How to Build a Sobriety Toolbox

A bottle of herbal oils standing on a tableImage via Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

A few months before my second attempt at sobriety, I was at a doctor’s appointment.

We were catching up, I was explaining that I was drinking again, and that this time I was consciously trying to employ other coping skills. I told him I had an alarm on my phone that went off every few hours to give me a positive affirmation, was carrying around various herbal teas, and had a growing collection of guided meditations in my iTunes. He explained what I was doing was creating a coping mechanism Toolbox—a collection of items that I could turn to instead of alcohol—and suggested that I take it a step further and come up with a list of ten things that worked for me and stick the list in my wallet.

Me being me, I took it five steps further. I started a Toolbox spreadsheet to serve as my database of Toolbox items, replete with categories (cravings, stress, anger, exhaustion, PMS, depression, etc.). I printed out a list of my top ten tools and taped copies to my full-length mirror, my TV, above my kitchen sink, and my work bulletin board. I started purchasing physical items that would serve as tools, and bought a special little leather pouch to hold said tools. I went Toolbox wild and made it my mission to become the MacGyver of my own impending dooms. And it worked! 

Upon beginning our recovery journey, we may have lots of unhealthy coping mechanisms and tools we turn to (like alcohol and drugs), but few healthy ones. This is actually quite common—many of us were not taught how to handle feelings and manage difficult situations in healthy ways. So what do you do when you want to stop relying on alcohol as a means of coping? That’s where the tools come in.

A ‘tool’ is anything that we can use as a coping mechanism, or as a way to shift/relieve our current state. Our ‘Sobriety Toolbox’ is a collection of things we can turn to feel better without using alcohol or being self-destructive.

When I started this process, I was long on the unhealthy coping mechanisms and tools, and short on the healthy ones. I didn’t eliminate all the unhealthy coping mechanisms right away, but I began to switch out the mix. The idea was to add in more healthy tools as I removed the unhealthy ones over time until alcohol was totally removed from my toolbox.

Who Can Benefit From a Sobriety Toolbox?

Whether you’re thinking about sobriety, are in the early stages of it, or are well into it, you can benefit from having a toolbox:

  • If you’re still drinking, a Sobriety Toolbox helps you effectively soften the blow as you remove alcohol. Adding in healthy coping tools before you quit creates new habits and new synapses in the brain. You effectively train yourself to seek healthy tools and, as you move through quitting the bad stuff, your body has learned other ways to self-soothe, balance, and cope.
  • If you are in the early stages of ditching booze, now is also a great time to start finding new release valves. Doing so can make the intolerable, tolerable, and increase your chances of not using the thing you are trying not to use. 
  • And, if you are well into your sobriety, a Sobriety Toolbox can help you both to become an expert at understanding your emotional states and an expert at self-management. Your toolbox will evolve with your recovery, and it can help you deal with things beyond cravings, like depression, anxiety, and basically, life. 

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How to Make a Sobriety Toolbox

First, create a short list of your go-to tools, either ones you’re currently using, or ideas from the list below. Pick ten tools that work for you—your favorites—and write them on a slip of paper (or in your phone) and keep it with you. 

You can also create a physical toolbox. Some of our Tempest members and staff like to carry a portable toolkit containing things like teabags, essential oils, notepads, momentos or spiritual items—any small things that can bring comfort and help us feel grounded.

Sobriety Tools You Can Try

This is by no means a complete list, but it’s a great place to get started if you’re looking to create your own Sobriety Toolbox. You can try different options and combinations and see which ones make sense for you.

1. Breathing Exercise

Breathing exercises, or breathwork, has been practiced for thousands of years by many different cultures. The seemingly simple practice of focusing on your breath, deep breathing, and changing the pace of your breathing have proven to be effective and safe ways to calm the nervous system’s “fight or flight” response we feel when stressed. 

  • Diaphragmatic breathing. Deep breathing, also known as belly breathing, is also shown to evoke the relaxation response. Most of the time, we take shallow breaths that end in our chest. However, taking a deep breath that engages the diaphragm can help with oxygen circulation and inviting relaxation. 
  • 4-7-8 breathing. This is where you hold in the breath for 7 seconds, and exhale slowly for 8 seconds. You can incorporate the long exhale technique to other breathing exercises like alternate nostril breathing, during meditation, or even during yoga.  Evidence shows that having a longer exhale than inhale is best for reducing anxiety. 
  • Noticing the breath. Simply being aware of your breathing (also known as mindful breathing) is a simple yet powerful form of meditation that you can do anywhere. Instead of changing the pace of your breath as we mentioned above, this exercise is about noticing the natural state of your current breath.

2. Meditation

Meditation is a proven way to enhance and support all types of recovery, and at Tempest, it’s one of the most important resources in our Sobriety Toolbox. Meditation can repair the neural pathways that may have been damaged by drinking, and it can even help to create new ones. Meditation reduces our reactivity and helps us develop a heightened sense of self-awareness. 

3. Therapy

Taking a holistic approach to recovery means addressing all aspects of our lives in sobriety, which includes our mental health. Getting sober is an amazing thing, but it can also be emotionally difficult, especially for people with co-occurring conditions like anxiety, depression, and trauma. Talking regularly with a therapist or counselor can be extremely helpful if you’re feeling challenged, regardless of whether or not it has to do with alcohol. 

If you don’t already work with a mental health professional, here are some resources to help you get started:

4. Community

Having people in your life who make you feel understood and accepted is crucial to recovery and wellbeing. The people who are close to us and the people who we interact with in recovery make up the support system that helps us stay sober. 

  • Friends and loved ones. A friend or family member you can call when you need to talk can be hugely helpful. While our loved ones can’t provide us with the same level of care as a therapist, they can still be a source of strength and support in recovery. Having regular phone calls, meetups, or coffee dates with friends is also a great way to stay connected.
  • Sober communities. Talking with other people in recovery is one of the most important ways to stay sober. For some people, attending traditional 12-step meetings like AA are an important tool in their Sobriety Toolbox. There are also a variety of other sober communities beyond traditional AA that provide group support, like SMART RecoveryShe Recovers, or our own membership program, Tempest. There are also lots of recovery groups available online that provide virtual support meetings and forums where sober people can connect with one another. Even better, a sober community is a great place to share your favorite Sobriety Tools and pick up new ideas.

5. Movement

Try adding whatever kind of movement you enjoy to your Sobriety Toolkit. What matters is that the exercise makes you feel good, so if that’s going for a walk, doing tai chi, or choreographing a dance number to a song you love—whatever works best for you.

  • Yoga. This is a favorite tool for folks in recovery, for good reason. Although it may seem like simple stretching on the surface, yoga is a combination of meditation, mindfulness, and physical exertion that has been proven to help people dealing with a variety of issues, including depression, anxiety, PTSD, and insomnia. Pigeon Pose and other hip-opening yoga exercises allow for you to release held emotions. If you practice yoga, get yourself into Pigeon Pose and imagine that the pent-up energy is draining out through your hips into the ground. 
  • Dance! This is a great way to get moving, and the only thing you really need is some music. As writer and dancer Marlee Grace said, “If you have five feet or less, you have room to dance.”

6. Mantras and Affirmations

Words can help us change our behavior, raise our spirits, and remind us of the truth.  Many of us use collections of words like mantras and affirmations as valuable tools in our Sobriety Toolkit. Whether you write them in your journal, on a post-it note, or on your phone or computer, keep them somewhere you can easily access.

Mantras are positive affirmations that help our brains shift from a stuck, negative space, to a freer, open, more positive one. The cultural origin of a mantra goes back thousands of years—the word “mantra” is a Sanskrit term for a sacred word or phrase. The practice of using a mantra is a form of meditation that has roots in Hindu and Buddhist religions, and it has been widely adopted in the wellness world because of its positive effect on the brain.

A mantra can be anything you want, as long as it is positive, easy to recite, and it holds your intention. If you are anxious, worried, and feeling jittery, your mantra for the day could be something like, I am calm and balanced. If you are angry and hurt, your mantra could be, I am kind and strong. Mantras can also be a single word, like calm, peace, or breathe. Mantras are unique to you and how you are feeling—there’s no right or wrong way to create one.

7. Non-Alcoholic Drinks

This tool is simple—replacing alcohol with a non-alcoholic drink—but it’s also incredibly helpful! We put a lot of thought into the alcoholic beverages we consumed, so when we put a little time and effort into our non-alcoholic drinks, it can make swapping out the booze a bit easier. 

The three most popular non-alcoholic drinks in the recovery community are seltzer, coffee, and tea, because they provide some combination of refreshment, stimulation, and relaxation. Sparkling water, seltzer, and soda are great since you can easily get them when you are out at a bar or restaurant, while coffee provides the life-giving power of caffeine (just be careful not to overdo it). And there is no shortage of the variety of herbal teas available for every possible mood. You will most likely find holy basil, peppermint, kava, lemon, rooibos, or ginger tea bags in the Sobriety Toolkits of the Tempest staff.

8. Nutrition (and Treats)

In recovery, we can get back into better eating habits we may have let slide while we were drinking. Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all diet recommended for everyone in sobriety, being more aware of what you eat can help with your physical health and emotional wellbeing.

  • Mindful eating. The subject of food and nutrition can be incredibly stressful for many people, especially when starting out in recovery, so sometimes simply making sure you eat proper meals at regular intervals can be a goal in and of itself. (There is a reason “hangry” is now in the dictionary.)  If you have certain foods you find healing and comforting, like homemade soup, a green smoothie, or a handful of trail mix, add these to your Sobriety Toolkit!
  • Sweets. In early recovery, we may find ourselves craving sugar or junk food because our bodies are adjusting to the lack of alcohol in our systems. This can also happen to folks who have been sober for years. While yes, a balanced diet is important, it’s ok to treat yourself now and then.

9. Self-Expression and Creativity

Sobriety can ignite your creativity and, as you reconnect with your inner self, you can find new ways to express your emotions and experiences.

  • Use a journal or blank book. Keeping track of your thoughts and feelings in a journal can be an incredibly valuable experience in sobriety. Don’t get hung up on format or grammar, this is a free space for you to process. You can even add in your own illustrations or paste in a collage of artwork and photos you like.
  • Making music. Singing and/or playing an instrument can be a therapeutic way to enhance your recovery. Even listening to music can be a helpful mood booster, so if you’re looking for a place to start, try making a playlist that resonates with you.
  • Arts and crafts. These can be things like painting, knitting, and needlework can be incredibly comforting and relaxing since they promote mindfulness. This type of meditative crafting is beloved by the recovery community, so ask around or do some searching online for a type of craft that you may enjoy.

10. Relaxing Activities

Recovery can be stressful, so taking a break and caring for ourselves can go a long way to helping us reset and restore our inner reserves. 

  • Hot baths. We’re big fans of winding down at the end of the day with a nice hot bath. Grab some Epsom salts, some drops of your favorite essential oil, turn on some spa music, grab some tea, and melt away.
  • Healing treatments. Whether it’s massage, acupuncture, or a mani-pedi, being pampered every now and again can be incredibly restorative. Try setting aside the money you would have been spending on alcohol for a month and put it towards a healing treatment. You can also talk to your doctor to see if you qualify for medical massage or acupuncture; depending on your health history, your insurance may cover some of these treatments. And if all of that sounds too complicated, try simply chilling out with a face mask at home. 
  • Essential oils. Essential oils are a tool many of our members use to bring themselves back to center. Some favorites include lavender, clary sage, eucalyptus, peppermint, and chamomile. Put a few drops on your palms, rub your palms together, cup your nose, and inhale deeply. 

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Remember, your Sobriety Toolbox will be as unique as you are, and it will change and evolve along with your recovery. Best of luck getting started!

Note: A version of this article originally appeared as a post on Hip Sobriety.

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