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Guide to Health and Wellness through Addiction Recovery

There are subjective definitions and ideas of what constitutes health and wellness. Perhaps the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration {SAMHSA) offers the best and yet most general definition of wellness: being in good physical and mental health. These are still relative terms, and the notion of being healthy and being well is a subjective one.

It is important to understand that the idea of wellness is not the same thing as having no issues with stress or physical health. In fact, despite what many people may think, it is impossible to have no stress in life. One of the most commonly cited articles and stress rating scales comes from researchers Holmes and Rahe in the 1960s. The scale lists what many people consider to be positive events, getting married and retiring, as being in the top 10 stressful life events. Stress is part of life.


Likewise, physical health is a relative term. SAMHSA implies that being in good physical health means addressing any infections or illnesses that will inevitably occur during life, and that an individual is generally healthy, able to manage any inherent or chronic physical conditions, and able to function in a relatively normal manner despite these issues.

Individuals in recovery from a substance use disorder or other form of addiction, such as a compulsive gambling disorder, should strive to increase all aspects of their health and wellness as part of their recovery. According to SAMHSA’s summation of health and wellness associated with recovery, there are eight dimensions of health and wellness:

Physical Wellness

This dimension is the one most commonly associated with health and wellness. Physical wellness consists of being physically healthy, eating right, getting enough exercise, and getting sufficient rest. In terms of improving physical wellness throughout recovery, one of the main steps that can be taken is the implementation of an exercise program. Exercise has a number of benefits that extend beyond its ability to improve physical health. Exercise also helps one deal with stress, reduces cravings, develops discipline, increases quality of sleep, and results in the body being able to heal itself from past substance abuse much more quickly.

Individuals should strive to maintain an exercise program that minimally involves between 3-5 hours per week of physical exercise and an hour per day of non-exercise-related activities that include doing chores around the house, shopping, taking short walks, stretching, using stairs instead of elevators, walking to lunch, etc.

Individuals in recovery can also benefit from:

Eating healthy and nutritious foods
Maintaining a healthy weight
Continuing treatment for any physical conditions
Getting regular physical checkups
Getting regular dental checkups and teeth cleanings
Knowing personal vital statistics, such as resting heart rate, blood pressure, BMI, and any health conditions that require ongoing treatment
Emotional Wellness

SAMHSA defines emotional wellness as being effectively able to deal with life’s issues and create satisfying relationships. Maintaining a strong sense of physical fitness/awareness will inevitably contribute to emotional wellbeing. As mentioned above, physical exercise helps one deal with stress and also has other benefits that will relate to emotional wellness.

In addition, continuing to engage in therapy as part of recovery will contribute to overall emotional wellness. Therapy has the effect of regulating behavior and physical processes that occur in the brain. For example, individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder who are treated with therapy demonstrate changes in their brain that are associated with recovery from their disorder. During therapy, one can learn stress management skills, such as diaphragmatic breathing and muscle relaxation, that foster emotional wellness. Therapy can also help individuals to become better communicators, which will help to enhance relationships. Positive and satisfying personal relationships are key to maintaining emotional wellness.

Social Wellness

This dimension involves developing a sense of connection with others, belonging, and a well-formed system of support. It is obviously strongly related to one’s sense of emotional wellness. Social wellness in recovery is in part affected by one’s therapy and social support group involvement (e.g., 12-Step group participation or other social support group participation) as well as the support of friends and family.

Striving to develop positive contacts with others, such as contributing in group therapy and in social support group meetings, becoming a sponsor, and doing volunteer work, is critical to enhance social awareness as part of recovery. At a bare minimum, one should strive to make at least one connection with another person every day. Another strategy is to make a list of people whom you care about and contact them regularly. The goal is to stay socially connected and make at least one positive personal contact on a daily basis.

Intellectual Wellness

This dimension includes expanding one’s knowledge base and skillset, and recognizing creative abilities. Intellectual wellness is enhanced by maintaining physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing. For individuals in recovery, it is important to learn and understand all aspects of addiction and recovery as thoroughly as possible. Understanding the driving forces of one’s own addictive behaviors and the triggers that make one vulnerable to relapse are key factors in recovery. These aspects of recovery are learned in therapy and in social support group participation.

In addition, one should strive to have an understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses. Staying mentally active can improve overall thinking abilities and act as a protective factor from age-related issues as well as the effects of past substance abuse. This is an ongoing process, and individuals can take classes (or even focus on getting a degree), become involved in local political events/issues, take up new hobbies, read, attend workshops and get certificates, improve occupational skills, and continue to experience new things.

Because teaching and being a mentor to others is also a method to improve thinking abilities and intellectual skills, becoming a sponsor, running local 12-Step groups, speaking at sober events, etc., can all contribute to overall intellectual wellbeing.

Occupational Wellbeing

This dimension refers to achieving enrichment and personal satisfaction from one’s work. For some individuals, the enhancement of their occupational wellbeing may even involve finding a new job. Individuals who do not feel challenged by their work may need to volunteer for extra duties or responsibilities that include supervision of others.

Improving professional skills with specific courses or overall professional development courses can boost occupational wellbeing. Continuing to improve communication skills so one can effectively interact with supervisors and coworkers is also extremely helpful.

Financial Wellbeing

Perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of overall wellbeing is financial wellbeing. This does not necessarily mean being wealthy; it simply means that a person is generally satisfied with their current financial situation, and any potential future financial issues do not result in disequilibrium or sufficient stress. For an individual in recovery, it can become very hard to remain positive when one’s financial situation is a continual source of stress and worry.

Financial wellbeing is achieved when one is relatively stable in their present financial situation, and there are no foreseeable future financial issues that will be excessively draining. This means that individuals in recovery should attempt to stick to a budget regarding expenditures, work with experts to solve credit or debt issues, and engage in a solid plan to save for the future. Even small amounts of money regularly put into some sort of a savings account can eventually result in substantial benefits. Learning and understanding financial markets and investing can improve intellectual, occupational, and financial wellbeing.

Environment Wellbeing

This dimension of wellbeing refers to living and interacting in stimulating and subjectively pleasant environments that support overall health and wellbeing. A person’s surroundings affect all aspects of their wellbeing.

One path to improved environmental wellbeing is to try and spend as much time in natural surroundings as possible. Spending time outside in nature also affects all of the other aspects of wellbeing.

Attempt to eliminate as much clutter as possible. This includes from living spaces, workspaces, and other areas where one spends time. Aim to keep things as clean and orderly as possible. SAMHSA reports that inhabiting neat and orderly environments assists in positive mood states, which affects all other aspects of wellbeing. “Clutter” applies to a number of different situations in life, and it is important to eliminate as much of this clutter as possible.

Spending time in toxic environments, such as with negative individuals or those who are not supportive of recovery, is also a form of clutter. Attempt to reduce this is much as possible.

Spiritual Wellbeing

This dimension of wellbeing focuses on expanding one’s sense of purpose and meaning. Spiritual wellbeing is enhanced when all the other dimensions of wellbeing are enhanced. In addition, having a firm grasp on one’s recovery instills a sense of purpose and meaning in an individual’s life. Continuing to engage in substance abuse detracts from one’s sense of purpose and meaning.

For some individuals, spiritual wellbeing is associated with religious beliefs, and for others, it simply means some form of connectedness with a higher sense of purpose. If a person already has religious or strong spiritual beliefs concerning a higher power, they should attempt to incorporate these beliefs into their everyday life. If a person does not have any defined beliefs regarding spirituality, a good starting point is to investigate major schools of thought regarding religion, spirituality, and a sense of purpose.

Engaging in 12-Step group participation, meditation, the practice of yoga or some other type activity to expand one’s sense of self, and attendance at different local religious services are also good steps to compare and contrast different spiritual viewpoints. Keeping an open mind regarding the existence of a higher power, different understandings of consciousness, and what spirituality really means can help expand one’s own sense of spiritual wellbeing.

A Holistic Approach to Health and Wellness

The notion of health and wellness and recovery should be holistic. This means that it should address the entire person in all aspects of a person’s wellbeing. The model presented by SAMHSA regarding the dimensions of wellbeing and recovery represents a holistic approach to overall wellness and recovery from substance abuse.

Individuals should attempt to maximize each dimension of wellbeing but should remember that there is no such thing as an existence that is entirely free of stress, problems, or complications. The goal is to be able to maximize each of these dimensions and face challenges and complications from a position of strength.

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