead of facing them head-on.
Facing your fears helps you grow, and you learn something. As you take action to face your fears, you learn what to do along the way. In doing this, your overall well-being improves, the joy you experience in life increases, you achieve more of your goals, and your overall confidence and self-esteem increase.
Unfortunately, not trying to face your fears may lead to regret later. It is essential to start somewhere by doing something about it. Sometimes fearfulness leads to procrastination or putting things off, but it can also contribute to not identifying any goals you would like to achieve.
Neglecting your fears can have a negative ripple effect on your life and recovery. Fear contributes to an overall anxious state and this anxiety contributes to the cycle of addiction. For example, you may fear that others will never forgive you for your past mistakes, so you procrastinate trying to make things right by making amends to them. You have this underlying fear that others will not be there to support you or that they will let you down, so you don't even bother to build new sober, supportive relationships. Life throws you a painful curveball, and you haven't repaired the relationships with your loved ones, haven't made a new support network, and you feel overwhelmed and all alone. At this point, returning to the temporary comfort found in drugs or alcohol begins to seem like a new idea. Failing to identify, face, and conquer your fears dramatically contributes to the cycle of addiction.
Another big area where not facing fears in early recovery comes into play is the fear of telling others "No." You may fear hurting someone's feelings or fear that if you tell them no, they will be mad, won't want anything to do with you, or that you will no longer be considered part of that circle of friends. Everything inside of you is screaming "NO," but outwardly, you comply and agree and then either end up resenting them or resenting yourself later. Saying "no" may allow for better things to come along with time.
A person's thoughts could become exaggerated when fear and anxiety exist. It becomes challenging to reason. Fear may affect decision-making, and it could lead to making the wrong choice. It may also prevent the achievement of personal goals. It certainly is uncomfortable to face your fears, but there is no doubt that the impact on your life from not facing your fears is even more painful and damaging. Face your fears because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Steps for Managing a Fearful Mind
Whether in recovery or not, all of us have fears, and at one time or another, we may struggle with facing these fears. It is often the way you think about the things you fear that leads to success or failure in overcoming them. For example, take someone that has a fear of insects. It isn't the ladybug that creates potential harm. The person's underlying thoughts and beliefs about all insects, including ladybugs, create the perception of potential harm. We tend to achieve what we believe. If we think that all insects are dangerous and deadly, we achieve a panic-stricken state even when a little ladybug lands on us. The following strategies will help you clear your thinking and calm a fearful mind:
Recognize and Acknowledge Your Fears: You can't fix what you don't acknowledge that something is broken. We often lack the self-awareness even to know what we are afraid of or why we have this fear. Start by identifying and admitting to yourself what it is that you fear. Sit quietly for a few minutes and attempt to fully feel what you fear most, without resisting it and without judging yourself for having this fear. Remember, fear is an imagined perception, not a real thing. In truth, fear is an illusion; therefore, it cannot hurt you, even though it feels awful. Recognize that you can feel awful – you can feel afraid – and still be okay.
Differentiate Between Rational and Irrational Fears: A healthy fear response is an evolutionary survival strategy in response to a real or imagined threat of harm. However, many of our deepest fears are rooted in imagined threats of harm, which are irrational and exaggerated by our own minds. It's often these fears that cause us the most difficulty and emotional distress. If a fear is irrational, identify the underlying negative core belief or dysfunctional thinking patterns and correct them to stop fueling the fear.
Focus on the Present Moment: In the room with you right now, as you read this article, look around and realize there is probably very little that is the source of fear in that present moment. Peace and serenity are found in the present. Many of our negative emotions are rooted in either the past or the future. Remember, fears are future worries and about something that maybe, possibly, could happen someday in the future. The fear is not accurate.
Remember the slogan, "One day at a time?" In recovery, the goal is to stay sober today and not worry about what happened in the past or what will happen in the future. It's okay to make plans for the future, reconcile issues, and learn from the past. However, you do not have to be anxious or concerned about these things if you stay focused in the present. Many of our fears are the unconscious choices of our minds.
Consider the Alternative: Consider how your life could be different if you overcome this fear. Consider the impact of your fear, the associated feelings, and the barriers it has created in your life. How has fear it kept you from doing things you would like to do, stopped you from trying, or prompted you to give up before you've even attempted? Has fear caused you to procrastinate, make excuses or avoid testing yourself? Has fear caused you to say "Yes" when everything inside of you was screaming "No?" If so, ask yourself, 'Has this course of action made me happy?' If not, then maybe it is time to create a plan of action to overcome this fear. Complete this sentence: To face this fear and change my life I will___________________________________.
Use Positive Thinking and Affirmations: Sometimes, we can be our own worst critics. Viewing yourself in a strongly negative light is equally as unrealistic as refusing to see your faults. Foster a more positive mindset by catching yourself whenever you detect negative self-reflection. Reverse the negative viewpoint with more accurate and positive statements or affirmations. For example, when you find yourself beating yourself up and feeling like a failure because you made a mistake, say to yourself instead, 'I am not a failure, I just made a mistake. Now I know that this option doesn't work, so that I can try something different. I can re-focus and use this feedback to decide on a better course of action.'
Ask for Help and Support: You do not have to do this alone. Overcoming the fear of asking for help is critical in recovery. Learn to ask for help from people who care about you and your success – friends, family members, peers in recovery, a sponsor, a licensed counselor, case manager, nurse, or doctor. Creating and using a support team will help you get results more quickly and easily.