Managing Stress Without Drugs and Alcohol Through Movement And Exercise


Stonewall Institute Treatment Center understands that addiction is more than just a mental health issue. While the disease is rooted in the way your brain responds to substances, there’s a lot you can do with your body to help your brain recover.


Why Addicted Individuals Struggle With Stress

Many alcoholics and others struggling with addiction have similar life experiences that tie them together. Addiction is a club, and most members have dealt with some type of early trauma, depression, anxiety, or various other mental health issues. For example, addiction in the LGBTQ community is very common due to the long-lasting stress of feeling ostracized by family, friends, or peers. This feeling of being discriminated against can play a substantial role in fueling addictive behaviors within this population.

There’s a plus side to all the negatives, though, and that’s that there are several things you can do to cope with stress in a healthy and beneficial way. During alcohol and drug treatment, we not only obtain the tools necessary to live a life free from substances, we also gain knowledge to manage co-occuring issues. In the rest of this article, we’re going to learn how to engage our bodies to strengthen our minds and become more resilient to stress.


Repetitive, Rhythmic Movement And Stress

Individuals who have had past traumatic experiences can tend to find repetitive movement soothing. For the severely traumatized, this can get out of control (picture a rocking motion). In a controlled context, however, rhythmic movement can relax and center you. Combine it with physical activity, and the added benefits of exercise can prime your brain for successful and long-lasting addiction recovery.


Deep Breathing

All movement starts with the breath. When you’re breath is shallow, inconsistent, and constricted, it’s harder to stay relaxed in moments of stress. Laidback folks and high performers take deeper breathes when they’re feeling stressed. They aren’t aware of it. It just happens. Taking a deep breath is the brain’s automatic response to coping with stress. Chronically elevated stress hormones, however, can negatively affect your breathing habits.

When you’re stressed all the time, your instinct to breathe deeply gets desensitized. Over time, your chest and diaphragm can lose range of motion. Deep breathing exercises can help expand your chest and stomach to return your breathing to its full capacity.



The positive effects of meditation on stress reduction have been well known for centuries. It wasn’t until recently, however, that meditation’s positive effects were confirmed by fMRI and EEG studies.


Meditation And Stress

Anxiety gets worse when stress levels are chronically high. Other factors, such as certain neurotransmitter deficiencies (like GABA), can play a major role as well. While breathing exercises alone can reduce stress, meditation is proven to help rebalance overall brain chemistry and reduce anxiety.


Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has exploded in popularity over the last decade, and for a good reason. It continues to keep anxiety levels low even months after stopping the practice. This sub-genre of meditation is an extension of more traditional Buddhist practices. Dubbed “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” (MBSR) by its creator, Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR is designed to lower a person’s stress levels. A recent study conducted by Stanford University supports MBSR’s effectiveness for treating social anxiety disorder. The study determined that MBSR causes positive changes in areas of the brain that are overactive with anxiety.


Meditation and Addiction

Increasingly more studies are coming out in support of mindfulness meditation’s ability to help treat alcohol and drug addiction. One study compared MBSR to another similar program funded by the American Lung Association. Participants in the MBSR test pool were many times more likely at quit smoking cigarettes by the end of the training. These same participants were also much less apt to return to smoking by the 17-week follow-up.

This doesn’t mean that MBSR practitioners don’t experience cravings. Mindfulness meditation helps you ride the wave of your cravings without leading to a relapse. More specialized programs, like Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP), have been developed to treat other forms of addiction. If you or someone you know in the Phoenix, AZ area is suffering from addiction, our 10-week Intensive Outpatient Program is a safe place to get support when making the push towards a drug and alcohol-free future.


Yoga and Stress Management

Yoga has been a holistic treatment method for thousands of years.  The most common reasons that people start yoga are for back pain reduction, increasing overall mobility, and, you guessed it, stress reduction. Let’s take closer look at how yoga makes the brain so relaxed.


Yoga Boosts GABA

GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is one of the brain’s primary neurotransmitters. Serotonin and dopamine are examples of some more well-known ones. Serotonin is responsible for stabilizing mood, and dopamine is best known for its influence on focus and motivation. GABA is the neurotransmitter that’s associated with anxiety and stress reduction. It’s inhibitory, meaning that it tells excitatory neurotransmitters, like glutamate, to stop firing so that you can start feeling relaxed.

Increasing GABA can be a huge help on the road to recovery from addiction. It produces a calming effect that’s similar to the way that alcohol impacts brain chemistry. The difference is that when alcohol wears off, an addicted individual’s brain doesn’t have enough GABA to fill the role and keep the brain calm.


Xanax Without The Side Effects

Xanax is in a family of pharmaceuticals called benzodiazepines. Benzos are effective at reducing anxiety because they encourage the expression of GABA in the brain. The downside of benzos is that they’re one of the most addictive categories of drugs and withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant and dangerous. Practicing yoga is a much safer and healthier alternative than relying solely on medication. The combination of movement, meditation, and deep breathing makes yoga one of the most effective ways to reduce stress and manage anxiety.


Yoga Fights Depression And Improves Cognitive Functioning

People who are depressed may have reduced gray matter in their brains. Luckily, studies show that yoga can increase levels of gray matter and reduce symptoms of depression. Low levels of gray matter can cause a whole host of problems. These include poor pain tolerance, emotional instability, impaired memory, and decreased cognitive functioning. People who practice yoga regularly have elevated levels of gray matter in the cerebral cortex and subcortical regions of the brain.


Tension In Your Body Leads To Tension In Your Brain

The communication line between your brain and body is a two-way street. Messages from your brain can trigger tension in your body, but the tension in your body can likewise influence your brain chemistry. A consistent yoga practice can give you better control over your body so that it can communicate relaxation to your brain.


Exercise Reduces Stress By Priming Your Brain For Success

Exercise increases the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a protein that plays a critical role in neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons.


Recovering Addicts Are Prone To Brain Fog

Addiction recovery demands a lot out of your brain. There’s quite a bit of rewiring that needs to happen before you can move past cravings. Then comes the annoyingly long period of wading through brain fog. Feeling slow comes in waves when you’re in recovery. Just when you start feeling clear-headed, your brain will enter another phase of building new synaptic connections.


How Exercise and BDNF Can Help You Conquer Addiction

Not only does BDNF supercharge the creation of new neurons, but it protects existing synaptic connections while at the same time creating new ones. This makes your brain more adaptive to stress and more prepared for recovery.

According to Harvard neuropsychiatrist John J. Ratey, MD, BDNF is like “Miracle-Gro for your brain.” It can improve mood and memory while treating anxiety and depression. According to Ratey, BDNF is the “crucial biological link between thoughts, emotion, and movement.” It’s one of the fastest ways to form new connections in the brain.


Deep breathing, meditation, yoga, and exercise can help ease your recovery by reducing stress and improving your brain chemistry. If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol or substance use issues, it’s important to understand what your options are.  Stonewall Institute Treatment Center is more than happy to answer any questions you may have. Call us today at 602-535-6468 or email us at

We’re here to help.