Battling Anxiety and Alcohol: How Meditation and Reaching Out to Others Saves Me

ABC News "20/20" anchor Elizabeth Vargas is shown here during an interview with Diane Sawyer for a special edition of "20/20."PlayABC News
WATCH Elizabeth Vargas Explains How Meditation Helps Her Recovery

For most of my adult life, I calmed my anxiety and worry with a glass of white wine. But when my effort to self-medicate led me off a metaphorical cliff into addiction, I had to find another way.

Almost 63 percent of women who are alcoholics also suffer anxiety, according to the National Institute of Health. It can be crippling, and it makes it even harder to get and stay sober. Experts say anxious people are almost twice as likely to relapse.

For me, it was critical to learn how to manage all the things that made me anxious. I have to say, and it still surprises me, my anxiety now is much better than it was in the years I was drinking destructively. As I wrote in my book, that nightly wine was turning small brush fires of anxiety into bonfires of panic. I have since learned that the alcohol began to backfire, and make the anxiety worse, leading me of course to drink more, desperate for the relief it once offered.

I now make meditation a daily part of my life. Ideally, I would find 20 minutes, twice a day, to sit and meditate with an app I have on my phone. In reality, on most days, I only get the chance to do it once. But it is still incredibly valuable. It has taught me about what I call the reflective pause. People with anxiety tend to be hyper-reactive. We are like jack rabbits, off and running to the races, reacting to some event, even while the event is still happening.

VIDEO: Elizabeth Vargas Explains How Meditation Helps Her RecoveryPlay
Elizabeth Vargas Explains How Meditation Helps Her Recovery

Meditating has taught me to sit with my thoughts, my feelings, and just observe them. You cannot turn your brain off, or stop your thoughts, but you can try while meditating not to become too invested in them. This is called transcendental meditation, which is the kind I practice. But any kind of mediation will do. I liken it to picturing your thoughts as a series of balloons with strings that slowly float by. You can look at them, but don’t grab the string and pull the balloon toward you. Don’t attach. Just be.

I heard the actor Russell Brand say that prayer is when he talks to God. Meditation is when God talks to him. I like that. And that leads me to how prayer helps keep me grounded. It is mostly about being present and being grateful, noticing everything going on around you (when you are anxious, or drinking to avoid anxiety, you are never truly present. You are always trying to escape) and being grateful for what is happening that is good.

There is so much in our lives to be grateful for, and we rarely dial it in. We are alive. We are (hopefully) healthy. We have our jobs. We may have children who love us. Yes, there are real challenges, and plenty on some days that can be truly difficult. Whenever I find myself feeling discouraged, or worried, I try to focus on something that is going right, instead of whatever may be going wrong at the time. It sounds like a small thing, even as I write it, but it’s not.

Finally, I have slowly learned to reach out to other people. Friends, colleagues, family members and other people in recovery. For some reason, it was always really difficult for me to do that. But I can tell you I have rarely hung up the phone with someone and thought to myself, “Well, that made me feel worse.” The truth is it almost always makes me feel better. We all sometimes need someone to put things in perspective for us. I meet with a lot of other people in recovery and we share stories of what it was like when we were drinking, and what it is like now that we are not. It’s a great reminder to appreciate how lucky we are to escape the terrible cycle of addiction, and how we must never take our recovery for granted.

In addition to sitting down with Diane Sawyer, Elizabeth Vargas also spoke to ABC's Dan Harris for his "10% Happier" podcast about her struggle and her new book. Listen to her full interview with Dan on iTunes, Google Play Music and TuneIn.