How Keystone Habits Can Simplify Recovery

When you first get sober, you are faced with a conundrum: You have to make several major changes at once to maintain sobriety, but trying to make too many changes at once often results in failing to make any changes. How do you make the changes you need to make and still have a reasonable chance of success? The answer may lie in what author Charles Duhigg calls ‘keystone habits’. When you establish a keystone habit, other parts of your life improve without any special effort. Prioritising a few keystone habits will help you simplify big changes. Here are some keystone habits to consider adopting.

Exercise. You may be tired of hearing about the importance of exercise, but there’s a reason it comes up in so many contexts. As a keystone habit, it directly improves several aspects of recovery. First, and perhaps most importantly, it reduces stress. It lowers cortisol and blood pressure while raising serotonin and BDNF, what Dr. John Ratey calls ‘Miracle Grow for the brain’. Stress is a major trigger of cravings and relapse. When you’re stressed, you can’t think straight and you are liable to fall into old habits. Regular exercise reduces stress and makes life feel more manageable.

Exercising regularly also improves your diet almost by accident. The effect is subtle. Maybe you eat a bucket of chicken for lunch and then feel awful when you go for a run in the evening. Maybe you keep eating a bucket of chicken for lunch, but at some point you will think, ‘If I eat this bucket of chicken, I’ll feel terrible when I run later. Maybe I’ll have something lighter’. Your eating habits gradually conform to your exercise habit and your diet becomes better without even trying.

Meditation. As with exercise, meditation is a good way to reduce stress. It also has other benefits for recovery. Mindfulness has been shown to help people manage cravings and become more aware of triggers. It can help you get some mental space in a stressful situation. That space allows you to act intentionally instead of reflexively. Mindfulness has also been shown to help people suffering from chronic pain. There are several bonuses too. Most people have a regular time for practising, either in the morning or evening. Having a strong habit helps you keep a regular schedule. Meditation has also been shown to improve sleep, which is important because many people experience insomnia early in recovery.

12-step meetings. Duhigg does not identify this specifically, but it makes a lot of sense. Aside from the social support and working the steps, meetings provide some structure to your day or week. They also create an expectation of sobriety. Just as you gradually realise you will regret eating a bucket of chicken, you will come to dread the thought of telling the group you had a relapse. Of course, it’s best to participate fully at meetings and work the steps, but some people have improved just by going to meetings with no real intention to get sober.

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