5 Common Challenges in Early Recovery from Addiction

Setting off down the path of recovery from substance use or addiction can be anywhere from challenging to downright terrifying.


I’ve heard some clients describe feeling paralyzed with fear, not even knowing how to go about their day, because they literally have no idea how to live their life without using alcohol or drugs - almost as if they are having to learn how to walk again. However, knowing is half the battle, right?

Here is some of what I have learned from former clients, about their most difficult challenges, during this phase of early recovery from addiction:

 1.    Friends and Associates Who Use

Many clients, just beginning their addiction treatment process, have shared that being around current addicts was their #1 trigger to relapse. We’ve all heard that misery loves company, and lots of us have actually found this to be true.  

People in recovery also quickly find out who their true friends are: the ones supporting them in overcoming addiction -- NOT the ones offering them a beer, or inviting them to places where they know the likelihood of substance use is high.

Separating yourself from negative influences, and surrounding yourself with people who have similar goals and support you, is going to increase your probability of success in early recovery.

 2.    High Sensitivity to Stress

One of the most commonly reported symptoms of Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS) in early recovery is stress sensitivity, which can sometimes look like anger and irritability. Your body and brain are readjusting to life without chemicals.

The feel-good chemicals in your brain, such as dopamine, are at an all-time low and the natural highs (things like being around family, eating your favorite food, watching a funny movie) just aren’t doing it for you. This can be incredibly challenging, because you know just what you need to feel better quick – drugs or alcohol!

The good news is: Your brain will eventually adjust, the mood swings and stress sensitivity will die down, and the natural highs will start working again. In the meantime, being aware that this is just part of the process, can be a huge help.

3.    Substances in the Home

Being around substances during early recovery from addiction can be a major trigger. If you want to increase your chances of staying clean, the best idea is stay away from all substances --even if it’s a substance that has never been a “drug of choice” for you.  There may be a certain type of beer you’ve never cared for in the refrigerator, but chances are, you know it will do in a pinch.

Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say that our brain works in fascinating ways, and reactions can be triggering without our conscious-selves even being aware.  I’m talking within milliseconds here, our brains can recognize a potential high, and we won’t even consciously notice.

Add that to being extremely sensitive to stress, having mood swings seemingly out of nowhere, and difficulty finding pleasure due to dopamine depletion in our brain…hopefully you are starting to imagine the potential consequences.

This is why we don’t see (or encourage) alcoholics to drink non-alcoholic beer. Sooner or later, it triggers those places in our brain to want the real thing. The best plan of action is to keep any and all substances, and related paraphernalia, out of the house. Your family and/or roommates should understand. If not, it might even be worth looking for another place to live.

4.    Boredom and Loneliness

 Remember at the start of this post, I mentioned a former client who shared with me that he wasn’t sure how to go about living his life during recovery? This was because he had spent most of his free time doing things related to using, before he entered into sobriety.

Once he was in recovery, he needed to find other things to occupy his time, and QUICK. Sitting around with nothing to do was not going to work for him, and as it turns out, that doesn’t really work for anyone who is fresh in recovery. 

During times of boredom and loneliness, our brains tend to start thinking about what we used to do when we were bored (before recovery), and who we used to hang out with (before recovery).  We remember those unnatural highs (the substance-inducing kind), and without anyone or anything around to slap us back into reality… well, you know where this story leads.

That’s why allowing ourselves to become bored and lonely in early recovery is not an option, and why sometimes planning our days out, even down to every 15-minute interval, is what we have to do.

5.    Special Occasions

 Early recovery from addiction can be extremely difficult. It can also be really awesome too. Sometimes this is referred to as the “honeymoon phase” or being on the “pink cloud.”

This can be a risky time though. Because this can also be a time when we are proud of ourselves, we might want to reward ourselves for doing so well.  Especially on a special occasion, like a holiday or at a party….with a drink.

In early recovery, special occasions are best approached with planning ahead. And hey….if you are doing well and are proud of yourself, you should reward yourself!  Just find a different way to do so – have a nice meal, treat yourself to a massage, etc.

So there you have it! Five of the most common challenges in early recovery from addiction. Once we know our biggest triggers, we can then set in motion how to either avoid them, or cope with them. And if we don’t know, we can always find someone who supports us and get their assistance. 

Reach out for help today, and regain control of your life. Set yourself free from addiction.