5 Instrumental Coping Skills for Recovery

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Calendar icon Last Updated: 09/13/2023
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Developing strong coping skills is essential to experiencing long-term recovery from drug and alcohol addiction. Knowing how to effectively cope with difficult emotions and experiences without resorting to drugs and alcohol can help you avoid relapse and reduce your likelihood of needing additional treatment. Having healthy coping skills can also help you reduce your risk of having a life-threatening relapse, given how relapse can sometimes cause an accidental drug overdose.

1. Learn How to Manage Stress

Stress is a normal part of life and affects everyone, though some people are better at managing it than others. The key to effectively managing stress is finding one or more methods that work best for you. Some people use exercise to blow off steam, while others may prefer taking a long, warm bath or listening to relaxing music.

Most drug rehab programs will introduce you to a wide range of relaxation and stress management techniques, so you can try different methods and adopt a few before leaving rehab. Yoga, meditation, fitness centers, equine therapy, and art therapy are some of the many techniques and amenities available at rehab that can help you learn how to relax and manage stress. Your therapists and counselors can also work with you to find new hobbies and stress reduction methods that keep you away from drugs and alcohol.

In one study, researchers examined the effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions in a wide range of addiction treatment settings. They found that mindfulness techniques helped patients cope with addiction in everyday life by increasing their self-awareness and self-acceptance and improving their thought processes.1 The researchers concluded that practicing mindfulness was highly useful in helping patients reduce drug and alcohol use, as well as curb their cravings for these substances.

2. Establish a Strong Support Network

Loneliness and isolation are common traits among people who struggle with substance use disorders. Building a strong support network of friends, relatives, counselors, and peers in recovery can help you deal with any problems, difficult emotions, or drug-using triggers you may experience.

Establishing a support network may seem challenging at first, especially during the early days of your recovery. Fortunately, the counselors and therapists at your addiction treatment center will involve you in group therapy sessions and plenty of other therapeutic activities that allow you to connect with peers in recovery. They may also encourage and work with you to rekindle old relationships with friends and family that may be strained or broken due to addiction.

The people in your support network can help you stay sober by holding you accountable for your choices and actions and will lend an ear when you need someone to listen. The sober peers in your support network can also share their own experiences and tips on how to cope in recovery. Another way to find a recovery community is to join a 12-step support group like Narcotics Anonymous (NA) and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) where you can learn strategies to avoid a relapse.

3. Recognize the H.A.L.T. Symptoms

H.A.L.T. stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired and is an acronym commonly used at drug rehab. These four mindsets are triggers that can often lead to a relapse when not properly recognized and addressed. Knowing how to recognize the H.A.L.T. symptoms is one of the most important coping skills for recovery.

At times you experience cravings for drugs and alcohol, go through each of the H.A.L.T. symptoms to determine what you may need. If you think you may be hungry, eat a healthy meal and drink plenty of water. If you feel lonely or angry, consider reaching out to a friend, therapist, or NA/AA sponsor who can talk to you about your feelings and keep you away from drugs and alcohol. If you’re tired, acknowledge that you need rest and make plans to relax or take a nap as soon as possible.

The symptoms of H.A.L.T. are only four of many possible relapse triggers you may face during your recovery. While at drug rehab, your therapists and counselors will teach you how to identify and manage common triggers to help you stay sober. These professionals can also help you develop a trigger management plan to use when you feel on the verge of a relapse.

A trigger management plan will consist of several steps you can take to stay sober when faced with situations that could lead to relapse. For example, when asked to attend a party where alcohol is present, your plan may involve saying no or providing an excuse not to attend the party. Other actions that may be part of a trigger management plan include:

  • Exercising
  • Practicing mindfulness
  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Attending a 12-step support group meeting

4. Exercise Regularly

Exercise has a countless number of benefits for those in recovery from addiction. First, it releases endorphins, which are chemicals in your body that naturally reduce stress and pain and can make you feel happier.

Exercise also improves your physical, mental, and emotional health to help you recover more quickly from the effects drugs and alcohol had on your body, brain, and mood. A study published in Frontiers in Psychiatry found that exercise effectively decreased comorbid risk factors associated with substance use, specifically stress, anxiety, and depression.2 Exercise can also help you clear any lingering toxins from your body that may be contributing to poor health, fatigue, and low energy.

Many addiction treatment centers have fitness-related amenities on-site to encourage and promote exercise and physical activity. Gyms, swimming pools, volleyball courts, and running tracks are some examples of fitness amenities available at drug rehab centers. Some treatment centers also have outdoor recreational areas with horseshoe pits and other games, while other facilities may take their patients on outings to engage in recreational, therapeutic activities such as equine (horse) therapy and wilderness therapy.

One of the best ways to start and stick to an exercise routine is to engage only in activities that you enjoy and that interest you. As time goes by and you become more active, you may feel more motivated to try other exercises and activities.

5. Know When It’s Time to Get Help

Recovery is a lifelong process. Though the primary goal of addiction treatment is to achieve lifelong sobriety and a healthier, happier life, many people will relapse at some point in their recovery—even those who invested years into developing strong coping skills for addiction.

Relapse is a normal part of recovery but can be extremely dangerous for some people. Relapse rates for substance use disorders are between 40% and 60%, which is lower than that for other chronic illnesses, including asthma and hypertension.3 Relapse doesn’t mean your treatment has failed or that you are a failure. However, it does mean that you may need additional treatment or other treatments that may work better for you.

Seeking extra addiction treatment is an instrumental coping skill that can help you stay sober when you think you’re about to relapse. Asking for more help or treatment doesn’t make you weak—it means that you can acknowledge and recognize that you need help and that you know what you need to do to stay healthy. Admitting that you need help is a sign of strength among those devoted to achieving long-term abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

Signs that indicate you may need additional treatment include:

  • Experiencing a relapse
  • Preoccupation with drugs and alcohol
  • Increased stress and anxiety
  • Worsening mental health

If you feel as though you need help, reach out to your NA/AA sponsor or a treatment center right away to discuss other treatments that can help you stay sober for a longer period.

Call 800-681-1058 (Info iconWho Answers?) to learn more about alcohol and drug rehab options in your area.


1. Garland, E.L., & Howard, M.O. (2018, April). Mindfulness-based treatment of addiction: current state of the field and envisioning the next wave of research. Addiction Science and Clinical Practice. 13,14.
2. Smith, M.A., & Lynch, W.J. (2012, January). Exercise as a potential treatment for drug abuse: Evidence from preclinical studies. Frontiers in Psychiatry. 2, 82.
3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020, July). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction Treatment and Recovery.