The triggering feeling of being sick after recovery. (And what to do about it)

After working hard to feel good in recovery, the inevitable bad days when we feel sick can bring anxieties and past fears rushing back to the surface. AFTER Founder and Editor, Nicole Hough, shares her experiences with this and how to cope gracefully when it happens.

This page may contain affiliate links.

About six months ago I went on a lunch date. (Spoiler: The date didn’t lead to anything romantic but he did become a mentor in the magazine industry which I’m thankful for.) During the meal he was describing trouble he’d been having with a pinched nerve in his shoulder – nothing too serious but bothersome and requiring physical therapy. After telling his story he looked at me and said, “What about you? What do you have going on?”  I thought for a second, and was genuinely surprised to be able to say, “Honestly, nothing. I’m feeling really good!” 

 
Without missing a beat, my brain flooded with what Brené Brown refers to as “Foreboding Joy.” That immediate “Oh sh!t, I’ve jinxed it.” feeling we tend to get when things are too good. I was able to squelch the intrusive thoughts long enough to enjoy the rest of lunch and on my way home analyze how I really felt, which was actually this: Total Gratitude.
 

I feel physically, mentally and emotionally good and I’m focused every day on feeling even more so.  This wasn’t at all the case when I was tired and anxious from drinking at night. Since the day I stopped drinking my first thought each morning has been “I’m so grateful I get to wake up feeling so good.” And the truth is, over time, it continues to get better and better. I realized this lunch date was the first time I’d expressed that out loud or let myself really think about it. 

Feeling physically good has given me the strength and confidence to work towards massive goals I wasn’t able to achieve when I was fuzzy-headed and tired most mornings from consuming alcohol the night before, and the clarity to work through my emotional past as well. This feeling has been my beacon, my WHY, and my biggest win and, as I discovered, I was holding onto it with a death grip with both hands.

 
Until I lost it.
 
Fast forward half-a-year from that lunch date (now over a year and a half into my sobriety), and I’ve had a tough couple months. Work has been extremely stressful and all consuming, pushing me to the limits emotionally and sometimes physically.  I caught an off-season flu in May and was knocked me off my feet for close to two weeks. I had breast pain that had me convinced I had waited too long and all was lost, despite daily affirmations to the contrary. A week later a pre-scheduled procedure took me out of commission for 2 days and brought up repressed trauma from a different, botched procedure I endured last summer. And then my younger child caught COVID. And, a week later, gave it to me. I write this article two days into my COVID sickness, knowing that Day 3 was the worst for my child (who is now ok).
 

A pause for perspective: None of this has been life-threatening, and for that I am grateful. The message here is it’s not the illness itself that matters, it’s the feeling.  (True for most things actually.) 

Not feeling good after working hard to overcome addiction, gray-area drinking that led to hangovers, or even other illness can be massively triggering. Let’s start with the premise that whatever you’re going through, big or small, if you’re experiencing that feeling, then that’s where you are.  

 

This feeling has been my beacon, my WHY, and my biggest win and, as I discovered, I was holding onto it with a death grip with both hands.  Until I lost it.

In my case, my brain has taken every chance it can to confuse the exhaustion, fuzzy-headedness and nausea of being sick with that of being hungover, bringing me back to a place I don’t want to be. I instinctively blame myself for not getting enough done, reliving haunted echos of former shame spirals when all I wanted to do was rest even with so much on my plate.  Missing beautiful blue-skied days is anxiety provoking when I’ve missed, or struggled through, too many in the past, numb to the joy of my ONE favorite season.  Worrying about test results floods me with guilt about how my body was not nearly as healthy when I was drinking alcohol, and the deep-down knowledge that this was my own fault and might still catch up with me.

 
Did I realize I was being triggered immediately when my flu started and course-correct?  Of course not…  I tried to scratch and claw my way to wellness, calling it a cold, and refusing to stop working or to rest until about day 5 when I read an article that there actually was a weird Spring flu going around thanks to the pandemic.  It was then that I realized that I was doing what I’ve done for years: hinging my self-worth and survival on my ability to grit my teeth and get through literally anything – physical, emotional, mental. It easily makes sense why a martini at night used to feel like such relief.  I once drove my kids to school with my foot in a bag of ice, a VERY large splinter in my heel, because God-forbid they should be late for elementary school lest I be judged by the teachers and other parents.  It pains me to think of the poor example of self-care that set for them.
 
So here’s what I’ve observed and learned over the past month or so of feeling sick and triggered, and learning how to work through it:
 

The sensation of being unwell can be triggering when you’ve fought to overcome pain, addiction and / or sickness.  Our brains don’t necessarily know the difference It’s up to us to train ourselves to react differently

Here are a few things that helped me get through this (and other situations that have challenged my recovery: 

ADVERTISEMENT

What to do when feeling triggered:

1. Remember you are not your past self. 

In triggering moments, (meetings with accountants, illness, tough job meetings) the first thing I remind myself is “I am not my past self.”  I am healthy, organized, responsible, successful, happy, peaceful and calm. Nothing, including illness can take away the strides you’ve made on your journey or bring back the past (even when your brain is tricking you).  We get to start anew in every moment and this is the time to remember how far you’ve come, who you are now, and where you’re headed. Proceed from a place of new knowledge.

 

2. Repeat gentle affirmations

Affirmations are an important part of shifting your mindset towards where you want to be.  I find the most important part of an affirmation is that YOU believe it.  Find something – even the most obvious statement – that works for you and how you’re currently feeling, starting with the most basic true statements and working upwards:  
 
“My body is healing from a flu”
“My body is healing from COVID”
“My body can overcome anything” 
“I am healthy”
“I am strong”
“I am a survivor”
“I continue to change my life for the better” 
 

3. Grant yourself physical relief and self care:

The illness itself is the physical part of the trigger and needs a physical response.  Instead of fighting it, make a list of things that make you feel good so you can honor your body without stress. The goal is to accept it and move gently through it.  Here’s what worked for me:

• Hot showers (or warm, or cold depending on the day and what feels good). A few drops of lavender oil on the end of the tub to incorporate into the steam.  A gentle body scrub if that feels good to you.

• A really comfortable pillow (this has been one of the cornerstones of my recovery – more on this another time)

• Comforting foods: soups, pasta, rice, etc.  I’ve found sushi take-out to be comforting on occasion.

• Tea with mint and honey

• Fresh sheets on the bed

• Gentle stretching or yoga (I like happy baby which I can do from my bed and eases back tension and puppy pose, also on the edge of the bed – apparently I only do yoga on my bed.)

• Meditation.  In the summer I like to sit outside in the mornings and meditate for 15 minutes.

• Massage, if you’re lucky and have a talented partner (or professional massage if you’re not contagious – this is going to be my next move once I test negative).  I also love my fascia blaster for self massage (I’ll add a link below)

• A walk if you are able

• Sleep, and more sleep. My sleep schedule shifts about 3 hours later when I’m sick. If you can, go with what your body wants.


4. Go outside

Even if it’s just standing in a patch of sun in your pajamas and coat for 5 minutes (don’t worry about the neighbors), it’s critical to get fresh air and sun every day while healing and emotionally regulating. I know from experience, this is critical to staying mentally and physically healthy.
 

5. Allow yourself a break

I once read all the rest in the world won’t rejuvenate you if you’re beating yourself up the whole time about the the things you’re not doing.  While sleeping late or staying in bed all day can feel like you’re doing something wrong, allow yourself a deliberate pass to do the bare minimum for now.  Watch a show, meditate, sleep.  If it helps. be specific about when you will do the things you need to accomplish in the future so you don’t feel like you’re just pushing them off.  Drop responsibilities wherever you can do so without causing more stress.
 

6. Connect, communicate, and ask for help.

Illness can deliver a triple whammy of isolating you, making it difficult to accomplish tasks on your plate and making you vulnerable to needing help from others.  

Connect – Some alone time might feel good, but it’s important to keep human connection going if you’re getting in your head.  Reach out to friends to chat as much as you are able or just text people what’s going on and ask them to check on you.  If you have a sponsor or a sobriety buddy, reach out to them and come up with a game plan. 

Communicate – Accept that you will not be able to do what you normally do.  Communicate early and often so people know what to expect so you don’t start feeling shame about letting yourself, or other people down.  If you like put new, gentle and realistic, dates for your tasks on you calendar so you know they will still get done in the future. 

Ask for help – Start calling in favors and asking for help without shame. Studies show that individuals get more satisfaction from helping someone else than they do from receiving the help.**  This is a win-win. Asking for help can look like many things –  requesting a rides for your kids, soliciting advice from people who’ve been in the same situation as you, ordering food, or asking a friend to pick up tea or medications at the pharmacy.  (Some info about recovery-appropriate medications in the articles cited below) 


7. Get off social media and dating apps

I may be speaking from experience here – too much of this will make you feel worse about yourself, invade your head space and ultimately make you feel more triggered and lonely.  Moderate or avoid.  Spend your time watching a show, journaling, soaking in a bath, reading, or sleeping.


8. Double down on gratitude

This can be hard to do when you’re not feeling great, but just like with affirmations start with the most basic things that feel true to you.  When I don’t feel good I often start with “I’m grateful that I’m not also hungover.”  (Let’s be honest there was a time I would have still had a martini or a glass of wine at night even if I was sick – you know, to kill the germs…) 

My daily gratitude practice includes my comfy pillow, soft sheets, my lovely bed, my orchids, the fact that my dog chills with me all day while I’m sick, food delivery, my kids are old enough to take care of themselves a little bit. 

• • •
 

When I finally gave myself permission to rest, I Googled to see if other people have also been triggered by illness after recovery.  The answer is Yes.  I’m including links  below to other articles on this subject that I found in my research. 

Have you ever experienced this kind of emotional trigger from sickness?  What was difficult for you?  What helped you work through it? 

As an aside, the mammogram was clear, thank God. Afterwards, I sat in the little dressing room and said a prayer of thanks for both the results and for the radiology tech who appropriately recommended a book she loved about letting go of limiting beliefs – I’m including a link to that book below.)  

Wishing you all a healthy and beautiful summer and the grace to know when it’s ok to let the kids be late to school so you can remove a splinter from your foot. 

xoxo, Nicole “Coco” Hough 

ADVERTISEMENT

A few items mentioned in this article:

Contains affiliate links

Book: Loving What is by Katie Byron

The book on limiting beliefs recommended by my radiology tech:

Fascia Blaster Mini by Ashley Black

This product has been an absolute lifesaver in dealing with leg pain and tight muscles.  My favorite fascia blaster. Why are my muscles so knotted all the time?!!  (As if that’s not obvious from reading this article…).

Organic Sesame oil for skin and massage​

I didn’t mention this above but I would be remiss not to include it here.  This product makes your skin soft after a shower and is also the perfect companion to the fascia blaster to allow you to massage out tight muscles and knots.  Highly recommend: 

Additional articles / resources:

How to stay sober while being sick, Pinetree Recovery:

https://www.pinetreerecovery.com/addiction-recovery-relapse-prevention/how-to-stay-sober-while-being-sick/
 
Your Sick-While-Sober Survival Guide, Serenity Lane
https://serenitylane.org/blog/your-sick-when-sober-survival-guide/
 
Dealing with Illness while in Recovery from Addiction, Cornerstone of Recovery
https://www.cornerstoneofrecovery.com/season-of-sickness-dealing-with-illness-while-in-recovery-from-addiction/
 
Six ways to cope with feeling sad when you’re sick, Emily Boynton for Right As Rain
https://rightasrain.uwmedicine.org/mind/mental-health/sad-when-sick
 
Common Relapse Triggers and How to Avoid Them, Gateway Foundation
https://www.gatewayfoundation.org/addiction-blog/triggers-in-addiction-recovery/

 

Sponsored

Latest Posts

On Instagram

Our “Quit Lit” Library (So far!)

Mocktail Recipes

The Royal Ruby by Abstinence Spirits

Subscription Options

MOST POPULAR

PRINT + DIGITAL
ACCESS (US)

One year for $24.99

You will receive: 

Print + Digital Quarterly Magazine

Access to digital archives

Subscriber discounts on AFTER products and partner discounts.

Renews annually at $24.99

——

DIGITAL
ACCESS

One year for $19.99

You will receive: 

Digital Quarterly Magazine

Access to digital archives

Subscriber discounts on AFTER products and partner discounts.

Renews annually at $19.99

AFFILIATE LINK

Subscribe to AFTER Magazine

MOST POPULAR

PRINT + DIGITAL
ACCESS (US)

One year for $24.99

You will receive: 

Print + Digital Quarterly Magazine

Access to digital archives

Subscriber discounts on AFTER products and partner discounts.

Renews annually at $24.99

——

DIGITAL
ACCESS

One year for $19.99

You will receive: 

Digital Quarterly Magazine

Access to digital archives

Subscriber discounts on AFTER products and partner discounts.

Renews annually at $19.99