We’ll start this article with an observation. If you have an alcohol or substance use disorder (AUD/SUD) and you’ve taken the proactive step to start your recovery journey, or you’ve been in recovery for a significant amount of time already, then you’re engaging in the most important type of self-care in your life: recovery itself.
That said, within the broad context of recovery, there are a number of things you can do that increase your chance of achieving long-term, sustainable recovery, and reducing your risk of relapse to alcohol or substance use.
Collectively, we label these types of activities as self-care. Over the past 20 years, this term has evolved to include a variety of different activities or behaviors. And at its core, that’s logical, because self-care means different things to different people: what works for one person might not work for another, and vice-versa.
How the Concept of Self-Care Has Changed
Not long ago, most of us thought of self-care as luxury activities that border on the indulgent: a professional massage, a manicure, a pedicure, or a weekend getaway where you can get a massage, a manicure, and a pedicure all in one day, all in one location.
While all that qualifies as self-care, it’s crucial to understand that self-care is exclusively about indulgent luxury. It’s about doing things you know will increase your overall happiness and sense of wellbeing. Here’s how the World Health Organization (WHO) defines self-care:
“Self-care as individuals, families and communities’ promoting and maintaining their own health, preventing disease, and coping with illness and disability, with or without the support of a health worker.”
That’s a good overall definition. In this article, we’ll focus on the individual component of self-care, and how people in recovery can engage in activities that promote recovery and reduce the risk of relapse. In that context, we off this definition of self-care, published by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):
“Self-care means taking the time to do things that help you live well and improve both your physical health and mental health. When it comes to your mental health, self-care can help you manage stress, lower your risk of illness, and increase your energy. Even small acts of self-care in your daily life can have a big impact.”
Before we discuss our approach to self-care, we want to ensure you understand that if it works for you, increases your happiness, increases your quality of life, and improves well-being, then it counts as self-care. While some things work well for a large number of people, not everything works for everyone: it’s up to each of us to find what works for us and capitalize on that. In that way, self-care is intensely subjective and personal: you’re the only one who gets to decide what self-care means for you.
Top Self-Care Tips: Build a Foundation for Wellness
The idea behind this list is to give you an objective reference for what’s ultimately a subjective pursuit. We know the items on the list below work to create conditions in which people in recovery can learn, grow, and thrive. However, the exact details – i.e. what you do and how you do it – are up to you to define. Remember: the self in self-care is you. That means if it works for you – and doesn’t compromise your recovery – then do it. And if it doesn’t work for you, keep searching until you find what does, and embrace it.
Self-Care Essentials: Top Six Ways to Take Care of Yourself During Recovery
#1: Healthy Eating
You’ve heard it your whole life because it’s true: a healthy diet is the foundation of optimal physical, psychological, and emotional health. A good diet creates a foundation that supports the smooth and efficient functioning of all your essential physiological systems: your brain, your heart, your lungs, your endocrine system (hormones), and your muscles, bones, and joints. A healthy diet supports it all. Here’s the most up-to-date advice on the foods that not only improve physical health, but improve mood, as well:
- To maximize mental health and physical health and wellbeing, nutrition experts from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the American Heart Association advise eating 2-3 servings of fresh fruit per day.
- One serving of fruit means one medium-sized fruit about the size of an apple or orange, ½ cup canned/frozen fruit, ¼ cup dried fruit, or ¼ cup of fruit juice. Avoid any fruit juice or canned/frozen fruit with added sugars or added high fructose corn syrup.
- To maximize mental and physical health and wellbeing, nutrition experts advise eating at least 5 servings of fresh vegetables per day.
- One serving of fresh vegetables mean one cup of raw greens like spinach or kale, ½ cup of fresh, frozen, or canned vegetables, and/or ½ cup of vegetable juice. Avoid canned or frozen vegetables with added sugar or preservatives, when possible.
- Grain products typically come in two types: whole grains and refined grains. Whole grains are the healthier option, because they include the healthiest parts of the grain: including the bran and germ. Refined grains don’t have the bran and germ, meaning they lack essential nutrients such as fiber and B-complex vitamins.
- Whole grains include: brown rice, wild rice, quinoa, rolled or steel-cut oatmeal, and whole wheat, oats, barley, farro, and yes – popcorn.
- When we think of protein, we most often think of meat – but meat is actually not the only way to get healthy protein in our bodies. Protein from plant sources such as legumes (beans) and nuts are healthy and lean, and better for our bodies than most meats. Protein from low-fat dairy products and meats labeled lean are also healthy.
- Nutritionists recommend eliminating processed meats from the diet whenever possible. For healthy, lean protein, they recommend 5 ½ ounces of lean protein every day, in the form of nuts, beans, seed nuts, seeds, fish, or lean beef/chicken.
- An ounce of protein means ¼ cup of cooked beans, 1 tablespoon of peanut butter, or 1 egg. 2 cup of chicken or beef contains roughly 8 ounces of protein.
Heart-Friendly Oils and Fats
- Oils and fats that improve, rather than degrade, overall health include plant oils like canola, corn, olive, soybean, and safflower. Liquid plant oils are healthier than fat like lard and butter, and superior to fats labeled partially hydrogenated.
- Experts recommend 3 tablespoons/9 teaspoons of healthy fat or oil per day for optimal health.
Processed Food, Salt, Sugar
- Nutrition experts recommend reducing intake of all these. You can identify processed food because of the packaging an labels: they usually have more packaging and a long list of ingredients that look like vocabulary list from chemistry class. Generally speaking, the more items on the ingredient list, the more processed the contents.
- With regards to salt and sugar, experts advise reducing intake as much as possible, particularly processed (white) sugar. Adding a teaspoon of sugar to coffee or tea or using salt to taste while cooking is totally acceptable. However, it’s easy to overdo it with both of these: nutritionists tell us to be mindful, and warn that it’s easy to consume too much sugar and salt when we eat a lot of processed food or fast food.
Maintaining – or striving for – a strong and healthy is another core foundational component of effective self-care. You don’t have to become a hardcore athlete or go to the gym twice a day. In fact, simple habits like walking 20 minutes a day or spending time in the garden count as exercise. The idea is to find something you like doing and keep your body moving every day.
Remember: any activity is better than no activity.
- Moderate Aerobic Exercise: 2 ½ to 5 hours per week of an activity like of walking, running, or swimming at moderate intensity.
Moderate intensity means you can carry on a conversation while doing the activity, but it’s not easy to.
- Vigorous Aerobic Exercise: 1 ¼ to 2 ½ hours per week of walking, or running, or swimming at vigorous intensity.
Vigorous intensity means the activity should be hard enough to make conversation almost impossible, but you can get short phrases out.
- Strength Building Exercise: For optimal health, people should add functional weight-bearing exercises like pushups, pullups, triceps dips, or squats, or a weight/resistance training routine that addresses all major muscle groups at least three days per week. Strength building should be performed at moderate or vigorous levels of intensity.
#3: Quality Sleep
We understand that when you’re early in your recovery journey, getting quality sleep – and enough of it – can be very challenging. Some people develop alcohol or substance use problems because they use alcohol or substances to sleep, a practice which ultimately causes more problems than it solves. That’s one reason establishing what experts call a sleep hygiene routine is important if you’re in recovery: it helps you get the sleep you need to be at your best.
Here are basic guidelines for a sleep hygiene routine that can help you get the 7-7 ½ hours of sleep per night recommended by sleep experts:
- Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including weekends.
- Keep your bedroom dark, cool, and quiet. Consider blackout curtains if light from outside – streetlights, neon signs, etc. – impairs your sleep. Darkness stimulates the release of melatonin, a natural chemical that promotes sleep.
- Use your bedroom to sleep only, not for hanging out.
- Engage in home activities like watching TV, remote work, scrolling social media, or reading in any other room than your bedroom.
- If it’s not clear yet, sleep experts advise not watching TV or your phone screen in bed.
- Turn off all electronic devices at least half an hour before you go to bed.
- Create a relaxing evening ritual to prepare for bed, after you turn off your electronics: take a walk, do yoga, meditate, journal, read a book, or anything that helps you leave the worries of the day behind. Caveat: do your routine in a room other than your bedroom.
- Make sure your bed is a comfortable place you want to be.
- Avoid cigarettes or caffeine in the evening.
- Get plenty of exercise or activity every day, but avoid intense workouts within 4 hours of bedtime.
#4: Social Connection
Spending time with people you like and care for is fulfilling, energizing, and relaxing. Spending time with people you love – and who love you – is all that, and more. When we talk about social connection, what we really mean is human connection. Some of us may think we’re tough, independent, and don’t need anyone – but most people in recovery know that connecting with other people can be the key to a successful recovery. Yes, you have to do the work yourself, but doing that hard work with the support of others makes it that much easier.
To stay connected with others – and practice this component of self-care during recovery – we recommend:
- Going to community support/peer support meetings, such as 12-step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or Narcotics Anonymous (NA).
- Consider finding a sponsor
- If you’re experienced in recovery, consider becoming a sponsor
- Say yes to invitations to coffee, lunch, or dinner with peers from community support meetings.
- Participate in family events that you avoided before you entered recovery
- Volunteer for a cause you believe in. You can help feed and clothe the homeless, donate time to a hospital, senior center, or orphanage, participate in/advocate for a social or political cause, or simply donate an hour a week as a guest reader at an elementary school.
- Go to and participate any hyper-local events: neighborhood barbecues, park/street cleanups, or meeting about neighborhood issues. You never know: you might find new friends right around the corner.
- Find activity groups. In most cities and towns, there are activity groups for adults. Activities typically include sports, pastimes like birdwatching, or special hobbies of all sorts.
There’s a theme running through this article we haven’t mentioned explicitly: part of practicing self-care during recovery is finding healthy, recovery-friendly ways to spend your spare time. During the active phase of addiction/disordered use of alcohol or substances, alcohol and substance use dominates spare time. When you enter recovery, you suddenly have more time on your hands. To fill this time – and have fun doing it – we recommend finding and pursuing a hobby.
For instance, you can:
- Take up an expressive or creative pursuit, like painting, drawing, writing, or playing a musical instrument.
- Take a class in something that interests you. This can be anything: ballroom dancing, gardening, stamp collecting, investing, cooking, astronomy, birdwatching, or learning a new language.
- Return to an old hobby. Think back on your life to things you used to love to do: could you pick up one of those things again? If so, go for it. You may reconnect with part of yourself – a healthy, productive part – you thought you might never see again.
You probably thought this would be the first item on our list. And it could be, because mindfulness is one of the most efficient and effective self-care tools available to you. The thing that makes mindfulness unique is that you can practice mindfulness anytime, anywhere, during any situation and while engaging in any activity. Once you understand the basic concept of mindfulness – i.e., paying attention to the world as it is in the moment, without judgment – you can apply it whenever and wherever you like.
You can learn mindfulness by taking classes in or learning the basics of any of the following:
- Tai Chi
- Chi Kung
When we say you can apply the concepts of mindfulness to virtually anything, we mean it. Get online and search for terms like mindful walking, mindful cooking, and mindful eating. Those are all great self-care activities you can learn, participate in, and enjoy the benefits of almost immediately.
Put Self-Care on Your Schedule: Not Optional
One way to ensure you engage in self-care consistently is to reframe how you think about it. Self-care is neither luxury nor indulgence: it’s a practical, effective way to promote health, happiness, and well-being. For people in recovery, self-care is a practical and effective way to promote and support a recovery lifestyle. Therefore, we suggest you think of self-care in the same way you think of eating, sleeping, or attending to your personal hygiene: it’s something you need to do every day.
That’s why we suggest putting in on your schedule: work other things around your self-care time, rather than trying to work your self-care time in around other things in your life. When you find what works for you, whether its exercise, creating art, or simply taking that evening walk, and make it a fixed part of your schedule, we’re sure you’ll wonder why you waited so long to take that step – and you’ll wonder how you ever got by without your self-care time.