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If you are thinking about addressing your relationship to alcohol or substances, you may ask yourself if being sober is worth it. Sobriety may look boring, difficult, and unappealing, but the drinking or substance use might be starting to impact the rest of your life, making things even more challenging to manage.
It may feel like you have to choose between chaos and boredom. Right now, these may seem like the only options. Fortunately, there is another way forward.
In this article, I share the experience of Stephanie, a fellow recovery advocate. Four years ago, Stephanie could not imagine living in a state of sobriety. Now, she is pursuing her dream of helping others in recovery. Here are her reasons why it’s worth being sober:
Being sober is worth it because you can live a life of meaning and purpose, you feel healthier and more vital, you’re thriving rather than just coping with life, and you’re no longer living in a constant state of guilt and shame.
The decision to stop drinking or using substances can often feel like an internal debate, so let’s consider the arguments for and against each of these reasons.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or addiction issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
You can live a life of meaning and purpose
People may turn to substances due to boredom or the lack of meaning and purpose in life. Using a substance to cope with daily life may take the edge off temporarily, but it further entrenches a person into patterns of behavior that make it more difficult to escape.
You get to build the life that you want.
Your mind may argue, “I don’t know what kind of life I want to build anyway…”
“You can build any life you want. Sobriety is a rebirth into clear-headedness. You can pick what you want to do and build your goals from that.”
A helpful technique from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) requires gaining clarity regarding your values. One way to do this is to think of a particular role model in your life. What characteristics do they have? What do you value about them? How might you live by some of these values in your own life?
Your life is worth living every day.
Your mind may argue, “But my life is not worth living. I’m hopeless, and I’m a burden on others. They would be better off without me.”
“Every life is worth something. Addiction makes us think that we are nothing. We feel we have nothing left to offer, and all we have done is hurt our families and friends. When we are not using, we can build more meaningful relationships and build a life we feel is worth living.”
A helpful ACT technique consists of taking a step back from thoughts like “I’m worthless.” Rather than thinking, “I’m worthless,” consider rephrasing it as “I’m having the thought that I’m worthless.” This small change of wording in your self-talk makes a significant difference, allowing you to take a step back and regain focus on what matters.
You get to see your kids grow up
If you have kids, your mind may tell you they don’t notice, it makes you more fun around them, or it’s not that bad.
“Addiction tells us we can use so that it can work it’s way in and set roots. Are you sure you are more fun around your children? They may have a very different perspective. We think we can hide our use, but it is not always hidden as well as we think. Think about when a person is drunk and trying to be quiet.”
If you have any variation of these thoughts, it may be useful to take a step back and reconsider what others might be seeing. In ACT, this consists of perspective-taking. Imagine looking into your child’s eyes, and you see them looking back into yours. Put yourself behind their eyes, looking back at you. What qualities do you want them to see in you? What qualities would you want to see in yourself?
You can help the community in a way others can’t.
Your mind may tell you, “what did the community ever do for me?”
“Not all of the community is against you, and you have allies. You will not be alone. But no one can help you unless you help yourself first. Although the work is going to be within you, you will need outside support, and with time, you can find that.”
One of the key lessons in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is the healing power of connecting with something beyond yourself. For some, this may be connecting with their understanding of a higher power. For others, this can mean connecting with a community.
You’re thriving, rather than just coping
When using substances to cope with underlying pain or boredom, this short-term solution prevents one from achieving a state of thriving. Instead of just getting by, sobriety allows you to strive toward your full potential.
You never worry if your utilities will be shut off.
Your mind may tell you that you don’t have financial problems, so this is not a concern.
“…addiction makes millionaires into homeless people. I’ve seen it a lot.”
Even if drinking or substance use does not lead to financial issues in the present, it could result in increasingly putting off financial responsibilities and disorganization in many areas of your life.
You learn to deal with life in a way that isn’t going to kill you.
Your mind may tell you, “It’s only a few beers or a bottle of wine in the evening.”
“It starts as a couple on the weekend and then turns into a few a night. Eventually, the party always ends, and the nightmare begins. It always ends the same way, and it’s not pretty. It will kill you; it’s only a matter of when.”
When drinking or substance use gets out of one’s control, it can spiral downward at a rapid pace. The difference between casual drinking and drinking to cope with underlying issues is that the latter eventually gets out of one’s control, causing increasing harms as use escalates.
You’re not living in a constant state of withdrawal.
If you experience physical pain when stopping opioids or constant shakes when stopping alcohol, your life may start to revolve around obtaining the substance to feel normal.
“…no withdrawals is freedom for me. That was what held me prisoner. I couldn’t be sick like that.”
Freedom from continually impending withdrawal means having a significantly greater amount of choice in one’s life.
You’re not living in content guilt and shame
Guilt is a sense of doing something wrong, whereas shame is the sense of being a bad person. Both often show up when struggling with substances.
You earn back respect and trust.
Your mind may tell you it’s hopeless and that no one will ever trust you again. It may feel hopeless right now, but trust can be rebuilt over time.
“Trust can be built. While it’s harder to build with some and some relationships will never be repaired, we can build new relationships and repair the ones that are fixable.”
When trust is lost, words alone are no longer enough. Trust is built through repeated patterns of committed action over time.
You don’t feel worthless anymore.
Your mind may tell you’re worthless and that you don’t deserve a better life.
“We can’t change what others think, but we can change what we think. When we look into the mirror, the person we see in addiction is very different than the person we see in recovery. I am happier with who I see, and I see the people around me change how they deal with me and treat me.”
Changing what we think requires recognizing these patterns of unhelpful thoughts and changing the way we respond to them. Greet the thought like an old friend, telling it that it’s not helpful right now. Then, letting it be, ask yourself what matters right now. Then, move forward, committing to actions that are most relevant to the things that matter.
You feel healthier and more vital
There are many health benefits to sobriety. Although we may often hear this from medical doctors, it is hard to internalize unless we experience it first-hand.
There are no hangovers.
This is the most obvious and immediate benefit of being sober. Hangovers can derail our entire day, taking us further away from moving toward a valued direction in life.
With the increased energy and improved mood, you can focus on more meaningful areas of life rather than merely coping with a state of impaired health and well-being.
You’re more present, focused, and sharper.
Chronic substance use can impair your ability to think quickly, clearly, and retain information. Depending on the substance, the effect can vary, but I’ve personally talked to many people who noticed a significant negative impact on their brain function.
“You can see life clearly and find solutions to the issues we would have normally not been able to because drugs would be clouding our perceptions.”
This clarity allows for increased progress in all areas of life. Being sober can lead to improved memory, cognitive function, in addition to an enhanced ability to cope with stress.
You have a better schedule.
When frequently using alcohol or other substances, life can become chaotic, making it challenging to stick to a schedule.
“You are not up all night using and sleeping all day. Having irregular sleep patterns leads to us generally feeling yucky and doesn’t help in maintaining a life we can be proud of.”
When regaining a sense of order and healthy habits, motivational momentum snowballs into building a life you can be proud of.
When contemplating sobriety, the voices in your head may be engaged in an endless debate. As described in my article on the Types of Denial in Addiction, our minds can make up many reasons why we don’t have a problem.
If you are thinking about getting sober and are wondering if it’s worth it, hopefully the reasons presented here can help you in your journey. If you would like to reach out to Stephanie, you can find her on Facebook here. You can also check out her powerful story of addiction and recovery here.
Although being sober has been worth it for Stephanie, along with many other individuals I’ve spoken to, there are still some people who may disagree. If being sober is just as difficult as using substances, or worse, this may be a sign that some underlying issues are needing to be addressed.
If this is you, counseling may be a helpful way to work through difficult thoughts and painful emotions driving the urge to use substances. For more information, see my article on The Benefits of Counseling.
As an addiction counselor, I offer online counseling to persons struggling with alcohol, substances, gambling, and gaming. If you would like to discuss whether counseling is right for you, contact me here.
If you are a parent of a son struggling with an addiction, you may often feel frustrated and powerless.
Young men are less likely to seek support for underlying mental health issues, according to research. A study looking at the role of masculinity found that masculine norms act as a barrier to seeking support.
Isolation, denial, and lashing out are common defenses against the fear of admitting to having an addiction or underlying mental health issue.
If your son is struggling with an addiction, how can you help?
- Don’t blame yourself
- Set personal boundaries
- Engage in helpful communication
- Find a counselor or support group
Each of these strategies will help you be the most helpful version of yourself while also recognizing your limits. Let’s take a closer look at each of these areas.
Don’t Blame Yourself
All the knowledge in the world cannot prevent someone from falling into an addiction. There are far too many variables involved, and it is impossible to control every single risk factor.
Even though it is unrealistic to take on the weight of self-blame, it is a normal response. In an article in the Washington Post, a mother shares her experience with this guilt and shame as she battled with her son’s addiction:
“…the feelings of guilt and shame are universal. Guilt for what we did or didn’t do, said or didn’t say. Shame for our imperfections and limitations, because even with all our endless expressions of love and concern, we couldn’t wrestle our children free of this demon of addiction. No matter how hard we fought, the addiction always seemed to win, leaving us alone with our anger, frustration, fear, helplessness, hopelessness.”
Although this self-blame is common and expected, it is helpful to step back and decide whether or not this is a helpful response.
Internalized anger only further contributes to the suffering in an already stressful situation.
Addiction is often thought of as a disease that changes the brain over time. It starts as a choice and incrementally becomes less within a person’s control.
How useful are thoughts like the following: “I’m a bad mother/ father… If only I did something differently… It’s my fault.” These kind of thoughts keep you living in the past, focused on hypothetical situations.
To be the most effective version of yourself, staying in the present moment is most helpful. If you find yourself continually struggling with thoughts of self-blame, consider trying some of the techniques I discuss in my article, “How to Stop Living in Your Head“.
Set Personal Boundaries
Setting boundaries can be one of the most challenging areas for parents. As a parent to a child with an addiction, you walk a fine line between being supportive and enabling.
Enabling someone with an addiction means having low personal boundaries, a lack of firm rules, and a tenancy to do things for them that prevents them from experiencing the natural consequences of their behaviors.
For example, if someone has a gambling addiction, enabling consists of paying off debts for the person.
Enabling consists of needing to “rescue” a person, stopping them from the opportunity to grow from adversity.
Addiction is the result of a learning mechanism in the brain. An addictive substance or behavior rewards the individual, taking away short-term pain. If the long-term consequences of that short-term relief are not experienced, it trains the individual to continue the addictive substance or behavior.
Setting boundaries that allow your son to fail can be one of the most challenging and most loving acts. Although enabling feels like a way of showing love, it prevents them from growing.
Consider areas you may be enabling the addiction. Are you paying for food, clothing, cellphone, or other living expenses that allow them to continue spending their extra money on substances, gambling, or gaming?
Depending on their age, it might be helpful to cut them off from certain areas of support. It may not be advisable to make your 14-year-old pay for food and rent, but this situation might change if your son is older.
It is a difficult decision to cut off support, and the decision might take time. There is no black and white parenting rule-book, and these decisions are often fraught with thoughts of “what if…”.
In the end, it is necessary to ask yourself the following question: Are your “helping” behaviors harmful in the long-term?
Engage in Helpful Communication
When talking to your son about addiction, you may face denial, anger, or a lack of clear answers. Young men and boys grow up in a culture that rewards them for their mental toughness. The mask of masculinity often hides deeper emotional realities.
When trying to get through to your son, it might be tempting to give “tough love” or “make” them see how they are wrong. If you’ve ever tried this, you know how it generally goes.
A more effective way to build a cooperative relationship with your son is to use powerful forms of communication. Here is one of my favorite communication lessons from former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, in his book Never Split the Difference. Rather than trying to get them to say, “you’re right,” the goal is to hear “that’s right.”
Although it may sound like an inconsequential difference in wording, it can mean the difference between temporary agreement and lasting change. When someone says, “you’re right,” that person agrees with the factual accuracy of your advice or feedback, or they are just trying to placate you.
When someone says, “that’s right,” they are agreeing with the fact that you have identified how they are feeling. You can make all of the factually correct suggestions in the world, but if the other person does not feel understood, they are not likely going to implement the suggestions in the long term.
The key to lasting change does not lie in your ability to make the other person think you’re right. The key to lasting change lies in getting the other person to convince themselves of their own reasons for changing.
Rather than seeking validation for your suggestions, you should be relatively invisible in the process, so the other person feels like they are coming up with the ideas and action plans on their own.
This listening skill takes a lot of patience, open-ended questions, and statements that show you understand what they are saying.
Although this approach is not guaranteed to succeed immediately, it plants the seed for future productive conversations.
For an in-depth guide to effective communication, see my article, The Ultimate Guide to Helping Someone Change.
Find a Counselor or Support Group
When trying to help someone with an addiction, it is easy to feel alone and become overwhelmed with stress. Getting your own counseling or support group allows you to maintain your own mental health.
Self-care sometimes feels selfish, but it allows you to be more helpful in the long-term. You can’t be useful for anyone else until you’ve become useful for yourself, first.
If you’re interested in attending support groups, Al-Anon and Nar-Anon groups might be helpful and are widely available. Having others you can relate to takes away the sense of being alone in the struggle. Support groups also help you get feedback on your own approach, keeping enabling behaviors in check.
In addition to seeking support for yourself, it is also helpful to have an idea of the services available for your son. If you can develop a strong rapport, you can collaborate on helping your son enter the right form of treatment.
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When considering the root causes of addiction, it is important to look at various underlying contributors. The media is full of oversimplified depictions of addiction, making it seem like substances themselves cause addiction. Working in the field, in addition to looking at the research, I realized this is a myth.
Upon beginning treatment, I often share the iceberg model with my clients. The addiction is the visible tip of the iceberg, whereas the underlying causes are generally invisible but comprise the vast majority of the issue. To effectively deal with the addiction, we must first consider what is causing it. So what are some of these root causes?
Underlying root causes of addiction include trauma, pain, and unmet needs such as purpose, belonging, and self-esteem, which may be amplified by family and genetic factors.
Let’s dig into the research and unpack each of these underlying causes to dispel some popular myths about addiction.
Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or addiction issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
Drugs Don’t Cause Addiction
Growing up, I recall the anti-drug campaigns spreading the myth that drugs cause addiction. The logic was simple: Drugs are so powerful and so pleasurable that once you try them, you’ll be hooked; therefore, “just say no.”
Perhaps this was effective for someone like me. With my cautious temperament, the fear of such powerful substances kept me away from them.
In general, research does not support the effectiveness of fear-based anti-drug campaigns. Also, it leads to further harm by perpetuating a superficial understanding of how addiction works.
Bruce K. Alexander is a popular advocate against the myth of drug-induced addiction. In his address to the Canadian Senate, he cites a longitudinal study on substance use rates among secondary school students, stating:
“In this group, 41% reported having used cocaine at some time in their life… and less than 0.1 % reported using it at least 20 days in the month of the interview. Thus, less than one student in 400 who reported having used cocaine could be considered a current addict.”
He goes on to share a similar finding regarding crack usage:
“…5.1% had used crack at least once in their life… and less than 0.05% had used 20 or more days in the month of the interview. Thus, the ‘most addictive drug on earth’ caused persisting addiction in no more than 1 experimental user in 100.”
These findings dispel the myth that substances necessarily cause addiction. Although substances are involved in addiction, there needs to be a better explanation of why some people become addicted, and others do not.
Bruce Alexander further dispels this myth in his famous Rat Park Study. He demonstrated that if you put rats in a bare cage alone with addictive substances, they will overdose. But if you put them in a cage with other rats and engaging novelties, they no longer overdose.
This study points to social isolation as one of the underlying causes, explaining why some people develop an addiction. The pain of isolation led rats to cope through ingesting the drug, whereas the rats not subject to this form of pain were more resilient.
This leads us to the insightful words of Gabor Maté:
“The question is not why the addiction, but why the pain.”
Early Trauma Can Cause Addiction
Traumatic adverse experiences during one’s childhood is one of the biggest underlying causes of addiction. Adverse childhood experiences may include physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, parental discord, and sexual abuse.
According to a report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:
“When children are exposed to chronic stressful events, their neurodevelopment can be disrupted. As a result, the child’s cognitive functioning and/or ability to cope with negative or disruptive emotions may be impaired. Over time, and often during adolescence, the child may adopt unhealthy coping mechanisms…”
A 2008 study confirms that substances are a key aspect of this unhealthy coping, early on in life:
“…children with particular adverse childhood experiences may initiate drinking earlier than their peers and that they may be more likely to drink to cope with problems (rather than for pleasure or to be social).”
The anti-drug campaigns focused on inducing fear of substances neglects the fact that the most at-risk youth are not primarily using it for pleasure. Rather, they are using substances to escape from pain.
Another study on childhood abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction found that those who had more than five adverse childhood experiences were seven to ten times more likely to report substance use problems. The authors state:
“Because adverse childhood experiences seem to account for one half to two-thirds of serious problems with drug use, progress in meeting the national goals for reducing drug use will necessitate serious attention to these types of common, stressful, and disturbing childhood experiences.”
These findings reinforce the need to redirect public funds away from anti-drug campaigns, focusing on the root of the problem: adverse childhood experiences.
A recent 2019 study summarizing two decades of research on adverse childhood experiences argues:
“Adverse childhood experiences and rearing may generate a public health burden that could rival or exceed all other root causes.”
These early experiences affect the brain differently from experiences in adulthood, resulting in long-lasting neurological changes. Beyond the brain, these changes impact parental attachment, resulting in changes in one’s ability to gain secure attachment in one’s relationships later on in life.
Beyond using substances to cope with these early experiences, a recent 2020 study found that adverse childhood experiences also contribute to mobile phone addiction. Other common behavioral addictions among youth might include internet use, gaming, and various forms of gambling within online games.
The recent recognition of behavioral addiction in the DSM-V further emphasizes that substances are not necessary for an addiction to develop. Although substances are often involved in addiction, they are are not the primary cause.
Various Forms of Pain Cause Addiction
Adverse childhood experiences and other forms of pain may not necessarily come in the form of trauma. The field of psychology defines trauma as typically involving actual or threatened death, or other extreme events involving hopelessness or horror.
A person may never have pivotal experiences that fit the typical definition of trauma but may suffer long-term due to their perception of certain early events.
For example, a person may recall being insulted or embarrassed by a parent. This situation may not necessarily have stood out to an onlooker as “traumatic,” but one’s perception of the event can have lasting effects.
For example, a child may internalize an off-handed comment regarding their weight, and they may carry these words with them throughout their life. These internalized words distort their perception of themselves, resulting in a spiral of further distorted perceptions as they interact with others, filtering others’ responses through this self-stigmatizing identity.
This form of emotional pain can result in core psychological needs not being met. For example, if avoiding social situations becomes one’s primary coping method, one’s need for connection may be unmet. Turning to substances or behaviors is one way someone may cope with the pain of these unmet needs.
The spiral of short-term coping leads to long-term consequences, taking the person further away from actually dealing with the problematic core beliefs.
Another common underlying cause of addiction may be a lack of purpose. When feeling bored, stuck, or tired of the monotony of daily life, substances or addictive behaviors may be used to escape. This is another example of a situation that wouldn’t typically qualify as traumatic but can significantly impact someone’s mental health.
Family and Genetics Increase Risk of Addiction
When looking at the root causes of addiction, many people are quick to point out genetic factors. I thought it would be necessary to consider here since genetics does not necessarily cause addiction. Instead, genetics increases the risk someone will develop an addiction if the above factors are present.
This means your genes do not cause you to develop an addiction. Rather, they may be a risk-factor or protective-factor, offering a particular level of resilience against early traumas and other forms of pain or unmet needs.
In a study looking at pairs of twins, the researchers found
“…genetic factors played a major role in the development of alcoholism…”
Although this is the case, there is no particular “addiction gene.” More recent research argues several genetic interactions are involved. Therefore, it is essential to consider the interaction between genetics and other psychological factors such as trauma. The authors state:
“…it has become apparent that variants in stress-related genes such as CRHR1, may only confer risk in individuals exposed to trauma, particularly in early life.”
Genes may affect one’s baseline resilience, but as stated previously, early traumas, emotional pain, and unmet needs are the root causes.
Also, genes are not the only way a person inherits traits. Effective and ineffective forms of coping may be inherited through social learning within the family.
Addictive substances and behaviors are the tip of the iceberg. The root causes of addiction include adverse experiences in childhood and emotional pain resulting in unmet needs.
Substances or behaviors are used to cope with this underlying pain, offering short-term benefits and long-term costs, making it harder to actually meet one’s underlying needs.
Meeting one’s need for a sense of connection, self-esteem, and purpose requires delving into the underlying forces driving one’s addiction and developing the skills to more effectively deal with the difficult thoughts and emotions driving one’s behaviors.
If you are interested in reading more, check out my Addiction and Recovery section.
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Persons with mental health or addiction issues often deal with stigma. In turn, stigma negatively affects mental health. This downward spiral makes it harder to seek treatment, leaving people feeling even more socially isolated.
Stigma consists of a label used to exclude an individual, causing them to internalize this label as part of their identity. They generally consist of labels based on negative stereotypes about a specific demographic. For example, the word “junkey” can be stigmatizing for persons with an addiction. So how does this affect someone’s mental health?
Stigma affects mental health by inflicting further harm on already vulnerable populations. A person may internalize a stigmatizing label, causing further isolation, distrust, and low self-esteem, resulting in increased anxiety or depression.
Anxiety is the fight or flight response to stigma, whereas depression is the purposelessness and hopelessness resulting from this downward spiral.
In this article, I share the experience of Stephanie, a fellow recovery advocate who experienced a great deal of stigma during active use and recovery.
How Stigma Triggers Anxiety
Persons already suffering from mental health or addiction issues often experience anxiety. A stigmatizing social environment amplifies this anxiety. As Stephanie states:
“When I got off the drugs my anxiety went right through the roof. It told me I was a mess and no good and that it would be years before I ever was trusted or treated “normal”. When people stigmatized me, it confirmed those anxious thoughts for me. A lot of my recovery work has been on my anxiety. It was bad before I used, but after it was worse.”
While in a vulnerable state of recovery, she had to navigate family, friends, and professionals who treated her differently due to her addiction. She states:
“It’s not so much what they said as how they treated me. They were cold and avoided conversations with me. There were a lot of snide comments about how I should make better choices… everybody wanted to make sure I understood how much I hurt the people around me… they didn’t seem to think I knew.”
This sense of being different from everyone else leaves a person feeling isolated. Without a sense of social support, persons who are already vulnerable experience increased anxiety, particularly in social situations. As Stephanie states:
Social situations could mean answering a lot of questions based on stigmatic things people heard and believed about addiction. It could mean people talking horribly about me because of the life I previously led. It could mean running into people from my past that could tell others around me that didn’t know… because of the stigma and negative perceptions, I had horrible anxiety when having to go into social situations. Until I was strong enough to use an education “shield” to deflect the anger towards the stigma and educate the person using the stigma, I would avoid all social settings at all costs.
As the isolation and anxiety spiral further, it makes it increasingly difficult for a person to pull themselves out of this difficult place.
How Stigma Affects Identity
As stigma takes over one’s identity, a person begins to internalize stigmatizing labels. This process can also be called “self-stigma”. The labels become anxious thoughts, replaying like a broken record. Stephanie’s mind raced with self-stigmatizing thoughts:
“You are a fuck up… You cant do this… You are not good enough… No one likes you… You can’t work… You’re stupid… You won’t get better… You will never stop… No one will take you seriously… Everyone is better off without you…”
This self-stigma is further reinforced when interacting with others who make off-handed remarks regarding any of these anxious thoughts. Stephanie felt like she was living in a constant state of judgment:
“It made it worse and harder to navigate the world. I was afraid that everyone would hate me. I was always second-guessing everything I did and how people perceived me.”
This prevented her from being able to reach out for help. Living in this state of anxiety led her to believe there was no way out:
“I was hopeless and believed that I would not be able to get help. In my own head, I was a lost cause.”
What Stigma and Anxiety Have in Common
Stigma and anxiety are both based on fear. We fear the unknown, and a person using stigmatizing language often does not know or understand the experiences of those they stigmatize.
Beyond the realm of mental health and addiction, we can find a great deal of stigma in the politics of immigration. Before the pandemic captured all of the headlines, immigration was one of the biggest global issues. This included issues like Brexit, Trump’s statements regarding Mexicans and other minority groups, and the surge in nationalism.
Stigma does not often come from true hatred. Even when hatred does exist, the issue goes much deeper. Beyond hate, anger, and frustration, you can often find fear. Immigrants and other minority groups can provoke fear among those who lack familiarity with such groups.
When we feel threatened by economic uncertainty, fear often gets projected outward as anger. Immigrants and other minority groups often become scapegoats for this fear.
Now, more than ever, we need to keep our fear in check. As we navigate a world full of heightened fear of contagion, we need to consider the humanity of others, rather than resorting to broad stigmatizing labels.
Stigma affects the mental health of persons who are already vulnerable by further instilling a sense of social isolation. This social isolation increases social anxiety, potentially leading to internalized self-stigma. Self-stigma makes recovery increasingly challenging as it becomes reinforced by others, leading to further marginalization and a sense of hopelessness.
Recovering from stigma requires separating yourself from the negatively spiraling self-reinforcing thought loops. Rather than identifying with a self-stigmatizing thought, greet it like an old friend, welcome it in, and tell it you have more important things to focus on right now. Then focus on those more important things, letting it be.
Recognize persons who perpetuate stigma are often doing so based on fear or ignorance. Their reactions to you say more about them than about you.
Lastly, stigma makes it difficult to trust others enough to reach out for support. This is a large part of what kept Stephanie stuck in her addiction. When she gained the courage to reach out for help, she broke the power of stigma, finding a supportive treatment facility. Through the support of staff at Aegis Health Group in Windsor, Ontario, she was able to rebuild trust, coping skills, and the confidence to succeed in her recovery.
Unfortunately, many people do not encounter supportive professionals the first time they reach out. Like so many others, Stephanie had to reach out to various sources before finding the right fit for her. If you have been unable to find the right support, persistence will likely pay off when you find the right fit. I discuss this topic further in my article here.
If you would like to learn more about Stephanie’s story of recovery from addiction, you can find it in my article here. If you want to reach out to her, you can contact her on her personal Facebook page here.
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When someone with an addiction is in denial, their mind creates a system of rationalizations, justifying their harmful behaviors. The human mind has an extraordinary ability to come up with reasons to make us feel better about our behavior.
“I’m not that bad… I’m not hurting anyone else… It’s Friday… I deserve it.”
Many different types of denial keep someone stuck in addiction. A common feature that drives many types of denial is a psychological phenomenon called the self-serving bias. It is our tendency to attribute positive outcomes to ourselves and negative outcomes to external events outside our control.
For a gambling addiction, this often consists of the thought that you win because you are skilled, but you lose because of bad luck.
This type of denial is different than lying because the person believes their own reasons. It is like lying to yourself and believing it. This type of self-deceptive denial comes in various forms among persons with addiction. Some of the most common types of denial consist of the following:
- Optimism Bias
- Control Fallacies
- Mental Filtering
- Just-world Fallacy
- Externalizing Responsibility
Each of these are types of cognitive distortions, logical fallacies, or defense mechanisms that keep a person trapped in a state of denial regarding the nature of their addiction.
I composed this list by compiling over one hundred responses by persons with addiction or their family members who shared their experiences justifying an addiction. I thematically analyzed each response, classifying them into eight sections.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these types of denial and how they serve as rationalizations that maintain an addiction.
Also, if you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or addiction issues, you can check out my resource page for suggestions on how to find help.
Minimization consists of psychologically diminishing the severity of an issue. These types of denial consist of the following statements:
- I drink less than others whose lives aren’t a mess, so it’s not like I have a problem.
- I’m not as bad as other people.
- Well, at least I’m not like THAT.
- I’m not an alcoholic.
- I still have a job and lots of friends.
- I’ve never been violent or abusive, and I’ve never gotten into trouble with the law.
- It’s not a big deal.
- I don’t use it every day.
- It’s only a couple nights a week.
- I can go for one more, why the hell not? I have the money, time, and privacy.
- It’s free/ cheap, so no real effects.
- I still take care of myself, so I’m not really having problems.
- I’ll do this amount, but not all of it. No one can tell.
- This is my one vice. I’ll just do it occasionally, so I don’t get addicted.
- Jesus turned water into wine… so drinking can’t be such a bad thing.
- What’s the difference were all gonna die eventually?
- I’ve never really wanted a long life anyway, so if it kills me, it kills me. I’d rather die young having had lots of fun than live a long boring life.
Gambling-specific forms of minimization consist of the following:
- I only have $200 left, so I might as well go.
- I received some back pay, so I justified it as money I was not expecting.
- It’s only $50.
- I don’t drink or do drugs, so this is a healthier addiction.
Optimism bias consists of an unrealistic belief that things will work out, and one will not experience negative consequences. This type of denial may include the following statements:
- Even though I couldn’t function today and get anything done, I’m SURE tomorrow will be different.
- I’ll just go to the bar and not drink.
- I’ll only have one drink.
- I’ll only have a few drinks… no drugs.
- I’ll only have a bit of cocaine, nothing else.
- I will just gamble until my next win when I get back all I’ve lost.
- This machine is about to pay out huge.
- If I win big, it would solve all my financial problems and could help my family.
- I have paid rent, and I have been living on one meal a day for years, so I will be able to get through it.
This bias is particularly relevant in gambling addiction since the random intermittent reward structure reinforces the motivation to continue through the hope of a future payout.
Avoidance coping consists of avoiding distressful thoughts or emotions rather than effectively dealing with them. Addictive substance or behaviors serve as a way to avoid these thoughts or emotions in the short-term, causing further long-term distress.
Using a substance to self-medicate in this way can feel like the drug is keeping you alive, helping you function every day, but one must consider whether or not this is a short-term gain at a long term cost.
Using substances or addictive behaviors to avoidantly cope is like continuing to walk on a broken leg, taking painkillers instead of dealing with the issue.
This is a particularly sensitive area that needs to be approached with empathy and compassion since simply moralizing this form of self-medication is not helpful. These areas can be carefully explored further in a collaborative therapeutic relationship.
Many persons report using substances to cope with depression, anxiety, or anger, while in reality, realizing they just didn’t want to feel their emotions. Common statements include:
- I drink to quiet my mind.
- I’m more relaxed.
- It makes me better socially.
- All my friends only like me when I’m half in the bag and having fun.
- I have a high level of stress in my life.
This consists of using a substance to avoid the pain and intrusive thoughts associated with trauma. Again, it is important not to moralize these reasons, dismissing them as mere excuses. Effective treatment can address one’s relationship to these thoughts. Statements might include the following:
- I have PTSD from bad parenting.
- I was abused as a child.
- It was here for me when no one else was.
- I am unable to handle this tragic loss.
Avoiding physical pain
This consists of using a substance to ineffectively cope with physical pain and should not be conflated with using a substance to effectively cope with physical pain. Substances can be used either way, and the key is knowing the difference. Consulting a medical specialist in your specific area of chronic pain might help determine the difference.
Another way substances are used to cope with physical symptoms in the short-term is to avoid withdrawal. This is particularly relevant for alcohol or opioids since the withdrawal can be physically debilitating for a significant period. Many individuals justify continued use due to the inconvenience of going through the withdrawal symptoms. Statements might include the following:
- I’m letting myself drink because it is better than the shaking.
- I don’t have time to get sick from the withdrawal.
- I won’t be able to function and take care of my family.
Avoiding the short-term dysfunction of withdrawal often results in longer-term consequences.
Avoiding boredom is a common justification for an addiction. Working in problem gambling prevention, this is one of the more common reasons I hear. Statements often include the following:
- There’s nothing else to do.
- This is the only thing going on in this city.
- There’s not a lot of places to go for people my age.
These rationalizations seem entirely true, but upon further exploration, there are usually several other possible outlets for entertainment.
These are a form of cognitive distortion that makes someone overestimate or underestimate the level of control they have over a situation. When overestimating the level of control, it may also be considered an optimism bias. When underestimating the level of control, it can lead to hopelessness and an unwillingness to accept what one can control.
Phrases that highlight an overestimation of control include the following:
- I can stop whenever I want.
- I can do it on my own.
- If I really thought I had a problem, I could quit.
- I’ve gotÂ this under control.
Phrases that highlight an underestimation of control include the following:
- The point of no return has been reached.
- It’s a disease, so I’m powerless to do anything about it.
- My father was an addict, my grandfather was an addict, so it is genetic.
- It’s not my fault… my parents made me this way.
- Anyone else in my situation/ circumstances would probably be doing the same or worse, so I can’t be blamed.
Mental filtering is aÂ cognitive distortion that occurs when someone selectively focuses on certain positive or negative aspects of an event, magnifying certain elements and minimizing others. It is one of the major factors that maintain denial by reinforcing an optimism bias.
For example, a person may focus on specific ways a substance makes them function better while neglecting the harmful effects. Common statements include the following:
- It helps me stay focused and get things done.
- I can’t think straight without it.
- I’m not as smart without it.
- I still go to work.
- I can still maintain all of my responsibilities.
- I take care of my responsibilities (i.e., raise the children, pay the bills, etc.) I am entitled to a little discretionary fun.
- It only affects me.
- I’m not hurting anyone but myself.
In the case of gambling addiction, this can maintain a state of financial denial when someone focuses on the wins and forgets about the losses. One can also justify the increasing expenses by focusing on how the bills are paid while neglecting to focus on savings.
Normalizing is another way of maintaining an optimism bias, diminishing a sense of personal responsibility, and selectively focusing on the entertainment value rather than the harms. Common statements may include the following:
- Everyone’s doing it.
- It’s normal.
- Who doesn’t drink!?
- If alcohol was really bad, it would be illegal.
- It’s natural.
- It’s prescribed.
- It’s a special event.
- I’m over 18.
- It’s Friday.
- It’s a social thing.
This is a cognitive distortion where someone believes good things happen to good people, and bad people are ultimately punished. This belief can sometimes manifest as self-victimization when one blames oneself for a situation, accepting their suboptimal lifestyle as a form of punishment. Statements might include the following:
- It’s my fault.
- I deserve this terrible lifestyle.
- I’m not good enough for anyone anyway, so I might as well.
- I deserve the pain I have.
This consists of not taking responsibility and blaming others instead. It also commonly manifests as a form of projection whereby one criticizes others for things that resemble their own faults. Statements might include the following:
- If you were to spend more time with me, I wouldn’t have to run to the bar/ casino.
- If you had done a better job with my dinner or ironing my clothes or keeping the house clean, I wouldn’t need to do the substance/ gamble.
- You took me there. It’s your fault I gamble.
- I gamble because of all the pressure you put on me, and I want to give you more because I never feel like I’m good enough.
If you’re interested in the topic of responsibility, I’ve written more in my article Why Responsibility is So Important.
This list contains some of the most common types of denial, keeping someone stuck in addiction through rationalizations that justify their behavior. If the above statements resemble your own thoughts, it might be helpful to consider their accuracy.
This article also does not imply that every person with an addiction is in denial. Persons with addiction are in various stages of contemplating change and might be fully aware of the harmful impact of their actions.
Also, I do not intend to imply every person who uses substances has an addiction. There are many ways to use psychoactive substances effectively that do not result in harmful long-term consequences. If you are interested in learning more, check out my article When Does Something Become an Addiction?
Lastly, this article is not an exhaustive list of the various types of denial, so feel free to leave a comment if you have one that has not appeared here and I will add it in.
On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
Working as an addiction counselor, I’ve come to recognize some common early warning signs of a relapse. A large part of recovery is maintaining momentum toward healthy positive habits while effectively coping with difficult thoughts or painful emotions. Since relapses begin long before they happen, it is important to be able to spot the signs in one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Catching a relapse early allows one to pivot back toward recovery before getting caught up in the downward spiral. Since relapse prevention is such an important area of recovery, I decided to compile a list of common early warning signs.
I created this list by collecting responses from 75 individuals in recovery and professionals in the addiction field. I then clustered the responses into a list of 12 themes. I wanted to capture a wide variety of experiences since everyone’s recovery looks different, and not everyone will share the same warning signs.
Here is the list of early warning signs of a relapse:
- Isolating oneself
- Becoming irritable and reactive
- Becoming dishonest and deceptive
- Worrying about other people
- Overconfidence in one’s recovery
- Shifting back into unhelpful networks
- Feeling increasingly apathetic
- Increasing boredom and entertainment seeking
- Falling out of healthy habits
- Increasing suicidal thoughts
- Getting stuck in your head
- Avoiding positive and negative feelings
According to a 2015 study on relapse prevention, these are common symptoms associated with post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), which may last up to two years.
Unlike acute withdrawal, which I wrote about here, PAWS consists of the longer-term emotional and psychological effects of discontinuing an addictive substance or behavior. A person may initially have no symptoms for weeks, falling into post-acute withdrawal unexpectedly, causing a high relapse risk.
I compiled this list of warning signs as a comprehensive yet brief resource one can quickly scan as a reminder of common red flags to watch out for. Catching yourself when you fall into the “stinking thinking” will hopefully allow you to reduce the risk of relapse.
Let’s take a closer look at the meaning of each early warning sign on the list.
Isolation is one of the most commonly cited relapse risk factors. Isolation can cause addiction, and addiction leads to further isolation.
As Stephanie described in my article on what addiction feels like:
The loneliness made me have time to think and the more time I had to think the more I wanted to use because all my thoughts were about using or the horrible person I had become while using.
In recovery, isolation further instills the sense of being separate and disconnected from others. Human beings are social creatures, and isolation cuts us off from this basic need. Increasingly isolating oneself heightens the risk of relapse and can be an early warning sign.
Becoming Irritable, Reactive, and Resentful
Becoming increasingly irritable is another commonly cited warning sign of a potential relapse. Irritability generally consists of being highly reactive to situations. Instead of being able to take a step back when a problem arises, reacting consists of impulsively lashing out based on the emotion.
This reactivity carries over to one’s relationships were resentment builds leading to interpersonal conflict. Every small thing becomes perceived as a personal attack, and one begins to take on a defensive posture in one’s relationships.
As irritability, reactivity, and resentment build, one’s mind becomes rigid, and one’s sense of separateness from others is further instilled. As one progresses down this path, the risk of turning to addictive substances or behaviors increases.
Shifting Back Into Unhelpful Networks
One of the most frequently cited pieces of recovery advice is the need to change one’s network. Staying around the same unhelpful people leads to the same unhelpful behaviors. You are the product of the people you spend most of your time with.
As Stephanie shared in my article, “A Powerful Story of Addiction and Recovery“:
I dropped a lot of friends that still used. My best friend used cocaine, and I had to distance from her, too. No one ever wants to be alone, but the first bit of recovery is just that. It’s about tearing down the social network and rebuilding it with people that aren’t involved in that life.
A huge warning sign for a potential relapse is the withdrawal from social support, meetings, and reverting back to spending time with old friends who reinforce old behaviors.
Becoming Dishonest and Deceptive
Dishonesty and deception are some of the most common features of addiction. When in recovery, one is encouraged to begin telling the truth and speaking with candor.
While experiencing an addiction, persons develop habitual patterns of dishonesty, often being able to hide their addictions from those closest to them. This dishonesty becomes a normal way of life.
Beyond lying to others and lying to oneself, deception, and conning to get what one wants further separates an individual from others as they interact through persona masks.
Falling back into these deceptive patterns of behavior can be a red flag for a potential relapse.
Getting Stuck in Your Head
When living in one’s head, attention is taken away from the present moment. Anxiety about the past and future take over, and panic attacks may overcome one’s mind with thoughts of “what if?” making catastrophic scenarios seem imminent and real.
Anxiety can be a normal part of one’s life and is not a warning sign of relapse on its own. The way one responds to anxiety is the warning sign. For more on how to respond through helpful coping strategies, see my article on How to Stop Living in Your Head.
It is unhelpful when responding to anxiety with further overthinking, catastrophizing, and fusion with thoughts that take one away from the present moment. An early warning sign of relapse is stopping effective coping skills.
A regular meditation practice may be one of these effective skills. For more on this topic, see my article on The Benefits of Meditation for Addiction.
Worrying About Other People
It is important to distinguish a healthy concern for others and an unhealthy need to focus on other people. An unhealthy focus on others is based on an attempt to build one’s own sense of self by pointing out the faults in others. This can also result in blaming others for your own shortcomings and frequently thinking about how you have been wronged.
Another way this unhealthy focus on others can manifest is an attempt to save another person. Rather than focusing on one’s own recovery, constantly diverting one’s attention to another person allows an individual to not have to look at their own flaws. This attempt to fix or control another person comes from a place of low self-esteem.
This warning sign is tricky because helping behaviors outwardly appear generous and selfless. This kind of helping behavior, on the other hand, is based on a strong ego attachment and needing external validation to feel satisfied.
When in recovery, it is essential to consider whether or not your helping behaviors come from a healthy place. The twelfth step’s call to help others is a healthy version of helping. Paying attention to the way one is helping is important so that the addiction does not merely become transferred to this behavior. See my article “Can You Be Addicted to a Person?” for more on this topic.
Overconfidence in One’s Recovery
This is another deceptive warning sign since a high level of confidence does not seem like a risk factor. When someone says, “I got this” with passion and vigor, our natural inclination is to believe them.
In early recovery, overconfidence in one’s ability to control an addictive substance or behavior may serve as a rationalization for not having to engage in certain recovery activities. A healthy level of fear is actually helpful since it decreases the chance of testing oneself, leading to further rationalizations such as, “I deserve one drink.”
In later recovery, this overconfidence can also lead to relapse through rationalizations like, “why can’t I just be like normal people?” and the decision to try reverting to social drinking, when this has never worked in the past.
Overconfidence can also lead to the decision to stop healthy recovery behaviors and focusing on other areas of life, such as one’s career, instead. This diverted attention away from recovery, combined with the lack of a healthy fear of the substance, can increase the risk of relapse.
Falling Out of Healthy Habits
In early recovery, one begins incorporating several healthy habits. Each healthy habit is like a protective barrier, reducing one’s risk of relapse. This is why treatment programs include routines like meditation, exercise, journaling, peer-support meetings, and regular sleep.
Each of these habitual behaviors facilitates an upward spiral of recovery, building momentum over time. Overconfidence in one’s recovery or a temporary state of apathy can derail healthy habits, increasing the risk of relapse.
Early warning signs include putting off meetings, stopping prayers or meditation, a decrease in exercise, poor sleep patterns, and a general lack of structure in one’s life.
Feeling Increasingly Apathetic
Throughout recovery, there may be moments when one loses a sense of one’s values. If things are not going the way one expects and frustration takes over, it can be tempting to fall into the “screw it” mindset where nothing seems to matter.
Ironically, when nothing seems to matter, everything seems to matter. Every little road bump feels like a mountain. Apathy is a state of reactive meaninglessness, killing motivation to continue healthy recovery behaviors.
Having a sense of direction promotes mental resilience when facing difficult situations by allowing a person to reorient oneself toward one’s values. Having a mental relapse consisting of a state of apathy is an early warning sign, requiring one to pivot back toward one’s values.
For more on this topic and an exercise on how to clarify one’s values, see my article on The Importance of Having Direction in Life.
Increasing Boredom and Entertainment Seeking
Along with apathy comes boredom. When there’s no broader sense of purpose, entertainment seeking becomes central in one’s life.
In another article, I argue a sense of purpose is one of the most neglected aspects of recovery. Addiction is a problem characterized by an existential void. In recovery, if one does not have a guiding principle of underlying values or a sense of purpose, it is easy to slip into thoughts like “Why get up? Why leave the house? Why do anything?”
Like Victor Frankl said: “suffering without meaning is despair.” Chronic entertainment seeking becomes a way to escape the pain of despair, similar to the way addictive substances or behaviors function in active addiction.
Finding oneself in this state of complacency may be an early warning sign that entertainment is acting as a replacement for the addiction, increasing the risk of relapse.
Increasing Suicidal Thoughts
Suicidal thoughts are rooted in the painful despair of meaningless suffering, where one is plagued by thoughts of others being better without them. This state of hopelessness is all-consuming but temporary in the long-run.
A significant warning sign of relapse is this fusion with thoughts that others are better off without you, combined with a sense of profound disconnection from others. Using substances can be compared to a temporary version of suicide.
Both suicide and substances are a way to escape the intense pain of disconnection, burdensomeness, and hopelessness. Catching these types of thoughts and using effective coping strategies is crucial in preventing a relapse.
Avoiding Positive and Negative Feelings
As previously stated, an addictive substance or behavior, like suicide, is a way to escape the intense pain of despair. Recovery requires confronting difficult thoughts and painful emotions rather than reinforcing their power through avoidance. Avoiding these thoughts and emotions prevent further recovery since avoiding negativity also means avoiding positivity. As Brené Brown states:
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Avoidance can result in self-sabotaging behaviors, preventing one from experiencing joy and progress in recovery. Examples of this might include withdrawing from a romantic relationship when things are going well or ruining one’s chance at a promotion when things are going well at work.
Finding oneself engaging in self-sabotaging behaviors to avoid positive situations might be a sign of unresolved underlying issues. Avoiding both positive and negative emotions may be an early warning sign of a potential relapse.
Each of these early warning signs are things to look out for while in recovery. By recognizing the signs, one can pivot back toward recovery, preventing a potential relapse.
In a study on relapse prevention, the author provides five simple rules to consider: 1) change your life; 2) be completely honest; 3) ask for help; 4) practice self-care; and 5) don’t bend the rules.
Another helpful tip to consider is HALT:
- H – Hungry
- A – Angry
- L – Lonely
- T – Tired
If you are beginning to feel irritable and reactive, see if you can address any of these foundational areas.
Recovery looks different for each individual and some of these early warning signs of relapse might not be relevant. It is important to consider your own unique warning signs, creating a plan for how you will respond when you notice them.
Building a relapse prevention plan based on your own red flags can be assisted by the support of a peer in recovery, such as a sponsor. It may also be helpful to consider seeking the support of a professional in the field, such as an addiction counselor or a psychologist.
Hopefully, this list of relapse warning signs is a helpful resource you can use to build your own list of signs to look out for in your own thoughts, emotions, and actions.
Feel free to add a comment down below if you have any further suggestions that don’t appear on this list.