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The Recovery Expert
with Sharie Stines, Psy.D.

Healing from an Addiction (to a Person, Behavior or Substance): Know the Psychological Set-ups for Relapse

stopWhat are some of the thoughts and personal self-defeating beliefs that contribute to relapse from addictions?  Here is an overview of some common pitfalls that addicts fall into, psychologically, which contribute to their inability to stay sober. If you are a person trying to overcome any type of addiction, then be aware that you are probably going to face the following mental sabotage strategies created in your mind.  I would like to thank, renowned relapse preventionist, Terence Gorski, for his contribution to the information provided below.

The following list is a set of psychological set-ups that occur just prior to relapse.   What is important about realizing these behaviors is that you can learn to recognize them prior to engaging in them, and deter your entry into the craving cycle (obsession-compulsion-physical craving-acting out behaviors.)

Euphoric Recall – This occurs when we think about and amplify in our minds the pleasurable memories of past addictive substance use or addictive behavioral episodes.  We block or repress our bad memories of the addiction, behavior, or person, and we deny the pain associated with them.  This happens when we start the craving cycle and are not thinking about anything bad about our addiction.  At this point we are only thinking about how good the first hit, drink, activity, or encounter will feel.  The way to intervene on this occurrence is when we find ourselves focusing on only the positive aspects of the addictive behavior; we can simply begin focusing on the negative aspects; it is really that simple.

If switching focus is difficult, utilize the effective tool of sobriety, “thinking the using episode through.”  This is a systematic method of moving your thoughts from the positives to the negatives of using – from romanticizing to reality.  For example, “If I call my abuser, he will act really nice for awhile, then I will sleep with him and let my guard down, and then he will start to treat me poorly, and I will end up feeling weak and hurt and dependent all over again.  I think I will go for a walk instead of calling him…”

Awfulizing Sobriety – This occurs when we have a current dissatisfaction with sobriety.  This is euphoric recall in reverse.  This is where we look at our current sober life and focus on and exaggerate all of our current pain and discomfort.  “Isn’t sobriety awful?” “Sobriety isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.” “All those AA people are a bunch of losers.” “I still feel terrible and nothing seems to be improving.”

If your addiction was to a person, this is the point where you focus on how lonely you are without the person; without the excitement and drama.  Part of an addiction involves chaos and without the chaos you may misinterpret the sense of peace with boredom and loneliness.  You may interpret this lack of “excitement” as awful.  You may also be experiencing the emotional pain of the uncomfortable feelings you have been avoiding all these years which were numbed by your addiction.  It is at this point that you conveniently “forget” any of the bad aspects of the relationship, activity, or substance.

Along with focusing on the negatives of sobriety, “we repress or block out all of the comfort, pleasure and satisfaction that is available to us.”  There are many positives we can focus on.  It is important to make sure we encourage ourselves and give ourselves credit for the efforts we’ve made to stay sober. We must remember to celebrate our successes along the way, as we progress each day and remain sober.

Consider the term anhedoniaAnhedonia is the “inability to experience pleasure.”  Realize this is very common for people in early recovery.  It results from measuring your current excitement level to that which you experienced when you were using.  The life of addicts and alcoholics is exciting (much of it negative excitement.)  A constant feeling of boredom sets in with early sobriety because you are disillusioned by the fact that you don’t have all the chaotic excitement in your life that the addictive behaviors brought.  Realize that over time, the anhedonia will dissipate.  Have patience.

Positive Expectancy – This involves the belief that everything would be fine if we could just ____________  (fill in the blank with whatever your addiction is) again; this is a form of magical thinking based upon the mistaken belief that future alcohol or drug use, or other addictive behavior, has the power to magically fix our current problems.  The belief that drug use will kill us, or that our addiction will ruin our lives, does not destroy the belief that it will work for us again, at least temporarily.

Denial and Evasion – This occurs when we resist the belief that we are actually “doing any of this.”  Some examples of thinking based on denial and evasion:  “No, I’m seeing my past use accurately, it really was that good.”  “I’m not awfulizing sobriety, my using will help me.”  “I miss my abuser; it wasn’t all that bad; besides, everyone has problems.) Etc.

By being aware of these psychological set-ups, you can develop a relapse prevention plan to ensure that you will be able to maintain your sobriety when temptation hits.  One thing is for certain, you cannot maintain sobriety without abstinence.

Healing from an Addiction (to a Person, Behavior or Substance): Know the Psychological Set-ups for Relapse


APA Reference
Stines, S. (2016). Healing from an Addiction (to a Person, Behavior or Substance): Know the Psychological Set-ups for Relapse. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 18, 2019, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/recovery-expert/2016/06/healing-from-an-addiction-to-a-person-behavior-or-substance-know-the-psychological-set-ups-for-relapse/