Most people who are recovering from an addiction will experience thoughts of relapse from time to time. Even those individuals who have been sober for many years, and built a great life away from substance abuse, can occasionally need to deal with such unsettling thoughts. It is important to realize that just because the individual experiences this type of thinking does not mean that they are going to relapse. There is also no reason to feel guilty about such thoughts, but they may be a warning sign that the individual needs to reexamine their current approach to sobriety. It is not a good idea to just ignore recurrent thoughts of relapse in case they do lead to the real thing.
There are good explanations for why people continue to think about returning to substance abuse long after they have become sober. Incentive sensitization theory of addiction suggests that it occurs because of biological reasons. The brain has learnt to associate substance abuse with the internal reward system – this is referred to as a learnt motivational response. This all occurs in the subconscious mind, but it affects people’s behavior in the form of cravings. It can take many years before the brain stops associating alcohol or drugs with reward. This is why thoughts of relapse may continue to occasionally arise even after people are sober a long time.
Memory can be tricky for people who are recovering from an addiction. When the individual first becomes sober they will be easily able to remember the suffering that forced them to finally escape alcohol or drug abuse. As the saying goes, time heals all wounds and as the months go by the memory of how painful addiction had become can fade. The individual may begin to wonder if things were really that bad. Instead of remembering the suffering involved in substance abuse they can start to remember the times when the drugs seemed to be working. The mind can distort such memories so that they appear more wonderful than they actually were in reality. This is called romancing the drink or drug, and it is highly dangerous. If the individual fails to challenge such thoughts they can find themselves been lead back into addiction.
Stinking thinking is often used to describe how people in recovery can revert to their old negative thought patterns. It can include ideas and emotions such as:
* Resentment of other people
* Blaming other people
* Cynicism about the motives of people who are trying to help
* Schadenfreude means getting enjoyment out of watching other people fail
* Feeling pessimistic about the future
* Making mountains out of molehills – overreacting to small problems
* Closed mindedness and viewing everything in black and white
* Self-absorption and not spending much time thinking about the needs of other people
* Feeling ill-will towards complete strangers
* Grandiosity means that the individual has an inflated sense of their own importance
* Feeling bitter about things that occurred in the past
* The individual can feel inferior or superior to everyone else
* Always focusing on the faults of other people
Everyone will have their moments when they entertain negative thoughts and emotions, but stinking thinking means that the individual gets caught up in these unhelpful mental states. If such thinking persists it will remove much of the enjoyment out of recovery. It will also provide the perfect justification for a return to alcohol or drug abuse. It is therefore vital that people tackle this stinking thinking before it leads them to thoughts of relapse.
Thoughts of relapse are most likely to occur because they have been triggered by something else that is happening in people’s life. In Alcoholics Anonymous they use the acronym HALT to highlight the most common triggers and these are; hunger, anger, loneliness, and tiredness. Other relapse triggers include:
* Having expectations of recovery that are too high
* Symptoms of depression
* Using other mind-altering substances
* Feelings of self-pity. In AA they say, poor me, poor me, pour me a drink.
* Unreasonably high expectations for other people
* The individual feels frustrated with their life in recovery
* The individual takes their recovery for granted
* Lying or acting in other ways that would be considered dishonest
If people are having thoughts of relapse they need to take this as a warning sign that their recovery is in imminent danger. If they fail to heed such warnings then they could soon find themselves sitting in a bar or scoring some drugs. There are things that people can do to fight thoughts of relapse such as:
* One of the worst things that people can do when they are frequently thinking about relapsing is to keep such thoughts a secret. By telling other people it prevents ideas from festering in the mind.
* Those people who belong to a recovery fellowship need to talk about their current state of mind. This could involve telling a sponsor or sharing at a meeting.
* Mindfulness meditation can be an excellent technique for dealing with unwanted thoughts. The individual learns to observe their mental processes rather than be too caught up in them.
* It is important not to feel guilty about thoughts of relapse. This guilt can actually exacerbate the problem and provide further justification to relapse.
* People in recovery need to learn about the different relapse triggers and how to avoid them.
* A change of scenery usually leads to a change in thinking. Just going for a walk may be enough to change the internal negative mental chatter.
* Journaling is another excellent way to deal with thoughts of relapse. The individual will get to see that such thinking is temporary and only dangerous when entertained.
* If people are experiencing thoughts of relapse then this can be a good time to read some inspirational recovery material.
* It is important to combat any thoughts that seem to be romancing the drink or drug. The individual does this by remembering what it was really like to be addicted to these substances.
* A gratitude list is an excellent resource for people who are dealing with thoughts of relapse. This is a reminder of all the good reasons there are to stay sober.
Mindfulness meditation can be a particularly good technique for dealing with thoughts of relapse. It allows the individual to observe their mind in a far more objective way. The meditator can see that ideas of relapse just arise and disappear again. People can treat such thoughts in much the same way as an itch on the body. Once the meditation can see that these mental events are only temporary visitors they become far less threatened by them. In many instances just acknowledging the thoughts of relapse will be enough to make them disappear. Mindfulness meditation allows the individual to understand their internal mental landscape so that they are no longer a prisoner to their thoughts.