Finding Healthy Routines in Recovery: 5 New Habits to Replace Drinking

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One of the ironies of excessive drinking is that while it can look or feel chaotic, it’s often actually driven by routine and ritual. Whether it’s a habit of going to the bar every Friday with friends or relaxing after work with a bottle of wine, alcohol abuse is often part of people’s routines, and routines are comforting.

When you stop drinking, or cut down significantly, one piece of advice you often hear is that it’s important to find a regular routine. But what does this look like in practice, and is routine in recovery one-size-fits-all?

Below are some tips for creating a health daily routine that feels natural to you, and helps replace the role of alcohol in your life.

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What Does a Healthy Recovery Routine Look Like?

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Developing a steady routine in sobriety is a mainstay of many recovery programs, including the 12-step method. One often hears about waking up early every day, planning a full schedule, and sticking very closely to new rituals in recovery.

Having clear structure can be very helpful when you’re trying to establish a new, alcohol-free lifestyle. Knowing where you need to be from moment to moment makes it more obvious when you’re drifting off course, and solid routines can help you avoid the ennui that leads to alcohol cravings or even relapse. For many, this is extremely helpful.

But a strict routine doesn’t work for everyone. Many people who’ve struggled with alcohol may find a rigid schedule too restrictive, and actually counter-productive. Like many things, routine in recovery depends on the individual.

So, what makes for a healthy routine, vs one that’s too limiting? How can you develop new habits to replace drinking that are natural to your lifestyle?

Ultimately, building new rituals and habits isn’t about having more rules or reasons to judge yourself. Rather, it’s about finding a better balance in life that helps you feel healthier, and allows for you to get key needs met.

Below are 5 suggestions for healthy routines to try in recovery. Each is open-ended and flexible enough that you can customize it to your own needs, and each is shown to have a positive effect on long-term recovery.

1. Find a mindfulness habit

If you’ve been in recovery before, or are now, you may get bombarded by messages about meditation or mindfulness. There’s a good reason for that. It’s shown to help with everything from weight loss to major depression.

Perhaps one of the most significant things about mindfulness is, if practiced over time, it actually changes the structure of the brain. This can help you deal with stress better, and have less of a need for alcohol to cope.

What is a mindfulness practice? Any regular habit that incorporates non-judgmental noticing is considered mindfulness. Examples include meditation, yoga, Tai Chi, taking a mindful walk, or even just purposefully noticing sensations during daily routines. (Think washing dishes, or taking a shower.)

Find a somewhat structured routine that sets you up to practice mindfulness on most days. For example, follow a yoga class on YouTube, or download a meditation app. There’s no definitive recommendation for how long you should practice mindfulness, but a basic rule of thumb is to try to get between 10 and 60 minutes on most days.

Read More: Practicing Mindfulness in Recovery

2. Look for cardio exercises you enjoy

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As with mindfulness, exercise can change the way your brain and body function. It’s also shown to help decrease depression and boost overall life satisfaction. One study looked specifically at the benefits of aerobic exercise for alcohol sobriety. It found that not only did people get fitter, but they had more days without drinking, and fewer drinks per day when they did.

Many people start exercise programs but get bored or discouraged. Often, that’s because it’s not enjoyable for them. Instead of choosing a program that feels punishing, find a sport or guided activity you enjoy. Examples might include taking up swimming or tennis, trying a Peloton subscription, joining a local team, or training for a 5K.

Create a regular time in your day, or at least several days per week, to get used to your new activity. The longer you practice it, the more natural it will become. Eventually you will feel uncomfortable when you don’t exercise.

And, of course, don’t do any activities that are harmful to your body. It’s always a good idea to get a doctor’s approval before starting a new exercise program if you think it will put you under significant strain.

3. Stay connected with others

For many people, feelings of isolation or non-acceptance are a big contributor to addiction. This is why it’s important to develop your support network, and stay in contact with others.

In a famous experiment dubbed “Rat Park,” the animal test subjects were significantly less likely to abuse opiates when they had friends and activities to enjoy. This idea of building community is trending in recovery, and has been a staple of 12-step programs since the beginning.

Many who struggle with alcohol or are in recovery report having trouble connecting with others. It can take time to develop sober friendships and get more used to vulnerability. Many people use alcohol to lower inhibitions, and the thought of socializing or dating sober can feel terrifying. However, those who are able to do this eventually find it’s one of the most enjoyable parts of life.

If you have trouble finding friends you feel comfortable with, look for an established group that doesn’t center around alcohol. Examples might include a local church, recovery community, or Meetup group. If possible, make socializing sober with others a weekly activity.

It may take a while to find your “tribe,” but it will be worth the search.

4. Find and develop a new hobby

Life’s a lot of work, and recovery from alcohol misuse is even harder. Why do all of that work if you don’t enjoy life? To make sobriety more worthwhile, find a hobby or activity that’s particularly enjoyable or important to you.

This could be completing paint-by-number kits, volunteering at a local animal shelter, or joining a local gaming group. If you’re not sure what you enjoy outside of drinking, experiment with several different ideas until you find one that fits.

5. Create a soothing night ritual

cup of tea and magazine on table
Photo by Fauzan Ardhi on Unsplash

The soothing effects of alcohol, and the rituals that surround it, can be a big part of how some people unwind in the evening. When you quit drinking, it may feel especially difficult to bring your day to a close or relax without alcohol, and this can be a frustrating trigger. Finding calming, sober things to do at night can make a huge difference.

This will vary depending on the person. Your evening routine might include making your favorite tea or smoothie, playing video games, taking a bath, journaling, or watching a couple of episodes of your favorite show each night. But try to practice this most nights of the week, until it feels normal and starts to replace other rituals that weren’t as healthy.

Establishing Alcohol-Free Daily Rituals

Ultimately, most of us have parts of our lives that run on autopilot. All of us live for novelty to one degree or another, but we also tend to depend on our routines for our foundation, stability, and even our sense of self. Ending alcohol addiction generally means giving up some of these routines. Finding new ones that work for you helps you put down roots in a newer reality.

Of course, to excess, many routines can become addictive in their own way. This isn’t always so bad, so long as they aren’t hurting your health or interfering with the rest of your life. But throughout the process of establishing new habits, make sure you are balancing multiple areas of self-care, and doing what’s best for your whole self.

The above suggestions are a good framework to get started. Customize and adjust things to meet your own unique needs as you go along, and you’ll soon find you have new routines that fit you and the life you want.

If you’re struggling to establish new habits in sobriety, or simply want some help dealing with common drinking triggers, Ria Health may be able to help. We offer portable alcohol treatment through a smartphone app, including weekly meetings with coaches who can help you learn new coping mechanisms. Getting support in adjusting to life without alcohol is easier than ever before.

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Written By:
Jennie Lannette, LCSW
Licensed therapist, writer, and published author, with a focus on trauma recovery.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.
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