Mental Health Month: Addiction (Part 3) – How Do We Grow Beyond Our Addictions?

Understanding how addiction hijacks our motivational systems (Part 1) and impairs judgment (Part 2) also points the way as to what can be done to help a person grow past these mindsets and behaviors. This is best done with help and support as there are three challenging processes that need to occur simultaneously: 1) develop competency over the addiction, 2) integrate healthy mindsets and behaviors, and 3) build meaningful relationships. These three processes are broad strategies to reach one singular goal, which is not just to solve addiction, but rather to become healthy. Addiction is one specific form of unhealthiness, so it makes sense that as we focus on personal growth towards health and wellbeing, that the likelihood of addictive coping strategies decreases. It’s also realistic to believe that addiction is something we can grow beyond, as modern neuroscience has demonstrated that all people continue to change, grow, and adapt throughout our lifespan. In addition, believing that we can’t change increases the probability that we won’t, and believing that personal growth is inevitable increases the probability that we will (click here to learn more). So here’s how to grow beyond addiction and towards healthiness:

Develop Competency Over the Addiction – Abstinence or sobriety is not the goal. For drug and alcohol use it’s a necessary and essential strategy to reach a larger, more ambitious goal of healthiness. For certain behavioral addictions, like compulsive eating or sex addictions the goal can’t be abstinence because we need to eat and sex is not inherently unhealthy. So a more inclusive and overarching strategy is one of developing competency over the mindset and behaviors of addiction. Thinking of it as a strategy also allows us to see this as part of a process, not a final destination, which gives us some leeway as to how sobriety or corrective change can be achieved. The beginning of this process is to consider the most realistic and safe way to minimize unhealthy behaviors or discontinue use of a drug. With drug and alcohol addictions, depending on the amount and duration of use, quitting cold turkey may not be the best option. Also, as described in Part 1, even if withdrawal symptoms are not life threatening, if they are really unpleasant then it’s going to be hard for someone to do it on their own. Certain detoxification strategies can temporarily substitute another prescription medication that will prevent serious withdrawal symptoms and allow a person along with their doctor to plan a gradual taper down to smaller and smaller amounts. Realistically, getting away from drug use or a behavioral addiction may take a few tries, but what is more important is that progress is made with each attempt, because that’s how change happens and how competency is developed – in increments, one iteration at a time. If there is a setback, then it should be treated as a opportunity to learn how to improve the chances of success next time. What was helpful in the last attempt to stop using? What contributed to using again? How do we reinforce what worked and fix what didn’t? The big picture goal is not to just abstain, but rather to develop competency over the addiction, which leads to the importance of the next two interdependent processes.

Integrate Healthy Mindsets and Behaviors – If abstinence alone was the goal, even if a person achieved this, they can’t help but feel deprived in the absence of their drug of choice. In this state, people often find other “lesser” addictions like caffeine or nicotine. So what’s important is not only to be intentional about finding a replacement, but finding healthy and appropriate ones. In order to figure out what these healthy new strategies should be, it’s important to first figure out what needs a person was trying to meet to begin with when their addiction began. Using alcohol to relax at the end of the day? How about taking a walk instead? Using a Vicodin to have more fun at a party? How about being more present and engaged when spending time with friends? Smoking marijuana to feel more calm? Maybe that chronic anxiety has to do with some changes that need to be made in life, and when you do, maybe you’ll be rewarded with feelings of relief and a sense of accomplishment. This may take some exploration because as we’ve discussed previously, at some point the addictive behavior itself becomes the pattern and the origins of the problem may be in the distant past. When healthy behaviors are introduced, they also stimulate the same reward systems that addiction utilizes, but in ways are more sustainable, growth promoting, and are also likely to better at meeting those identified needs. Interestingly, with most behaviors that create authentic positive emotion, these actions tend to also be good for our wellbeing, so with some consistency in introducing more activities that “feel good” naturally, it’s also likely that a person is going to get mentally and physically more healthy. With longer periods of sobriety, our remarkably resilient human brains can heal and recalibrate, and regardless of the duration of addiction, these intrinsic positive feelings remain intact when activated by healthy behaviors. In addition to finding replacement strategies for unhealthy behaviors, it’s also important to integrate general healthy behaviors as well. What’s the best place to start? Read on.

Build Meaningful Relationships – The third simultaneous process is to get connected with other people. This serves two purposes. One is that this process is not easy, and so help is going to be needed. The second purpose is that there needs to be a goal beyond abstinence that is more worthwhile and yet is achievable. When we connect with others, we are more likely to experience not only the same type of positive emotions in our reward circuits, but also different positive feelings of engagement and meaningfulness. Positive Psychology research has demonstrated that these types of experiences are better in that they actually improve our sense of life satisfaction. In order to convince ourselves that there is an experience of life that we can have that is better than the one served by drugs, alcohol, or other addictions, we can’t understand it only in principle. It must be experienced and relationships are the most common way for us to feel positivity in authentic ways. Also, through every research-supported perspective on health and wellbeing, what they all have in common is an emphasis on the value and necessity of meaningful relationships. It’s the one attainable experience that can most convincingly influence a person to believe that life is better addiction free.

It’s important that these three processes happen at the same time, because they each support the probability of meaningful progress in the others. Also, while progress is being made in competency, healthiness, and positive relationships, we experience the immediate benefits of these increments of growth in real time, even before reaching the endpoint of the journey. In my experience, when a person is struggling with addiction, focusing just on achieving sobriety or abstinence oftentimes leads to a frustrating experience of feeling deprived, insecure, and let down. When we look at the larger picture and see addiction as a result of unhealthiness, and we set the goal beyond that to course-correct back towards health, then the increments of growth are more encouraging and rewarding – even while still dealing with the challenges of addiction. And, because this larger goal of healthiness is based on genuine change and maturity, and not just changes in behavior, we can have confidence that we can outgrow our addictive patterns.

In certain circles some people still say – “Once an addict, always an addict.” There’s more than enough reason, both through research as well as experience, to prove that this growth-limiting mindset is false. What is true is that addiction is a product of suboptimal coping strategies for real needs, the vulnerabilities of an addicted brain, and the impairments in judgment reinforced by these habits. When we directly address these issues and become more healthy we reap the benefits of positive change in our lives. As an added bonus, our addictive patterns diminish in exchange for wellbeing. So more accurately, with help and support, what is more true is this possibility – “Once an addict, but not any more.”

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