The First Year of Sobriety is a Crucial Time for Recovery

Gillian May
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There’s no one way to get through the first year of sobriety. As a recovering alcoholic and former mental health nurse, I can attest to this. However, one thing applies to nearly anyone who is getting sober — the first year is crucial. Studies show that relapse rate for people with alcohol dependence is between 65–70% in the first year. But the good news is that this number decreases as each year that the person stays sober.

I noticed this to be true for myself as well. The first year was tough; I wasn’t sure if I could maintain my new sober life. However, once I passed that first year, things were much more manageable. And now, at five and half years sober, I feel solid in my sobriety. Research shows that once the first year has passed, relapse rates fall considerably.

So why is that first year so crucial, and why is it so hard?

Cravings sometimes last longer than we thought they would

Most people think that once you get through the initial detox, the cravings will subside. Although this is true for many, this is not true for everyone. Cravings can continue long after we stop drinking and sometimes even come up years later if we get stressed or triggered. This is especially true if alcohol dependence is coupled with other substance abuse.

However, people in their first year of sobriety are especially vulnerable to craving. Since they’ve never had to cope with cravings before, the first time can be challenging. However, over time, this does get easier. There’s no one way to get through cravings — everyone needs different things to help them get through cravings. For me, I needed to talk to someone to get through it, while others may need to exercise or to distract with TV or books.

Neuroplasticity can either help or hinder the process

Neuroplasticity refers to how the neural networks of the brain can change and adapt to situations. In the case of alcoholism, research shows that the brain of alcoholics adapt to the use of alcohol. Not only is there a chemical dependency in the brain, but the neural networks get used to drinking and the reward it brings. Over time, these neural networks change in favor of alcohol use. Unfortunately, this can make getting sober very difficult.

However, the good news is that the neuroplastic process can be hacked, so to speak, to help aid in recovery. Even though the neural networks are primed for alcohol use, the more we refrain from using and start doing different activities instead of drinking, the more we build new neural networks in favor of sobriety. This is how neuroplasticity works.

We can finally “feel” again

Most of us who abuse alcohol do so to stop pain, either emotional or physical. Over the years we get so used to not feeling pain that we no longer know how to respond when we do feel it. In the first year of sobriety (espeically the first three months), all of the feelings we blocked out come back.

At first, it feels like the feelings are almost too much. This is because we haven’t felt them for so long so they can be super intense. I compared it to sitting on a limb for a long time. Once you finally get off the limb and let the feeling come back, the pain is more intense initially. The “return of pain” triggers the reasons why we drank in the first place, which can ifteb send somne people back to drinking.

However, the more we learn to endure, understand and nove thorugh the pain, the better it gets. The pain does subside over time as we learn new skills to cope. These are skills we likely never learned in the first place which is also why we chose alcohol to help us cope. So for people entering their first year of sobriety, be prepared to learn new coping skills in the beginning as you return to feeling again. Over time, the more you practice these coping skills the easier it gets and the easier sobriety becomes.

Hopefully this explains more why the first year of sobriety is a crucial time for recovery. The more we learn about this, the easier it can be to make a decision to get sober. The more we de-mystify sobriety, the more people will feel supported in their quest.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational.


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