Coping Skills for Addiction

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

Recovery from addiction is a complex and challenging process that requires commitment, patience, and a variety of coping strategies. Emotional regulation plays a critical role in this journey as it helps individuals navigate through the ups and downs of recovery, avoiding relapses and maintaining progress.

In short, here are some of the most helpful coping skills for addiction recovery:

Acknowledge emotions, practice mindfulness, align actions with values, set goals, delay and distract from cravings, visualize success, “play the movie to the end,” use “urge surfing,” and embrace undesired experiences with the “reversal of desire.”

I will provide an in-depth overview of coping strategies, focusing on the principles of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). We will discuss each coping skill in clear language, offering actionable steps to implement these skills in your recovery process.

Identifying Triggers and Developing Self-awareness

The role of triggers in addiction relapse

Triggers are internal or external cues that provoke cravings or urges to engage in addictive behaviors. Examples of triggers can include stress, negative emotions, certain places, or people associated with past substance use. Identifying and understanding your triggers is essential in preventing relapse, as it allows you to implement coping strategies proactively.

The benefits of increased self-awareness

Developing self-awareness helps you recognize your thoughts, emotions, and patterns of behavior that may lead to a relapse. Increased self-awareness enables you to make conscious choices, respond effectively to triggers, and implement appropriate coping strategies.

Techniques for identifying and tracking triggers

Journaling: Writing down your thoughts, emotions, and experiences can help you identify patterns and triggers that may lead to cravings or urges. Keep a daily journal and note any situations, thoughts, or emotions that precede or coincide with cravings.

Reflective thinking: Regularly take time to reflect on your thoughts and emotions, examining how they impact your behavior. This practice can help you spot potential triggers and develop a deeper understanding of your emotional landscape.

External feedback: Share your experiences with a trusted friend, family member, or therapist. They may provide valuable insights and help you identify triggers that you might not have noticed on your own.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) Tools

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) is a form of cognitive-behavioral therapy that focuses on fostering psychological flexibility, helping individuals accept the presence of unwanted thoughts and feelings while committing to actions that align with their values.

Defusion techniques

Defusion techniques help you create distance between yourself and your thoughts, reducing their impact and allowing you to respond more effectively to triggers.

Cognitive distancing: This technique involves recognizing that thoughts are just mental events and not facts. When a thought arises, remind yourself, “This is just a thought, not reality.” This acknowledgment can help you view the thought from a more objective perspective.

Labeling thoughts: When a thought arises, simply label it as a “thought” or “feeling.” For example, if you think, “I need a drink,” rephrase it as, “I’m having the thought that I need a drink.” This labeling process helps you to disengage from the thought and recognize it as a temporary mental event.

Using metaphors: Metaphors can help you visualize the process of defusion. For instance, imagine your thoughts as leaves floating down a stream. As each thought arises, imagine placing it on a leaf and watching it float away. This visualization can help you detach from your thoughts and observe them without getting caught up in their content.

Acceptance of emotions

Acceptance involves embracing your emotions without judgment, even if they are uncomfortable or unpleasant. This approach allows you to respond more effectively to triggers and cravings.

Embracing emotional discomfort: Recognize that it’s normal to experience a wide range of emotions, including negative ones. Instead of trying to suppress or avoid these feelings, allow yourself to experience

them without judgment. Understand that emotions are a natural part of the human experience and that they will pass with time.

Mindful observation of emotions: Practice mindfulness by observing your emotions as they arise without getting caught up in them. Focus on the physical sensations and thoughts associated with the emotion, and try to remain present and non-judgmental. This practice can help you gain a deeper understanding of your emotional landscape and develop a more balanced response to triggers.

Self-compassion and non-judgment: Treat yourself with kindness and understanding when experiencing difficult emotions. Remind yourself that it’s okay to feel this way and that it doesn’t make you weak or flawed. Cultivating self-compassion can help you navigate through emotional challenges without resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms.

Connection with values

Aligning your actions with your core values can provide a sense of purpose and meaning in your recovery journey. This alignment can serve as a powerful motivator to stay on track and avoid relapse.

Identifying core values: Reflect on your beliefs, principles, and the qualities you most admire in yourself and others. Consider what is truly important to you, such as honesty, compassion, or personal growth. Make a list of your core values to guide your actions and decisions throughout your recovery.

Aligning actions with values: Assess your current behaviors and determine whether they align with your core values. If not, identify specific actions you can take to bring your behavior in line with your values. This alignment can help you feel more authentic and committed to your recovery.

Setting value-based goals: Establish goals that reflect your core values and support your recovery journey. These goals may include building healthy relationships, pursuing personal development, or engaging in activities that contribute to your well-being. By focusing on value-based goals, you can maintain motivation and find greater meaning in your recovery process.

Committed action

Committed action involves taking consistent, value-driven steps toward your goals, even in the face of obstacles or discomfort.

Breaking goals into small steps: Break down your value-based goals into smaller, achievable tasks. This approach makes it easier to stay focused and committed to your recovery, as it allows you to experience regular progress and success.

Overcoming barriers to action: Identify potential barriers that may hinder your progress toward your goals, such as fear, lack of resources, or negative self-talk. Develop strategies to address these barriers, such as seeking support, acquiring necessary skills, or challenging limiting beliefs.

Celebrating achievements and progress: Acknowledge and celebrate your accomplishments, no matter how small. Recognizing your progress can boost your motivation, self-esteem, and commitment to your recovery journey.

Coping with Cravings and Urges

Urge Surfing

Urge surfing is a mindfulness-based technique that involves observing and riding out cravings or urges without acting on them. Instead of attempting to suppress or avoid the urge, you learn to accept its presence, acknowledge its intensity, and allow it to pass naturally. Urge surfing is based on the understanding that cravings and urges are temporary and will eventually subside if not acted upon. Here’s how to implement the urge surfing technique in your recovery journey:

Acknowledge the urge: When you experience a craving or urge, recognize its presence without judgment. Remind yourself that urges are a natural part of the recovery process and that experiencing them does not mean you have failed or are weak.

Focus on your breath: Shift your attention to your breathing, taking slow, deep breaths. Inhale deeply through your nose, filling your lungs, and then exhale slowly through your mouth. Focusing on your breath can help ground you and create a sense of calm amidst the intensity of the urge.

Observe the urge: Turn your attention to the physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions associated with the urge. Notice where in your body you feel the craving and any changes in intensity or quality. Try to maintain an attitude of curiosity and non-judgment, as if you were observing the urge from a distance.

Visualize the urge as a wave: Imagine the craving or urge as a wave that rises, peaks, and eventually recedes. Envision yourself surfing on this wave, remaining balanced and steady as it moves beneath you. This metaphor can help you detach from the urge and understand that it is a temporary experience that will pass if you do not act on it.

Practice patience: Urge surfing requires patience, as cravings and urges may last for varying amounts of time. Remind yourself that they will eventually subside, and focus on staying present and engaged with the process. If your mind begins to wander or fixate on the urge, gently redirect your attention back to your breath or the sensations in your body.

Reflect on the experience: Once the urge has passed, take a moment to reflect on the experience. Consider how urge surfing helped you cope with the craving and what insights you gained about your emotions, thoughts, and physical sensations. Use this information to strengthen your confidence in your ability to manage future urges.

By practicing urge surfing, you can develop a more mindful and accepting approach to cravings and urges, allowing you to navigate through the challenges of addiction recovery without resorting to unhealthy coping mechanisms. With time and practice, urge surfing can become an invaluable tool in maintaining long-term sobriety and well-being.

Delaying tactics

Delaying tactics involve postponing the decision to engage in addictive behavior, allowing the craving or urge to pass.

The 15-minute rule: When a craving arises, commit to waiting for 15 minutes before making a decision about whether to engage in the addictive behavior. During this time, focus on other activities or coping strategies to help the craving subside.

Mindful breathing exercises: Practice deep, slow breaths to help calm your mind and body. This exercise can create a sense of grounding and help you regain control over your impulses.

Distraction techniques

Distraction techniques involve engaging in healthy activities that shift your focus away from cravings and urges.

Engaging in healthy activities: Choose activities that align with your values and promote well-being, such as exercise, hobbies, or spending time with supportive individuals. These activities can provide a sense of accomplishment and pleasure, reducing the intensity of cravings.

Connecting with supportive individuals: Reach out to friends, family members, or peers in recovery when experiencing cravings or urges. Sharing your feelings and thoughts with others can provide comfort, encouragement, and practical advice on how to cope with these challenges.


Visualization involves using mental imagery to create a vivid picture of a desired outcome or process, helping to strengthen your resolve and focus on recovery.

Imagining a positive future: Envision yourself living a fulfilling, addiction-free life. Picture the positive changes and experiences that would come with this lifestyle, such as improved relationships, better health, or personal growth. This visualization can help boost your motivation and commitment to recovery.

Visualizing the process of overcoming urges: Create a mental image of yourself successfully navigating through a craving or urge. Imagine yourself implementing the coping strategies discussed in this article, and visualize the sense of accomplishment and relief that comes with overcoming the challenge. This exercise can help you build confidence in your ability to cope with cravings and urges effectively.

Play the movie to the end

“Play the movie to the end” is a technique that involves thinking through the consequences of engaging in addictive behavior, providing a more realistic perspective on the potential outcomes.

The concept and benefits of playing the movie to the end: This technique encourages you to think beyond the immediate relief or pleasure that addictive behavior may provide, considering the long-term consequences such as guilt, shame, damaged relationships, or setbacks in your recovery. By playing the movie to the end, you can make more informed decisions and resist the temptation to engage in addictive behavior.

Steps for using this technique: When experiencing a craving or urge, take a moment to imagine the entire sequence of events that would follow if you were to engage in the addictive behavior. Consider the physical, emotional, and social consequences, as well as the impact on your recovery journey. Reflect on this imagined outcome and ask yourself whether it is worth the temporary relief or pleasure.

Real-life examples and success stories: Many individuals in recovery have found this technique to be a powerful tool in preventing relapse. By keeping the potential consequences in mind, they can maintain a stronger focus on their long-term goals and commitment to recovery.

The Reversal of Desire

The “reversal of desire” technique, also known as “paradoxical intention” or “wanting what you don’t want,” is a psychological strategy that involves intentionally embracing the very thoughts, feelings, or experiences that you are trying to avoid or resist. By adopting this counterintuitive approach, you can reduce the power and influence of these undesired experiences, ultimately making them easier to manage. This technique can be particularly helpful in coping with cravings, urges, and uncomfortable emotions during addiction recovery. Here’s how to implement the reversal of desire technique:

Recognize the craving or uncomfortable emotion: When you experience a craving, urge, or difficult emotion, acknowledge its presence without judgment. Accept that it is a part of your current experience.

Embrace the undesired experience: Instead of trying to resist or avoid the craving or uncomfortable emotion, intentionally lean into it. Consciously choose to experience it fully, as if you genuinely desired it. This might seem counterintuitive, but it helps to weaken the power that the undesired experience holds over you.

Examine the experience: As you embrace the craving or uncomfortable emotion, pay close attention to its characteristics. Observe the physical sensations, thoughts, and feelings associated with it. Approach this examination with curiosity and openness, trying to understand the experience rather than judge or resist it.

Reframe your perspective: Recognize that by intentionally embracing the undesired experience, you are taking control of it. This shift in perspective can help transform the experience from something that feels threatening or overwhelming into an opportunity for growth and learning.

Use the energy: As you continue to embrace the undesired experience, consider how you can channel the energy it generates into constructive actions that align with your recovery goals. For example, you could use the intensity of a craving as motivation to engage in a healthy activity, seek support, or practice self-care.

Reflect on the outcome: After the craving or uncomfortable emotion has passed, take a moment to reflect on the reversal of desire process. Consider how this technique influenced your experience and what insights you gained about your thoughts, feelings, and reactions. Use this information to strengthen your confidence in your ability to manage future challenges.

By implementing the reversal of desire technique, you can develop a more adaptive and empowering approach to coping with cravings, urges, and uncomfortable emotions during addiction recovery. With practice, this technique can help you build resilience and maintain long-term sobriety and well-being.


Emotional regulation and coping strategies play a crucial role in addiction recovery, as they enable individuals to navigate through challenges, avoid relapses, and maintain progress. By implementing the techniques and tools discussed in this article, you can build a strong foundation for lasting recovery. Remember to be patient and persistent in your journey, as personal growth and healing take time and dedication. With continued practice and commitment, these coping skills can help you transform your life and achieve a healthier, addiction-free future.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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