Takeaways from Sober October

By Jimmy Warden

As I sat there, sipping my half-caff cup of coffee on November first (which had me buzzing, by the way), I came to several realizations about myself, upon completion of Sober October.  They include, but are not limited to, I can complete difficult tasks, I am not my thoughts, my body will take me as far as my mind will let it, perspective is important, sobriety helps create meaning, community is crucial, and it’s okay to be proud of myself.  These are ideas that really resonated with me as I sat down to think critically about my accomplishment.  I hope you find some connections to your life that resonate with you, too.

There is a famous quote from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche that states, “was mich nicht umbringt macht mich starker”, which usually translates to English as the phrase, “that which does not kill me, makes me stronger”. This might seem like merely an old cliche, but the fact that it has stuck around for hundreds (perhaps thousands if we look at old religious renditions of it) of years, means there is significant value in that statement, both intrinsically and extrinsically. There are intrinsic implications because the individual engaging in these challenging events than those who are not willingly moving forward in the face of challenges. The more challenges we take on willingly “prepares us for battle” in a sense. When life inevitably throws a challenge our way, we’ll be more ready than those who do not willingly take on challenges because we’ll have faced adversities before.

When we’re challenged, our mind often manifests thoughts in the forms of hopes to avoid danger, which leads to potential behavior choices that lead us out of harms way. We can think of danger as any problem we face that we don’t have a plan for solving. This is why we have bad habits. This is why we’re creatures of impulse. When we are challenged, we’re afraid of taking it on because we’re afraid we don’t have what it takes to overcome it. We can also doubt that taking on the challenge is worth our time and energy to conquer it.

However, if we willingly engage in challenges, we’ll slowly figure out how our minds function in the midst of them. With this information, we can begin to re-wire how we think and respond when caught in their clutches. These are the intrinsic implications that can help us overcome what is in front of us. To take a phrase from entrepreneur and author Jesse Itzler, “we can build our life resume”. Not only that, but for the people around us, too. Finishing these challenges not builds our self-esteem, morale, and character development, but it also allows us to be mentors to others to help guide them through their own challenges.

Just know that this Sober October journey was not easy by any means. I struggled through this like most people would, but just know that if I was successful in completing this challenge, you too can be successful in your respective challenges. That is why engaging in challenging tasks is the first takeaway I had and I also realized that completing these challenging tasks starts with the mind with my thoughts.

I am an advocate of optimism and trying to have a growth mindset each day, but it’s really hard to do that when I’m stuck in negative self-talk, stuck in the mud, or feeling overwhelmed by life. I am sure you’ve probably felt a similar way, too. When we’re faced with challenges, our brain often resorts to negative thoughts regarding the future or negative self-talk because it’s deriving a way out of, or around, the challenge(s) that lie in front of us. It’s a defense mechanism that is rooted deep in our more primal instincts. These thoughts end up playing themselves out into the world if we’re not aware of them.

For example, when I was engaged in Sober October, I kept thinking to myself how I didn’t feel as alert without caffeine. This negative thought turned into doubts about the future, such as, “I don’t know if I can really keep doing this”. Fortunately, my recognition of these thoughts allowed me to prevent myself from manifesting them through my actions. It allowed me to realize that I am only my thoughts through my choices. If I choose to act on impulse, then I am my thoughts, but if I stopped and paused, I was able to make a more rational decision that was goal-oriented.

If we as people tried to do this a bit more, who knows what we’d be able to accomplish, not just individually, but collectively. If we could all understand that we are not our thoughts, the possibilities are endless. Yes, they’re needed to allow us to act in the world, but a high level of self-awareness allows for more meaningful action. Not just for the self, but others too. Think about other people who rely on us. If we’re caught in these negative spirals, we won’t fully be there for them.

Think about how much we’d allow others to grow if we also grew as individuals. Think of the conscientiousness we’d have. Think about the empathy we’d have. Think of how much good we could put into the world. We must cultivate this self-awareness that we are not our thoughts, so our bodies can come along for the ride.

I also learned that my body will take me as far as my mind will let it. When these negative thoughts would creep in, I’d have to stop and pause, and remember my end goal. This is how my body would keep going. I’d be sending it different messages each day by making different choices than I normally would. This is how my body was able to continue with the challenge. Some of the mornings I didn’t want to wake up and work out, knowing I couldn’t use caffeine as a crutch to power me through the workout.

These same mornings ended up turning into some of the best and most productive mornings I’ve had because I had made that change. Normally, I work out after work, but this change in my routine allowed my body to wake up on natural endorphin and neurotransmitter highs. It also kept me in a consistent routine of exercise because I wouldn’t fall victim to post-work fatigue and miss workouts, they’d already be completed. Therefore, I could expend more energy at work and perform better because I didn’t have to worry about physical exertion after work.

Not just in work, but also in my leisure life, I was quite productive. I released more blog posts and podcasts than in any other month in recent memory. I attribute this to my willpower and conversation I had with myself about the desire to produce content on my blogs and podcasts, but also to show up each day as my best, most authentic self.

The best part is that this can happen with all of us. If we allow our rational minds to show our bodies the way, and vice versa, positive changes are inevitable. No, they won’t happen overnight, and it will take some serious dedication and years of work. If we all bore the the burden of this responsibility, our collective sacrifices would breed collective prosperity in the areas of our lives we’re applying the idea to. This is also why perspective is important.

Perspective is important because taking perspective allowed me to see the challenge through different viewpoints. There were many times when I had a negative perspective, but as time ticked on, I remembered that each passing day brought me one step closer to my end goal. This shift in perspective helped create a positive framework that kept me moving forward, especially on the days when I was aware of the negative thoughts that were occurring.

I also tried taking a second and third person perspective when I hit some of the mental low points in the challenge. When I was debating on succumbing to craving, I said to myself, “How will you feel after if you stop now?” or “what will you say to yourself if you quit?” as well as, “would ______ be proud of you if you stopped now?” and “wouldn’t ______ be let down if you quit?”. This fueled my fire when I felt it was all but extinguished. We all have the capabilities of harnessing these questions from perspectives to fuel us.

The questions that I was asking myself were related to the intrinsic and extrinsic benefits that I previously mentioned. When we ask ourselves these questions from different perspectives, it allows our brain to answer differently. Normally, we tell ourselves what to do, which is not always the most useful way to go about behavioral change. When we ask ourselves questions from various perspectives, we actually create new neural pathways in our brains, which will help lead to better choices in the present and the future. We are building new habits, which take time to become habits. It often takes more than 21 days to make or break a habit, so it will require patience.

However, each time we we make better choices, our neural connections are becoming stronger, and as the old saying goes, neurons that wire together, fire together. Once they are strongly wired in our brains, we’ll be more conscious of the progress that we’re making towards the goal that sparked the change in our decisions, and the neurotransmitter dopamine will be released throughout the brain. Dopamine helps to regulate positive emotion and it is extremely difficult to live a meaningful life when dopamine levels are low. When we are feeling good about ourselves and the world around us, dopamine is flowing through us. When we are feeling good intrinsically, we are more likely to be having a positive impact on our extrinsic output, too. Whether it’s our job, building relationships with others, or enjoying leisure, having the right levels of positive emotion and engagement allows us to have higher levels of joy in life. This sober joy can help us create meaning in our lives.

Think about the times that you’ve been inebriated or under the influence. Were these meaningful times? Sure, you could make the argument of being drunk at your wedding, or having foggy memories if your high school or college days, but was it the experience of being not sober that was meaningful or was it the time spent with meaningful people doing something meaningful that was meaningful? Sure, maybe you can still make the argument that there was some meaningful conversations that took place and realizations, but was there any action taken beyond the exploration of ideas? Sobriety really helped me have meaningful conversations with myself and others, but more importantly, it allowed me to take action afterwards.

Sobriety helped me create more meaning in my life because I was able to think and act with a clearer mind. I was able to be aware of my thoughts and truly be present because there were no substances altering my state of mind or body. With this new found clarity, I was able to think more rationally during a majority of October’s days.

Yes, I experienced bumps in the road of my conscience, but I was able to overcome this by engaging in meaningful activities. I was able to finish reading a book in a minimal amount of time (for me), I was able to develop numerous podcasts and blog posts throughout the month, I was able to wake up 3-4 times a week and exercise before 6am, I’ve been able to tutor and mentor students after school hours, and still manage to find time to create meaningful experiences with my girlfriend. Just know that this potential way of living could be yours, too!

Just try to imagine the possibilities you could create if you take a break from the anxiety-inducing levels of caffeine you’re consuming, or the depressive amounts of alcohol. or any other substance you may be using more than is needed. Yes, it will be difficult to create and settle into new routines, but once you do settle in, your mind and body will follow suit, and they’ll both thank you. Just know that if you choose this path, you’re not alone, and a community of support will help you tremendously.

Community is so crucial when making significant changes in our lives because it makes these changes bigger than ourselves. Often times, when we try to make a change, we don’t follow through because it’s just about us. We don’t feel as guilty letting ourselves down because we do it all the time, hence why it even happens in the first place. However with community, we have other people counting on us to push through challenge, and we’re counting on those people to join us, too!

Lucky for me, my community during my journey was fantastic. From Jaren and Lindsay joining me in the Sober October, to my sister Kate participating in the “Whole 30” challenge, and my girlfriend Rachel reminding me every step of the way that I was that much closer to the end goal, they were always supporting me. I don’t know if I would’ve been able to it without them, which is why community is so key.

If you’re embarking on a journey of personal development, find a community that engaging in the same journey or a similar journey. It will help you tremendously because you’ll have people to talk to and share stories with about your personal struggles who will also have empathy for what you’re going through. They’ll also be proud of your accomplishments and progress that you make because they’ll have a genuine understanding of the work that is going into the outcome. This is why it’s okay for you to be proud of it, too.

It can be hard for us to be proud of ourselves. This is due to the fact that we are constantly comparing ourselves to other people rather than comparing ourselves to previous versions of ourselves. We also don’t want to come off as arrogant or conceded either. We want to avoid judgement from others as much as possible. This suppression of our accomplishments make us downplay what we’ve done and at times discredit or forget our accomplishments. If we’re never proud of ourselves, it can be difficult to create natural dopamine and serotonin (another neurotransmitter that regulates positive emotion and our “status” in regards to our environment and those who inhabit it).

My bouts of low points during Sober October made it challenging for me to see how far I had come during different points of time throughout the month. I was battling seasonal depression and came to a final realization that I needed to start accepting compliments from others. The realization made me think differently about my being. I started to think that if others around me are recognizing my efforts in what I’m doing and they’re proud of it, it’s okay to accept for me to accept it and be proud of it, too. I realized that it’s okay to be proud of doing things that other people haven’t done. Not in a way that breeds cockiness or arrogance, but rather builds a quiet confidence. I had to take the second and third person view at times, but it helped me be more proud of me, and see my accomplishments with less bias.

I really hope you can use these takeaways to try to make positive changes in your life. Each takeaway can be applied to different areas of our lives, so think about where you want to make changes, and get to it. The world is waiting,

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