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As an addiction counselor, I’ve spent a lot of time helping people stop an addiction. Although everyone’s recovery is unique, I’ve seen some common themes regarding what allows people to gain freedom from addiction.
In this article, I summarize and integrate all of the best research and therapeutic methods on addiction recovery. It is a comprehensive approach that can be started on your own but may require the support of a professional or peer support group.
Throughout the article, I point to many additional resources, so it might be helpful to save the links or take notes on the resources that fit your situation, so you can explore them later on.
So how do you stop an addiction?
- Address the physical addiction
- Address the psychological addiction
- Ask yourself if it’s worth it
- Minimize the need for willpower
- Maximize intrinsic motivation
Each of these factors allows you to decrease your reasons to continue an addictive substance or behavior and increase your reasons to change.
While struggling with an addiction, you may find yourself on a motivational seesaw, like the image below. Caught between wanting to continue and wanting to stop, many people experience moments of mixed motivation, feeling pulled in two different directions.
On the one hand, the addictive substance or behavior provides relief of physical or emotional pain, while on the other hand, it keeps you from living in alignment with your values.
My collogue Stephanie describes this battle in the following way:
“Addiction feels like a war in your head. You know what you’re doing is hurting you but can’t stop. It’s like watching a bad movie you are the star of. You want to yell “stop” at the screen, but it does no good.”
People may tell you to “just stop,” but you’ve probably already told yourself that many times. If this approach worked, you would have likely stopped long ago. So what is the alternative?
In my work with clients, I uncover the underlying causes of the addiction, treat these underlying causes, and build motivational momentum.
After years of working with clients one-on-one, I’ve decided to create a summary of my approach, so the lessons can reach a broader audience and help more people who are trying to stop an addiction.
Let’s get started.
Address the Physical Addiction
When talking to a client about stopping an addictive substance, the first thing I consider is the potential physical dependency. In simple terms, this means determining how their body might react in the absence of the substance.
This is particularly relevant for individuals who are using a substance daily. If someone is binging on weekends, they may experience a hangover, but this is different from physical dependency.
Physical dependency occurs when your body adapts to the presence of a substance. Over time, your brain and body start to rely on the substance to feel normal, and abruptly stopping a substance can lead to withdrawal symptoms.
Working in a withdrawal facility as a chemical dependency counselor, I learned a lot about the various factors to consider when assessing and monitoring clients. These general guidelines are intended for educational purposes and I would advise you to seek the support of a medical practitioner for advice on how to proceed.
Here are some things to consider if you have been using a substance daily:
When your body adapts to the presence of alcohol, its ability to stay relaxed on its own decreases. When stopping, it produces a rebound effect whereby you can become highly anxious and physically shakey, perhaps even leading to seizures. Alcohol and other depressants such as benzodiazepines are considered the most dangerous substances to stop for this reason.
For more on this topic, see my article: What to Expect From Alcohol Withdrawal.
These are the most painful substances to withdrawal from. When your body adjusts to being numbed and sedated, stopping the substance produces a rebound effect whereby persons can experience extreme pain, irritability, inability to sleep, in addition to a number of other flu-like symptoms.
For more on this topic, see my article: What Does Opioid Withdrawal Feel Like?
These often come with more mild withdrawal symptoms compared to alcohol and opioids. When your body adjusts to the constant stimulation, stopping produces a rebound effect whereby persons can feel extreme fatigue. This is particularly relevant when stopping crystal meth due to its potency. Although the withdrawal is not necessarily dangerous like alcohol or painful like opioids, it can result in a great deal of fatigue.
You can read more about crystal meth addiction in my article here.
It is difficult to characterize this particular substance since many people don’t experience withdrawal symptoms, while others do. Irritability, difficulty sleeping, or a general sense of malaise may be associated with stopping cannabis.
When stopping any substance, consider the potential physical withdrawal symptoms and seek appropriate medical support or the services of a withdrawal facility.
The main question I ask potential clients to determine their withdrawal risk is whether or not there have been days recently where they have not used the substance. If so, I ask them to describe what those days are like. Since withdrawal symptoms generally set in fairly quickly after stopping a substance, a day of not using the substance usually makes these physical symptoms fairly noticeable.
If the potential client cannot recall a time when there was a gap in their use, I advise them of the above information and to seek support from a medical professional.
If you can go a day or more without using the substance and do not notice significant physical symptoms, it is time to address the psychological aspect of the addiction.
Address the Psychological Addiction
Many people experience psychological addictions without having a physical dependence. If you don’t use a substance daily, or if you struggle with a behavioral addiction like gambling, there may be no physical withdrawal.
The psychological aspect of addiction comes from an attempt to cope with underlying emotional pain such as stress, anxiety, depression, or boredom. The substance or addictive behavior provides temporary relief at a long-term cost to one’s health, relationships, and general wellbeing.
Addictive substances or behaviors are commonly used to cope with unmet needs or past trauma.
Unmet needs commonly include the need for a sense of connection, purpose, and sense of control in one’s life. Past trauma or other adverse experiences can make it even more challenging to meet these needs because it can cause anxiety, mistrust, depression, or cognitive distortions.
Identifying the source of the psychological addiction is generally the goal of my initial sessions with a client. Once we identify the underlying issue, we then focus on treating it.
Since each individual requires a slightly different approach, giving a specific “how to” in this section is difficult, but here are some general things to consider.
This is one of the most common areas I continually focus on. Since there is a stigma around addiction, people often internalize unhelpful self-critical thoughts about themselves.
Throughout your day, notice how often you have thoughts like, “I’m stupid, I’m incompetent, I’m worthless, I’m unworthy, I’m a burden, I’m broken, I’m unlovable, or I’m not enough.” This is just a quick summary of the most common ones I hear on a daily basis in my work with clients. If your mind frequently goes to one or many of these places, you are not alone.
Many of the people who struggle with these thoughts are often the most compassionate people in their interactions with others. Drawing on this natural strength, here is an exercise to develop self-compassion:
Imagine a time you’ve struggled with these unhelpful self-critical thoughts about yourself. What was the specific situation? Where were you? When did it happen? What self-critical thoughts came up? If you have a moment, take some time to imagine yourself in this situation.
Now consider someone in your life who you care for. Who is this person? Imagine they come to you describing the same situation you described above, saying the same self-critical thoughts about themselves. How would you respond to that person? What kind words might you offer them?
Now, look back at yourself struggling in that situation. Imagine looking at yourself in that moment of struggling. Notice the pain on your face or the invisible pain underneath. Imagine you could walk up to yourself at that moment. What kind words might you offer yourself?
Would if you could talk to yourself like the person you care about? How might this be a more helpful way of talking to yourself when you face difficult situations in the future?
If self-criticism and lack of self-kindness is a major theme for you, I’d recommend checking out Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff, PhD, for more on this topic.
Noticing Unhelpful Thinking Styles
Another common approach to addiction treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Beyond just noticing self-criticism, CBT allows you to see how your thoughts about the world create your experience of reality.
I’ve listed some of the most common ones in the following chart:
Which one of these unhelpful thinking styles particularity stands out to you? Can you imagine a specific situation where this type of thinking dominated your reality? What particular thoughts were going through your mind at the time? Now that you consider the facts about the situation, how realistic was your perception at the time?
A common scenario includes thoughts about why someone didn’t text you back. Can you recall a time someone didn’t text you back? What kinds of unhelpful thoughts did you have about the situation? Did you jump to conclusions about the other person’s motives? What is a more realistic way of looking at the situation?
As you become more aware of these unhelpful thinking styles in your everyday life, it changes your experience of yourself and the world. Being able to step back and take a more realistic perspective can be a helpful way to reduce anxiety and depression since your thoughts affect your emotions.
If you are interested in learning more about this approach, I recommend the book, Feeling Good by David Burns MD.
In 12-step recovery, a common phrase is to “accept what you cannot control.” This comes from the Serenity Prayer, which I’ve written more about here.
Do you find yourself spending a lot of time and energy on things you cannot control? This might mean worrying about things in the future, dwelling on things that have already happened, or trying to control others who don’t want to be controlled.
With all the mental energy spent on these things, the overthinking problem-solving mind runs on overdrive. Many people turn to substances to get out of their head or turn off their brain.
Practicing acceptance is a way to ease off the mental gas pedal and stop trying to gain a sense of certainty in uncertain situations beyond one’s control.
One way to do this is to practice using the phrase, “maybe yes, maybe no,” when your mind tries to answer an unanswerable question. Another practical exercise is the leaves on a stream guided meditation that can be found here.
These techniques are taken from my primary therapeutic modality, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I’ve written a comprehensive summary of this technique here.
If you are interested in reading more about this approach, I recommend checking out Act Made Simple by Russ Harris MD.
Although I point to various self-help tools in this article, the best way to optimize your chance of a successful recovery is through the support of others.
Addiction thrives in isolation and recovery brings us back into connection with ourselves and others.
If you want support overcoming the psychological aspects of an addiction, I recommend connecting with a professional in the field.
If you are located in Canada, I offer virtual addiction counseling. You can reach out to me here for a free phone consultation.
If you are looking for a specialist anywhere in the world, I recommend using the Psychology Today therapist directory here. You can filter practitioners by their location, specialty, and types of insurance coverage. Also, many offer a free phone consultation, so you can talk to a few different practitioners before committing.
If you are looking for a flexible, inexpensive virtual option, you can check out Better Help here. Although they don’t accept insurance, they have low costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily until you find the right fit.
As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help since the quality of counselors is not consistent.
Since the quality of the therapeutic relationship is critical, I recommend seeking out another practitioner if you are not feeling supported. I wrote an article on things to consider when seeking therapy here.
Ask Yourself If It’s Worth It
Addictions are an attempt to solve a problem. The substance or addictive behavior solves the problem in the short term, causing even more problems in the longer term.
Although this may be true in the earlier stages of an addiction, many people start to realize the addiction doesn’t even adequately solve the short-term problem anymore. In fact, they may even begin to dislike the experience of it.
For example, walking through a casino, you’ll often realize many people are not necessarily having fun. I’ve heard similar experiences with substances as well. When the thrill wears off and the usage becomes habitual, the experience can become generally unrewarding.
Tipping the motivational scale away from the addiction requires bringing your attention to the experience of the addiction. Bring your attention to the work involved in maintaining the addiction. Notice the effort required to incorporate it into your life. Perhaps you have to hide certain things, plan around it, or think about it constantly. When I talk to clients about this, I often find myself saying, “wow… that sounds stressful!”
Next time you use your drug of choice, bring some mindful awareness to the experience. Is this worth it? Is this experience worth all of the work? Is it worth all of the damage? Without needing to engage in self-judgment, simply bring mindful attention to whether it’s worth it.
One of the best series of books on this area of motivation is Alan Carr’s Easyway. After seeing the power of his approach, I often recommend the audiobook versions of his texts to my clients to listen to while driving or cleaning. His books have a way of making the addictive substance or behavior seem highly unappealing by the end of the book.
Although he does not have a book for every substance, here are a few options:
The Easy Way to Control Alcohol
The Easy Way to Stop Smartphone Addiction
The Easy Way to Stop Emotional Eating
I recommend reading only one of his books since each is a variation on the same approach. Also, he can take a while to get into the main content and repeats himself a lot. With this in mind, I highly recommend checking out his approach because it is quite powerful and has changed millions of lives.
Minimize the Need for Willpower
Willpower is overrated.
If you’ve tried to stop an addiction, many people have likely said, “you just need more willpower.” You’ve probably even told yourself, “I just don’t have enough willpower.”
As an addiction counselor, I don’t talk about willpower a lot because it is one of the weakest forms of motivation.
In the recovery community, relying on willpower is often referred to as “white-knuckling it.” You can even visualize what this feels like. It’s the sense of constant withholding, restricting, and inner tension.
Willpower is overrated because it is temporary. When it is the only tool, you’ll be able to abstain for a period of time, but you’ll likely go back to the substance or addictive behavior, perhaps even more than before.
For example, food becomes even more appealing when you’re on a diet. Like a dieter sitting next to a buffet, willpower steadily depletes, and binging becomes more likely.
Willpower can be used to get you through a difficult moment, but there needs to be a broader plan.
When discussing this area of recovery with clients, I often look at three major triggers: persons, places, and things.
The least risky way of proceeding is to radically change all of these areas. This could mean you stop spending time with people involved in the substance, avoid places where you use the substance, and remove the substance from your immediate surroundings.
Although completely cutting out all triggers is the safest way, it’s sometimes not practical and necessary for all persons. This is something I collaborate on with each client, based on their situation.
When it comes to alcohol, the most common thing to consider is its availability in the home. It’s much easier to abstain from alcohol if you don’t have it in your immediate surroundings.
When it comes to gambling, removing triggers is often much easier, since there’s usually an option to ban yourself from the casino or online service. This process is commonly referred to as “self-exclusion” and policies vary depending on your location.
When it comes to illicit substances, the most common thing I inquire about is a client’s access to dealers. Limiting access can often entail deleting numbers from your phone or limiting contact with specific friends.
Although there are various ways one can restrict one’s access to triggering things, it is not always realistic to completely remove every trigger.
When you can’t avoid a person, place, or substance, planning for triggering moments can minimize the need for willpower. For example, if you are planning on attending a wedding but want to abstain from alcohol, it would be helpful to imagine how the day might go. Play the potential night like a movie in your head. Where will you be? Who will be around you? What will you be drinking instead? What would you want to say if someone offered you a drink?
Planning for these moments allows you to operate based on a mental template rather than having to make moment-to-moment decisions while in highly triggering environments. Having to make frequent decisions is a major factor in willpower depletion. Planning simplifies the process so you can focus on what matters instead.
If you want to read the best book on this topic, I recommend Willpower by Roy Baumeister PhD. Otherwise, I highly recommend checking out my article on Why Willpower is Overrated.
Maximize Intrinsic Motivation
Intrinsic motivation is composed of three main ingredients according to self-determination theory:
- Autonomy (sense of control)
- Competence (sense of progress)
- Relatedness (sense of belonging)
Gaining a sense of control
The best way to start gaining a sense of control is to consider what you want and start taking small actions toward it.
Many people get used to operating on autopilot based on a series of “shoulds” and social expectations. In my work with clients, I often point out when someone is using a “should” statement, asking them if this is something they “want.” “Shoulds” take away our sense of control, whereas “wants” empower us.
In addition to uncovering genuine desires, I do quite a bit of values exploration with clients. By clarifying core values, you gain a sense of direction and purpose, knowing you are operating based on principles that are important to you. Like a compass, it does not give you complete control over the journey, but it does give you a sense of control over the direction.
Gaining a sense of progress
This is the sense that you are progressing in a skill or progressing toward a goal. If values are the compass, goals are destinations along the path. Rather than focusing on one large goal, it is helpful to break it into several smaller goals. This allows you to gain more frequent motivational rewards along the way.
In my work with clients, I often break down goals into small commitments. We look at small things they can do today or tomorrow, making it easy to begin the change process.
Consider small things you can do today. In the recovery community, they often say, “one day at a time.” This makes the change process less overwhelming. If focusing on one day at a time is too much, you can even consider using the phrase, “one moment at a time.” The only question you need to ask yourself is, “What is the next thing I want to do?”
Another important aspect of gaining a sense of progress is recognizing when you’ve stuck to your commitments. I frequently point this out to clients, providing validation that they stuck to their commitments. I often zoom out, recalling the recent past and offering perspective on how far they have come.
In short, make the process into a series of small tasks and take the time to appreciate small wins along the way.
Gaining a sense of belonging
As a former sociologist, I have a significant interest in the power of social connection. I’ve written about my passion for the study of social connection here and the impact of isolation on addiction here.
As shared in that article, addiction is fundamentally rooted in social disconnection.
Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, recognizes this in the statement:
“We consider addiction a disease of isolation…”
Johann Hari echos this sentiment:
“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.”
Bruce Alexander is also a major advocate for this perspective with his famous Rat Park Study.
If you leave the rat with drug-infused water and regular water, the rat will continue taking the drug until it overdoses.
The rat park study did the same experiment but took the rat out of isolation, putting it into rat park, a large rat amusement park with the company of several other rats.
Rather than overdosing on the drug-infused water, the rats in rat park moderated their consumption, balancing it with the regular water.
Although there has been some debate regarding the replicability of this experiment, it demonstrates the power of social connection to treat and prevent addiction.
12-step recovery and other peer-support groups can be huge catalysts to social connection. 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are free and widely available. They build social support into the program by encouraging members to get a “sponsor”—a mentor who has been through the steps and can provide support and guidance in your recovery.
If you’re interested in accessing virtual peer support, you can check out In The Rooms. They offer a wide range of virtual peer-support meetings on various specialized areas of addiction.
Local AA meetings can be found here.
Local NA meetings can be found here.
Local Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meetings can be found here.
If you are interested in trying a non-12-step form of peer support, I recommend checking out Smart Recovery. You can find local meetings here.
Many people with an addiction feel alone in their struggle. They may feel like they are the only one going through it, blaming themselves for not being able to stop.
The shame of self-stigma adds to the sense of isolation, making it even more challenging to recover. If this article resonates with you, just know that you are not alone. There are millions of individuals going through different situations with similar themes.
Connecting with a peer support group is a great way to gain a sense of connection and improve the chances of long-term recovery.
If you or someone you love is trying to stop an addiction, I hope this brief guide can help.
In short, it is important to first address any potential physical addiction with a medical practitioner or withdrawal facility. Next, the psychological addiction needs to be addressed by getting support for unprocessed trauma, adverse experiences, anxious thoughts, or unmet psychological needs. Addressing these physical and mental factors reduces the underlying pain.
In addition to minimizing the underlying pain, it is also important to maximize one’s motivation by clarifying one’s reasons to change and making incremental progress with the support of others.
By minimizing the underlying pain and maximizing the reasons to change, long-term recovery is possible and quite common.
Although the majority of people do recover from an addiction, it often takes a few tries. It gets easier over time, but it still requires ongoing attention. Like beginning an exercise routine, it can feel uncomfortable at first, but you build motivational momentum over time.
This guide is a general framework of the areas I consider while helping clients, but each individual’s recovery may look different. This is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all guide to recovery. Instead, it is intended to highlight specific areas that might be relevant for you, pointing you to further resources for more information or support.
If you want even more information on specific issues related to addiction, I’ve written over ninety articles here.
Here are a few of my favorites:
Underlying Causes of Addiction
How to Heal From Emotionally Unavailable Parents
How to Stop Overthinking and Start Living
How To Heal Your Relationship With Food
7 Ways to Stop Gambling and Save Money
Why We Are Addicted To Social Media: The Psychology of Likes
Another comprehensive and resource rich article. I may have missed it in your article, but I also include a holistic overview of how an individual is managing their energies – mind, body and spirit. This is critical in identifying areas of improvement, adjustment and balance, all of which are are interconnected. Thank you Steve, I always learn and reaffirm my knowledge base with your concise and thoughtful articles.
Thank you, Richard! Energy work is not something I am familiar with. I’d be happy to learn more, if you can provide some resources. Although this article is a comprehensive overview of my approach, as an addiction counsellor, there are many other worthwhile areas to consider such as the one you’ve pointed out here.