Addiction and Changing Your Ways
Addiction is more than simply a bad habit. The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines it as a brain disease that changes both the structure of the brain and how it functions.[i] There are, however, multiple habits associated with the abuse of alcohol and drugs, and these need to be replaced in recovery. Being intentional about developing new routines is an important life management tool.
How Habits Are Developed and Changed
Author Charles Duhigg reports that habits are born from the combination of cue, routine and reward.[ii] The cue is the trigger that causes the urge to perform a particular action. Often, the cues are subtle and do not reach the level of conscious awareness. The routine is the behavior that follows, often without much pre-planned thought, and the reward reinforces the action.
Duhigg advises changing habits by identifying routines, experimenting with rewards, isolating cues and developing alternate plans. The most obvious routine to be changed in addiction recovery is the use of drugs or alcohol. All individuals, however, will also have other problematic behaviors to address.
Identifying Cues and Rewards
Although multiple cues may trigger behavior, people often have certain cues that are the most potent and problematic for them. For people recovering from addiction, it can be very beneficial to take note of some basic information when substance cravings hit in order to identify the most consistent cues. According to Duhigg, cues that trigger habitual behaviors are likely to be related to location, time, emotional state, other people, and the action just completed. It is wise to identify each of these variables when the urge to use drugs or alcohol arises. Are there patterns? Is there a certain time of day that seems to be most problematic, for example, or a certain location?
Identifying rewards may also take some investigative work. The most obvious reward associated with substance abuse is the physical high that follows or relief from withdrawal symptoms. There are likely, however, to be other rewards, such as temporary escape from negative emotions. It may be related to a desire to be part of a group, or to rebel against someone exerting control.
Duhigg advises that people begin substituting alternative rewards in order to gain knowledge about what most motivates them. If relaxation is thought to be the reward, for example, a substance use craving can be addressed by engaging in another relaxing behavior. If increased energy is the reward, another energy-producing action can be tried. The idea is to substitute a reward, then wait 15 minutes to see if the craving still exists.
Once a cue and reward have been identified, it is possible to implement a plan. If a certain location proves to be a triggering cue, for example, then a plan may simply involve avoiding that location. If a certain time of day is problematic, then planning alternative activities for that time window is wise.
Preventing and Dealing with Drug Craving
People in recovery need habits that are related both to preventing cravings and to dealing with them when they arise. Prevention generally relates to self-care. This encompasses both the physical and emotional domain.
Physical self-care involves eating regular, nutritious meals, getting adequate sleep and engaging in some type of exercise. All can help the body heal and can help stabilize emotions, as well. When developing an exercise program, it is important to begin slowly and to increase the activity level incrementally. It is also important to be patient in the area of sleep. Insomnia is common in early recovery, but will usually diminish as the brain heals. A doctor associated with the Institute for Addiction Study reports that in his patients, the first “perfect night’s sleep” generally comes after 60 to 90 days of abstinence and insomnia is usually fully resolved after six to nine months.[iii]
Emotional self-care involves addressing negative emotions when they arise. This begins with identifying them, which often takes focus and attention. Sometimes a negative emotion can be addressed by identifying the thought or belief behind it and examining whether the belief is true or helpful. If not, the situation can be “reframed,” or viewed in a different way. Emotions can also be addressed with techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation or massage. Sometimes difficult emotions arise from a situation that needs to be addressed and changed. Journaling is a tool that can help people both identify and address emotional baggage.
Other important aspects of self-care are building a positive, substance-free social network and learning to enjoy substance-free activities. Becoming part of an addiction support group is important for many reasons, including that it helps to meet these goals. People may need to experiment with various hobbies and activities until they find the ones they most enjoy. Sometimes, people can simply return to engaging in activities they enjoyed before they developed addiction.
As the brain heals and new patterns are developed, it’s common for cravings to continue to occur. It is important that use of techniques to combat them become habitual. These include urge surfing, distraction, and making contact with a mentor or other support person.
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If you are ready to leave addiction behind and start a new life, give us a call. Our helpline is toll-free and available 24 hours a day, so there is never a wrong time to begin your journey. We can help you identify your treatment options and can even check your insurance coverage for you if you wish, at no cost or obligation. Take a step toward freedom today.
[i] “The Science of Drug Abuse and Addiction: The Basics,” National Institute on Drug Abuse, http://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/media-guide/science-drug-abuse-addiction-basics (December 10, 2015).
[iii] “Insomnia in Early Recovery,” Kevin T. McCauley, M.D., http://www.instituteforaddictionstudy.com/PDF/Insomnia%20in%20Early%20Recovery.pdf (December 10, 2015).