Overcoming addiction is a grueling process. Between 40 to 60% of people with addictions relapse within a year, including many who have already undergone treatment. Addiction is most famously associated with drug and alcohol use, but you can be addicted to almost anything that gives you a rush; including gambling, sex, and the Internet.
The consequences of addictive behavior can be devastating on the individual and their loved ones, but to the addicted person, it is worth getting their fix. If you have never suffered from a dependency issue you might be wondering why people have so much trouble putting an end to such damaging behavior. Let’s take a closer look at why addiction recovery is so difficult to achieve.
Many people falsely believe that addiction is just a matter of will power. The truth is that people who suffer from dependency are battling brain chemistry. First, an individual may be born with a vulnerability to a certain compulsive behavior, which means they have a genetic predisposition to addiction. For example, if you have a close family member who is an alcoholic, you are more likely to become an alcoholic yourself.
Second, addictive behaviors flood the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with feelings of pleasure leading one to repeat behavior that makes them feel good.
Finally, constantly engaging in reinforcing behavior changes the pathways in the brain. We develop a tolerance and need more of the drug or behavior to keep up the same level of gratification. In addition, pleasure becomes associated with that particular behavior, causing us to want to do it to the exclusion of any other activity.
In order to overcome addiction, an individual needs to decrease the power of those pathways, something that can only be accomplished with a significant period of remission. The longer you have been addicted, the stronger those connections are going to be. Individuals with long-term addiction issues can expect a tougher fight than someone with a more recent problem.
However, even after years of sobriety, those brain connections still exist and can be reinstated with a single use of a drug or performance of a specific behavior. That is why addiction remains dangerous across one’s lifespan. There is truly no permanent cure.
Internal triggers are physiological and psychological states that increase the possibility of engaging in addictive behavior. These may include the following:
Stress is one of the most common factors associated with relapse. When you feel stressed, you want to do something that helps you relax and leave the stressors behind. There is no easier way to cope with stress than to self-medicate with drugs, alcohol, or addictive behavior. Implementing other coping skills such as exercise and mindfulness can help decrease stress in healthier ways.
Emotions, such as depression and anxiety, leave us vulnerable to addictive behavior. When you feel poorly you look for substances or activities that can make you feel good, even for a moment. Because compulsive behavior acts as a quick dose of pleasure, it is an easy way to escape from negative emotions without having to face your problems. Unfortunately, drugs and other addictive behavior only provide a temporary fix (and inevitably lead to more problems.)
Similarly, suffering from a psychological disorder is a risk for addictive behavior. People experiencing clinical problems are constantly looking for an answer to their difficulties and may turn to compulsions for the cure. For example, someone with borderline personality disorder may develop an addiction to sex in order to cope with feelings of abandonment and erratic interpersonal relationships. Additionally, a person with a psychological disorder may be prescribed psychotropic medication that can lead to substance abuse.
When you have nothing else to do, your mind is going to turn toward behavior that gives you a dose of pleasure. Performing an addictive behavior gives you something to do and makes you feel good at the same time. It seems an immediate way to combat boredom despite its long-term negative effects. Preparing some healthy go-to activities that you can implement instead of addictive behaviors can combat boredom in a beneficial manner.
When people feel pain they will do almost anything to reduce it. Pleasure is the opposite of pain, and addictive behavior helps you feel good for a short period of time. Moreover, it acts as a distraction from extreme physical discomfort.
Furthermore, people who experience pain are often prescribed painkillers that can become habit-forming. This is especially true after long-term use. Opioids, work really well for pain and may make the user feel euphoric. It is no wonder that death due to opioid abuse has skyrocketed in the past 10 years.
Ironically, feeling happy can also lead to relapse. On the extreme end, these people may be in a manic or hypomanic state. However, this can happen to anyone, even those who get good news and as a result may feel euphoric. They may be willing to take risks they would not normally take when their mood is more balanced. An alcoholic, for instance, may want to drink a glass of champagne to celebrate a happy occasion despite the known risks.
HALT is an acronym that stands for hungry, angry, lonely, and tired. These are factors in our everyday experiences that are associated with relapse. The recognition of HALT points to the difficulty in preventing relapse, because after all, who doesn’t feel hungry or tired from time to time? Even when instituting good self-care, it is impossible to not have moments when our bodies and mind are vulnerable to addictive urges. It is during those periods that we are most susceptible to relapse.
External triggers, like internal triggers, increase the risk of relapse. These triggers are made up of factors you find in the environment.
As mentioned above, feeling stress is an internal trigger for relapse. Frequently, that stress is brought about by significant external life events. For example, the death of a loved one or consistently poor work conditions will cause severe stress for almost anyone, even if you have good coping skills.
We live in a society where we take medication for almost any ailment. It makes us feel better. It therefore makes sense that certain people would want to keep taking it even after they might not need it anymore. This chronic use can fuel a dependency problem. Medication often has withdrawal effects, which people should want to prevent.
Lack of Support/Social Life
It is hard to fight addiction alone. No one in recovery faces smooth sailing all the time. During times of weakness, you need other people who will prop you up and help keep you on a healthy path. This may be in the form of a support group or friends and family that you can depend upon. Being lonely is not good for mental health in general and recovering from addiction is no exception.
Personal and Professional Success
When a person experiences success in their life they may begin to let their guard down. For example, say someone gets a promotion to a management position at his or her job. He or she may start to believe that because they are doing so well at work, they must have everything in their life under control, and sobriety ceases to be a concern.
Have you ever been someplace where you saw/heard/smelled/felt something that reminded you of a past experience? That one moment of sensory intake can make you feel like you have returned to a specific point in your history. For someone suffering from addiction, a sensory reminder can cause them to feel urges to use again.
An example of this can be an alcoholic who smells their alcohol of choice, or someone with a gambling addiction who hears a sound that reminds them of a slot machine. Although they may associate those stimuli with negative consequences, they are more likely going to think about the rush of the addiction and have the urge to do it again.
People Who Practice Your Addictive Behavior
You are very likely to relapse if you surround yourself with people who continue to do the very behaviors that fuel your addiction. For instance, someone with a food addiction can’t spend time with a person with an unchecked binge eating disorder and expect to not want to overeat. When you spend significant time with people who participate in addictive behavior you are increasing temptation to an unhealthy level that will be difficult to withstand.
You also have to be wary about being around non-addicted people who responsibly partake in your addictive behavior. An alcoholic, for example, may have difficulty being around any people drinking alcohol, even if it is being consumed responsibly.
People with addictions like to talk about performing their addictive behavior. Just talking about it can provide mental excitement that is reinforcing. If you attend a support group with other addicts you must make sure that people are discussing their behavior in productive ways, rather than talking about it in glowing terms in order to obtain a rush.
Places That Remind You Of Your Addiction
You need to be wary about any place that is going to remind you of the positive aspects of your addiction. For example. you might feel some nostalgia about the “good old days,” but it is difficult to be reminded of addictive behavior when you are trying to stay sober. As a result, that house where you used to do drugs with your friends is probably not the best place to frequent.
An important aspect of beating addiction is to decrease your opportunities to perform that behavior. By avoiding people, places, and things that remind you of it, you are decreasing temptation and giving yourself a better chance of staying clean.
Someone with an addiction needs to change his or her lifestyle. An individual must identify what is unhealthy in their life and remove it. These choices can be unbelievably difficult. Sometimes these decisions may mean cutting off old friends who are unsupportive, or avoiding places you used to go regularly. You may even have to find a new job if it is too stressful or if fellow employees are engaging in unhealthy behaviors.
Making big changes is sure to be uncomfortable and your first inclination will be to resist them. However, you must keep your overall goals in mind and the importance of overcoming your addiction.
The Danger of Complacency
Becoming too comfortable in your sobriety is one of the most dangerous relapse risks for any person with an addiction. Let’s say you have an addiction to alcohol. You have been sober for a few years. Everything in your life is going well. Maybe you feel like your troubles are behind you and you stop being as vigilant as you were previously. For example, you stop going to Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings and lose touch with your sponsor. You have avoided bars for the past three years but you begin to go back to them to socialize because you don’t think you have anything to worry about anymore. Addiction is a slippery slope.
What may seem like small irrelevant decisions can add up to become hazardous to your sobriety. Someone who suffers from addiction can never relax. When they do, they are more likely to fall prey to its power.
You Can Beat Addiction
Defeating addiction can be a difficult journey containing multiple relapses. Although some individuals may view relapse as a failure, it is important to note that it is a normal part of the learning process. Relapse helps people understand what it takes to remain sober.
By identifying triggers, and implementing necessary lifestyle changes, you increase your chances of success. More often than not, you will need the support of other people. This may be provided through some combination of friends, family, support groups, and professional counseling. Even though it will not always be smooth sailing; with education, effort, and perseverance, you too can beat addiction.