Staying Sober Amidst a Change in Routine
As anyone in recovery knows, routine is essential. Living with an addiction often means living in chaos. For those who enter rehabilitation programs, a huge part of treatment is establishing a routine. Days are usually very structured with a set wake-up time, recreational hours, established meeting times, and lights out. After rehab, maintaining a routine, e.g., going to a 12-Step meeting 3 times per week or even just regularly making time for a quick morning workout, helps keep you on track with healthy behavior patterns.
When your routine experiences a major disruption, it may throw you off—making a return of unhealthy behaviors more likely. One such example is the COVID-19 pandemic during which families had to stay in their homes, often with their children who would otherwise be in school. Committing to keeping some semblance of your normal daily routine even as you experience unexpected changes can help you stay sober.
The Chaos of Addiction
As an addiction grows and gets worse, it tends to upend the life of the addicted person. They may:1
- Spend more and more of their time trying to get and use drugs and/or alcohol and may also spend a lot of time just recovering from the effects of these substances.
- Fail to attend to their usual obligations, like going to work or school, or caring for their family.
- Start having conflicts with family members and other loved ones.
- Put themselves in risky or even hazardous situations such as driving while intoxicated.
- Give up activities that used to be important to them so they can use.
Addiction not only throws a wrench into the daily life of the individual and their family; it also disrupts the normal functioning of the brain.1 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), addiction is accompanied by changes in the brain that can lead to:1
- Problems with impulse control.
- Decreased ability to exercise good judgment and make decisions.
- Impaired ability to learn.
- Memory problems.
NIDA states that these brain changes contribute largely to the destructive and compulsive behaviors that throw an addicted person’s life into chaos. 1
The Power of Routine
Because people with substance use disorders often act impulsively and experience relatively chaotic daily lives, treatment providers will often focus on helping structure the recovering person’s days to minimize the risk of relapse.2
In the throes of an active addiction, drugs take priority. The addicted person will likely spend a majority of their time in activities that involve the substance. Without their drug of choice, a recovering person may experience a sense of distress—even loss—and may find it difficult to picture how they’ll spend their time without it. 2
This is where a therapist, counselor, or other members of the rehab team can make a world of difference. They can help the individual come up with ways to structure their days. Routine and staying busy are essential to recovery, because having too much free time may be dangerous.2 It is during the periods when a recovering person is idle that they are likely to think about drugs, often recalling only the good times. The tendency to think only about the times where drug use was enjoyable is called “euphoric memory” and it can be a dangerous pathway back to using substances.2
Routine can also help relieve some of the negative emotions common to newly recovering individuals, such as boredom or depression. A concrete plan can also be created to help avoid triggers. If there are people, places, and things that make you want to use drugs, having other commitments can help you avoid them.2
At Laguna Treatment Hospital, we have seen the power of a healthy routine in our patients’ lives. Not only do we help you gain a new sense of order and structure through our daily schedules, we help you create aftercare plans so that you don’t feel aimless when you walk out our doors.
Handling Unexpected Disruptions
It is impossible to have a routine that never gets disrupted. It is wonderful to have a plan, such as going to your AA or NA meeting on a regular basis; however, there may be times you can’t keep your schedule, such as when you are sick or have to fulfill other obligations. You may not be able to make it to an appointment or meeting due to car problems. You may be forced to take on more work and become increasingly unable to stick to your daily or weekly plan. Any number of things can happen that make it impossible for you keep your normal routine.
As we have seen with the COVID-19 pandemic, you may even be unable to leave your home for days or weeks on end. In times like these, you may find yourself with too much free time on your hands and you may begin romanticizing your drug use.
Depending on the situation, you may also be dealing with increasing stressors. For example, if your child is home sick and you have to miss your meetings or therapy sessions, you have to deal with both the strain of not getting your regular support and also caring for a distressed child. This may make you want to reach for drugs to cope.
Behavioral changes, such as a break in routine or a sudden loss of structure, are a risk factor for relapse.2 If you hit an unexpected roadblock in attending to your routine, there are tips you can follow to stay on course in your recovery and avoid falling back into old destructive habits.
- Rehearsing with your therapist healthy ways to cope with triggering situations.2
- Initiating tele-therapy or video conferencing with your therapist, if you are unable to make in-person visits.
- Making time to reconnect with recovering peers.2 Laguna Treatment Hospital has an alumni program where you can keep in contact with both other alumni and the facility’s alumni manager for extra support.
- Keeping healthy commitments, as much as possible, even if it’s in new ways.2 For example, did you know you can join 12-Step meetings remotely? This is a great way to stay on track when your schedule doesn’t.
- Do things that improve your mood and relieve stress, such as exercising or simply getting outside to soak in some sunshine.
- Eat well. A poor diet can make you feel worse physically and may worsen your mood.
Ideally, your therapist will have reviewed your routine with you and determined ways to address slips in your routine or other problems that may arise.2 If not, you can discuss ways to address emerging issues during remote sessions. You can also reach out for the support of a sponsor or sober loved ones.
Remember, you can’t control everything, and part of recovery is learning ways to cope with change without substances. Try to embrace unexpected changes and ask for support when you need it.
If you’re in crisis and you feel like you could relapse at any time, call us. We are here for you. Our admissions navigators are available 24 hours a day, every day, at and are happy to work with you to get you back into treatment as soon as possible.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics.
- Mercer, D., PhD & Woody, E., MD. (1999). Individual Drug Counseling.