Recovery from an addiction is much more than mere abstinence from a substance or a behavior. Abstinence can be, and usually is, a fundamental component of the addiction recovery process, but abstinence does not necessarily equate to recovery. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, recovery is “a process of change through which people improve their health and wellness, live self-directed lives, and strive to reach their full potential.”
Through the addiction recovery process people can drastically change and improve their physical health, mental health, spiritual health, financial health, relationships, parenting skills, career capabilities, and the trajectory of their overall general life. The possibilities are endless. But in addition (did you read that as addiction?) to drastic life changes in all areas of life, recovery from addiction also teaches many valuable lessons. Below are just a handful of important lessons that can be learned through the addiction recovery process that have psychological undertones.
Every individual constructs their own sense of meaning and purpose in their life. The feeling that life has meaning and purpose can come from a variety of areas, such as career, family, nature, or spirituality and religiosity, among others. Sobriety can often be a catalyst of one’s sense of meaning and purpose in the world in a variety of ways, be it by being a better parent, a better colleague, a better friend, a better worker, a better member of the community, having a better sense of their spiritual experience on Earth, and so on.
Furthermore, many individuals in recovery from addiction have found that their suffering during active addiction has led them to a personal transformation, and in some instances their experiences are used to help others with similar struggles. Giving back is very important to many in recovery from addiction, and in many instances is central to their sobriety. The Twelve-Step philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous establishes one alcoholic helping another alcoholic as one’s “primary purpose.”
Having a sense of meaning and purpose in life is extremely important to one’s general wellbeing and quality of life, impacting us physically, mentally, spiritually, financially, relationally, and every which way in-between. Viktor Frankl, an Austrian neurologist, psychologist and Holocaust survivor, believed that meaning and purpose are fundamental to the human experience, and credits his own meaning and purpose in life as his survival mechanism during the Holocaust. Recovery from any illness such as an addiction can be a great catalyst for finding one’s meaning and purpose in life and is a valuable lesson in addiction recovery.
Self-esteem can be defined as one’s attitude towards themselves. More specifically, do they have a positive or negative view of themselves. Self-esteem is an extremely important component of mental wellbeing. Abraham Maslow included esteem in his Hierarchy of Needs as being fundamental to an individual’s psychological needs (although his view of esteem was a more external sense of esteem, but nonetheless connected to self-esteem).
Oftentimes individuals who are addicted are plagued by immense feelings of shame and guilt due to the rippling impact of their addiction on themselves and on their loved ones, leading to a negative sense of self. Furthermore, being unable to reduce the frequency of their addiction or stop altogether implies “weak will” (although that is not true, please read #6). Due to a combination of such factors, addicted individuals often have low self-worth.
In turn, low self-worth often exacerbates one’s substance use or addictive behavior. The individual finds solace in their addiction, as it tends to either distract or numb them from their feelings of inferiority and insecurity, and also serves to give a false sense of confidence. While all substances can serve these purposes, certain substances (often depressants) such as opioids (heroin, Oxycodone, or Fentanyl), alcohol, and benzodiazepines (Xanax, Klonopin, or Ativan) do a particular good job of numbing emotional pain, while other substances (often stimulants) such as cocaine and amphetamine (Adderall, Dexedrine, Modafinil, Methamphetamine) do a particular good job of providing a false sense of confidence.
Addiction recovery often naturally results in an increased sense of worth and self-esteem merely by being able to stop engaging in an addictive behavior and putting aside the compromising behaviors that often coincide with addiction. Furthermore, addiction recovery teaches individuals to build their sense of worth and esteem by “doing the right thing.” Additionally, individuals in recovery from an addiction are often able to rebuild their relationships, their careers, their health, and other such important life areas that improve their sense of self-respect, confidence, and dignity. Such issues are often worked on with addiction professionals during the addiction treatment process.
“A grateful alcoholic (or addict) does not use” is a common phrase tossed around the addiction recovery community. Gratitude is frequently a key component of the addiction recovery process, frequently encouraged by addiction professionals with their patients as well as in mutual help meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Addiction recovery teaches individuals that even when life does not appear to be going your way there is always something to be grateful for.
This is important because gratitude plays a fundamental role in our mood, our behavior, and our outlook on life. Studies reflect that gratitude improves one’s mental health, decision making, relationships, resilience, sleep, empathy, and much more. As such, not only are individuals who are in a state of gratitude less likely to relapse on their addictive behavior, but they are also likely to have an overall higher quality of life.
Addictions are often used as a means to escape reality, serving as a conduit to not be present for one’s life. Therefore, recovery from addiction naturally means that one should be facing reality more often, however, other forms of escapism may persist (binge watching Netflix, social media, etc.). Nonetheless, mindfulness practices that are often taught by addiction specialists in addiction treatment programs and in addiction therapy enforce the importance of being present for one’s life. Mindfulness has become a critical therapeutic technique, often incorporated into Cognitive Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Positive Psychology, among others.
Mindfulness affords an individual with the ability to be in the present moment, thereby being less focused on the past which breeds depression and less focused on the future which breeds anxiety, both of which are common triggers of relapse. Being mindful also affords one with the ability to tune into their physical and mental states, observing thoughts, feelings, and sensations without judgement. Mindfulness is used in addiction therapy in a variety of ways such as a stress reduction technique, self-care tool, coping mechanism, relaxation technique, self-regulation, resiliency, and overall mechanism for improving wellness for the body and mind.
One reason that individuals find themselves addicted to drugs, alcohol, gambling or other addictions is that it is the only thing in life that gives them pleasure. Due to the impact that addictions have on hijacking the brain’s reward system, individuals who are addicted often report having a low mood, losing interest in other things they used to find pleasurable, and are only able to find solace in their addiction. As such, they often do not find natural pleasure in life. Furthermore, withdrawal from alcohol or drugs such as opioids or benzodiazepines is probably the opposite of a pleasurable experience.
Fortunately, recovery from an addiction allows the brain to heal. Over time, the brain no longer becomes dependent on an addictive substance or an addictive behavior to bring pleasure. The brain is able to produce natural “feel good” chemicals. Simple things such as a beautiful sunrise or sunset, being surrounded by nature, eating a flavorful meal, intimacy with a partner, social outings, physical activity, and other such natural life pleasures bring real joy to the person’s life. Although the natural pleasures of life may not be as instantaneous or as stimulating as drugs such as cocaine or behaviors such as gambling, they are more sustainable, less harmful, and usually without consequence.
Researchers in the field of psychology have also found that one thing that brings people pleasure is finding meaning in their life (see #1). Studies reflect that those with greater meaning in their life find life more pleasurable, and also have greater psychological wellbeing. As such, individuals in recovery from addiction who have newfound meaning and purpose in life in turn may find life is pleasurable.
Alcohol and drug addiction can often cause feelings of helplessness, subsequently leading one to feel weak. Furthermore, people often contribute to the stigmatic nature of addiction by saying that individuals who are addicted to drugs, alcohol, food, gambling, or other addictive behaviors are “weak willed.” However, as the majority of addiction professionals will attest to, addiction is not a matter of willpower, but rather is a matter of neurological changes in the brain making it extremely challenging for individuals to reduce, stop, and stay stopped from their addiction. Anyone who has struggled with an addiction or has a loved one who has struggled with an addiction can attest to the enslaving nature of drugs, alcohol, and other forms of addiction.
A key element that highlights the brutality of addiction is relapse. Unfortunately, relapse rates from addiction are extremely high, with approximately 85% of individuals relapsing within their first year of recovery from drugs or alcohol, even after completing a drug and alcohol rehab program. As such, individuals in recovery take great pride in their recovery, as it is often one of the most challenging things they have done in their lives. In this way, recovery can teach the lesson that anything is possible if one sets their mind to it. Individuals in recovery know that they are not weak-willed individuals, but rather have just as strong of a willpower and mindset as anyone else, if not more. They are resilient and capable of whatever they set their mind to.
According to the American Psychological Association, psychologists define resilience as, “the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or significant sources of stress—such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems, or workplace and financial stressors.” The ability to recover from an alcohol addiction or drug addiction certainly meets the criteria for resilience. The ability to overcome challenges is often referred to as “self-efficacy” in psychology. In turn, learning one’s own resilience in the addiction recovery process can serve to foster the type of mindset and discipline that is necessary to be resilient in other ways when obstacles arise. As such, individuals in recovery are able to improve their life and maximize their potential.
Hope is the belief that something will happen. It is also a cornerstone of addiction recovery, frequently highlighted in Twelve-Step meetings such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. Individuals in recovery from addiction are often encouraged to have hope that their life will improve and that things will get better, even in the worst of times. In fact, an acronym for the word hope that is often tossed around the recovery community is “Hold On Pain Ends.”
Although hope may seem to be frivolous to some when it comes to battling a severe addiction, it is actually quite an important mechanism of change studied by many psychologists. For example, “Hope Theory,” coined by psychologist Charles Snyder, emphasizes the importance of hope as a primary agent of change. Without hope, Snyder believes that the determination to achieve a goal will not be present. Addiction recovery teaches individuals the importance of having hope in achieving their desired goals, be it sobriety or any other objectives they set out to achieve.
A key component of the addiction recovery process is learning how to have healthy relationships and set healthy boundaries with others. During active addiction, many meaningful relationships may have deteriorated, and the ones that still existed may have been dysfunctional, toxic, or codependent. Boundaries may have been porous, permeable and unclear. And addicted individuals are often known to be “people pleasers” putting others at the fore in order to garner friendship, love, and likeability.
Through the addiction recovery process individuals learn how to set appropriate boundaries, how to have healthy and meaningful relationships, and how to be more assertive and honest in their communications. The people that are let in are often one’s built upon mutual respect and trust; letting go of “using friends” or “drinking buddies” that were merely negative influences. Learning the importance of healthy relationships and how to set appropriate boundaries is regularly taught by addiction professionals in alcohol and drug treatment centers.
Healthy relationships are a fundamental component of psychological wellbeing. Researchers have found healthy relationships to have a strong positive influence on one’s mental health. A positive support system has been found to be a catalyst for excelling in life and for overcoming adversity. Accepting support when it is needed and also reciprocating support in return helps to foster such necessary healthy relationships throughout life.
A common phrase that gets tossed around the recovery community, especially in mutual help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, is, “you’re only as sick as your secrets.” This phrase implies that holding onto secrets brings despair; whereas releasing secrets brings healing. Opening the blinds lets light in and eliminates darkness all at once. Being vulnerable with others allows for one to release and begin to recover.
Shame, guilt, trauma and fear commonly promote the development of secrecy. Secrecy is also a common manifestation of alcoholism and growing up in an alcoholic household. In recovery, individuals often find that releasing secrets allows for an opening to begin healing. Mutual help meetings and group therapy allow for universality to occur, the ability to see that your personal qualities, beliefs or behaviors are not terminally unique, and allow for others to share that burden with you. It allows for individuals to understand that there is nothing wrong with you, but that perhaps something wrong happened to you (for example, sexual abuse).
Self-centeredness is often said to be a characteristic of addiction. This is because addicted individuals are perceived to only care about themselves. Alcoholics Anonymous states in their literature, “Selfishness, self-centeredness! That, we think, is the root of our troubles!” It is true that oftentimes individuals with addictions will put their addiction before their loved ones, and even before themselves. Unfortunately, strong cravings and neurological changes make impulse control very challenging, resulting in the addiction becoming as important as food and water. Oftentimes selfishness in addiction comes at the expense of friendships, family relationships, careers, and ultimately leading to a very lonely and isolated state.
Addiction recovery affords individuals with the ability to change destructive behavioral patterns such as selfishness. Addiction therapy can help individuals identify such negative behaviors and work to change them through the therapy process. Many addiction professionals and individuals in recovery find value in being selfless in recovery. Therapy and addiction recovery can help individuals restore empathy, compassion, and altruism that may have been lost in addiction.
Psychologists have found that selflessness makes us feel good. When we are kind to others or when we give back in a meaningful way, the pleasure centers of our brain are stimulated. This is important in addiction recovery because of the damage done to the brain’s reward system during active addiction. Studies have found selflessness to have a positive correlation with happiness and improved mental health, among other benefits.
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