Habit Formation as a Means of Successful Addiction Recovery

Habit Formation as a Means of Successful Addiction Recovery


One of the “secrets” of success in addiction recovery is that we could easily describe successful change in recovery as nothing more than acquiring new habits.

Recovery from addiction or alcoholism is nothing if not change. Habits are changes in our behavior. So one way to frame the idea of change in recovery is to focus on our habits.

So here we are going to look at the idea that a successful recovery can be built through new habit formation alone. After all, recovery is personal growth, and forming new positive habits is certainly one way to achieve such growth, right?

Can the moment of surrender and the decision for sobriety simply be a new habit?

Ultimately what you are doing when you surrender to your disease is you are saying to yourself:

“I am sick of living this life of addiction. I wish to find a new way to live, without drugs and alcohol.”

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So the moment of surrender can certainly be framed as the decision to form new habits. Of course in your mind you are probably not thinking of it in terms of habits, because basically you are miserable and you just want the pain and misery of addiction to be gone, you want it to disappear, and you probably wish that it had never happened to you to begin with.

The moment of surrender and the decision to change your entire life is very much like forming any new habit. It requires change, initiation, inertia. You have to put forth serious effort to get started on the right path in recovery. It is a crushing decision to the ego because it is an admission that the way that you have been doing things for so long has been flat out wrong. So you agree to the idea that you need to form new habits in your life and replace the old ones.

In fact it is likely that you have known this for a long time, that your life has become a mess and that you have not been living in a very healthy way due to your drug or alcohol addiction. Deep down you knew that you had formed bad habits and that these bad habits had probably spawned even more bad habits (such as smoking cigarettes, lack of exercise, isolation from peers, etc.) and so your self esteem is likely suffering at this point as well. So not only do you feel badly about yourself that you have fallen into bad habits, but you also feel bad about the overall direction that this has pushed your life and the fact that you are so trapped and helpless to do anything about it.

And so the prospect of turning your whole life around in recovery can be a bit overwhelming, because you are not just dealing with a single bad habit that needs to be eliminated. Instead, your one bad habit (using your drug of choice) has likely snowballed into a life of misery and chaos and now you are facing all sorts of problems that connect to this bad habit. Your disease takes over your entire life and spawns all sorts of ill behavior. If it were just your drug of choice that was the problem then getting clean and sober would actually be quite simple.

But as they point out in Narcotics Anonymous, your drug of choice is but a symptom of a deeper problem. This is why your life fills up with chaos and your disease can easily spawn more bad habits in addition to one dimensional drug abuse. The problem is not just that you abuse your drug of choice every day, but your problem is that you are compelled to self medicate your reality in the first place. The real problem is your tendency to escape reality, to avoid the personal responsibility that is dealing with your immediate emotions. This is the deeper problem that drug addiction is but a symptom of.

So it should come as no surprise to anyone that when the addict or the alcoholic is faced with the idea of simply “quitting their bad habit” they almost have to laugh at the idea. Nothing could be more understated than to call drug or alcohol addiction “a bad habit.” Sure, if you get clean and sober in recovery then you are getting rid of your drug of choice, and by all rights you are actually eliminating this bad habit. But the challenge that the drug addict or the alcoholic is facing is actually so much more than that, so much deeper than that, so much more than just overcoming one single habit.

The prospect of overcoming an addiction is not just as simple as quitting one abusive drug of choice. This is a gross oversimplification, and every addict knows it. Instead, the real task at hand is to change a thousand bad habits and turn an entire life around.

The addict uses their drug of choice to cope with every feeling, to deal with every situation, to overcome every problem in their life. So when you say “just change your bad habit” what you are really saying is:

“When you get frustrated and you normally revert to your drug of choice, change that habit.”

“And when you get scared or overwhelmed with reality and you normally use your drug of choice, change that habit as well.”

“And when you are happy and want to celebrate and you would normally use your drug of choice, change that habit as well.”

And so on.

Eliminating the drug of choice is more than just changing one habit, because the addict relied on that drug of choice for so many different things, to medicate so many different emotions. So the idea that it is a single change is an oversimplification. Instead, the idea of becoming abstinent is nearly overwhelming because it is actually a whole bunch of changes, it is the changing of an entire lifestyle, and to the struggling addict this actually represents hundreds or thousands of changes that must be made.

To the addict, it is not simply “learn how to live without drugs and alcohol.”

Instead, it is more like: “learn how to do everything in your life, and learn how to deal with every single situation all over again, without drugs and alcohol that you have come to rely on for every little function.”

For the addict, getting clean and sober represents a bit more than a single habit change. For them, the task laying ahead is monumental, and they have to relearn how to deal with all sorts of things in their life if they are to overcome drug or alcohol addiction. Nevertheless, they can still frame their journey in terms of positive habit changes if they so choose to.

Just realize that quitting drugs or alcohol is really more than one habit change. It is an oversimplification to look at recovery as “dropping the bad habit of drinking or drug abuse.”

Forming new habits in early recovery

So after the decision is made to change your life in recovery, after the moment of true surrender where the addict or alcoholic gives up the struggle to control their using, where do they go from their?

It may seem obvious to the outsider what has to happen in terms of action. This is evidenced by the popular saying of “just don’t drink or do drugs anymore….duh!”

Certainly true enough and this is definitely one habit that the newly recovering addict or alcoholic has to get 100 percent right. Total and complete abstinence, even though it may be painfully obvious to the outsider, is also the most important new habit by far and it is also just the tip of the iceberg.

For one thing, if it were this simple that the entire answer to addiction or alcoholism was simple abstinence, then there would be no need for recovery programs, rehabs, treatment centers, websites like Spiritual River, and so on.

But the fact is that even though the idea of abstinence is dead simple, the implementation of it can take a lifetime to master, and the struggle to be content and happy with yourself in sobriety can be a real challenge.

On the other hand, there does need to be special emphasis on the idea of total and complete abstinence. This in fact needs to become the most important single change that person makes in recovery and it should become their highest truth. They should recoil in horror at the idea of taking a drink or a drug from this point forward. This mindset is called “the zero tolerance policy” and every recovering addict and alcoholic should adopt this thought process. The idea is simply that they will have no tolerance for even the idea of relapse, when they notice themselves entertaining the idea of taking a drink or a drug they must shut it down immediately and redirect their mind to other things.

This is important because if you allow yourself to fantasize about using drugs or alcohol then you will become miserable in recovery and eventually relapse because of it. Therefore you cannot use drugs or alcohol, and you cannot even afford to THINK about using drugs and alcohol, because such thoughts will only snowball into more fantasies and eventually make you miserable.

So there are 2 very important habits that must occur in very early recovery.

The first one is total abstinence. This is your highest truth in life and it takes precedence over all other things. It is your most important directive, that you do not ingest alcohol or addictive drugs, period. This can be framed as a new habit and it is by far the most important new habit that you will form.

An extension of this new habit is the mindset to accompany it, which is “the zero tolerance policy.” This comes from a heightened awareness where you actually watch your thoughts, you observe your addictive mind, and when it starts to fantasize about using drugs or alcohol you instantly redirect it to other things. You do not “allow yourself” to indulge in thoughts about getting drunk or high. This is the most important new habit that you will form from a mental perspective.

So in very early recovery you form two new habits: one physical and one mental. Both are geared towards the idea of total abstinence from drugs and alcohol.

These two habits are very powerful in and of themselves but they are probably not enough to carry a person through the rest of their life without any threat of relapse. In order to be successful in recovery and truly overcome addiction you are probably going to have to do more and go further than this. It is not enough to change just two habits and expect to stay clean and sober forever as a result. Addiction is too complex of a beast and the disease is just far too insidious to allow you to use this simple of an approach and remain safe forever. In order to be successful in long term recovery you are likely going to have to do more. Quite a bit more.

Making the transition to long term sobriety through habit formation

When we talk about forming new habits in addiction recovery this is really what we are referring to most of the time.

You are somewhere between a few months and a few years sober. You have stabilized in your recovery and you are no longer under the immediate threat of relapse. Is it still possible that you could relapse? Sure, this threat never disappears entirely. But you have reached a point in your recovery where you are somewhat stable, at least in the short run. Pretty much no matter what happens in a given day it is not going to push you over the edge to relapse. Given enough crappy days in a row and given a complete lack of positive action on your part, sure–you might relapse at some point. But for the most part you have achieved a basic amount of stability in your recovery.

Now, how to keep this new found sobriety? Note that the key is that you can not just sit idle and expect to hang on to sobriety forever. Action is required. And of course this action can be expressed as habit formation.

My own transition into long term sobriety could be cataloged as a series of new habits. For example, from the time I had established a baseline of recovery into my transition to long term sobriety, I:

….quit smoking cigarettes (eliminate a bad habit).
….started distance running on a regular basis (formed a good physical habit).
….started a new business and worked hard on it every day (formed a positive habit).
….became involved with a recovery community and helped others online (formed a positive habit).

Those were the major new habits that I formed, and each one of them was more than just a one time change. All of them can be framed as “new habits” (or the elimination of a bad habit).

My opinion is that this is actually important in recovery based on the issue of self esteem.

If you do not feel good about yourself and about the positive changes that you are making in your life then you are going to be doing yourself a disservice and holding yourself back in your recovery.

A lack of motivation and positive feelings in recovery can be a huge problem. If you do not have anything positive going on then it is very easy to get discouraged and for life to get you down. Relapse happens when someone says “screw it, I may as well just use drugs or alcohol.”

So a big part of this transitional phase of recovery is in simply avoiding this moment….this moment where the addict says “screw it, I will just use drugs.”

In order to successfully transition into long term sobriety you have to establish long term stability in being able to overcome this tendency to say “screw everything, I am getting drunk/high.”

The only way that I have found to be able to consistently overcome this tendency towards relapse is to proactively make positive changes in recovery. That means that you cannot just float through your recovery by reacting to problems that pop and trying to put out fires and still avoid relapse. This is how we basically lived in our active addiction, reacting to everything in our world and simply self medicating our problems away.

The reactionary approach to life is not going to work well in recovery. Instead, you need to take a proactive approach to building real self esteem in your life.

If you do not build healthy self esteem then eventually “life happens” and you will be faced with a tough situation. It is not a question of IF this will happen, it is only a question of “when.” Eventually you will be tested in your recovery and when you are you will do much better in terms of avoiding relapse if you have proactively built some healthy self esteem.

This is, in my opinion, the heart of relapse prevention. The best method for preventing relapse is to form new healthy habits in your life. For example, let’s say that in your recovery journey you decide to:

* Quit smoking.
* Start exercising.
* Start eating healthier.
* Start working with other struggling addicts and alcoholics.

Not only will you actually feel better and be healthier from these habit changes, but you will also feel better about yourself and about your life.

Multiply this by a factor of at least three or four for each new major habit change that you make.

In other words, the effect of making positive changes is multiplicative. It is cumulative. After you make a handful of such positive changes, life starts getting really good. You now have the benefit of momentum, of healthier living, of confidence in knowing that you can master additional changes, and so on. Success breeds success in recovery.

Starting on the recovery journey takes a huge disruption in your life and a massive commitment to change. Transitioning into long term recovery is an extension of this commitment. You have to actually follow through and continue to take positive action and make more positive changes in your life in order to keep making progress.

You don’t get to long term sobriety by sitting around all day and kicking a rock down the road. You have to take action and you have to form some positive new habits. And most importantly you have to eliminate negative habits from your life that are holding you back and threatening to erode any new progress that you might try to make.

Overcoming complacency in long term sobriety with the right habits

The final argument in favor of habit creation is in the long term battle of fighting complacency.

Your habits define you and the quality of your life but even in long term sobriety there is room for improvement.

We talk about “coasting” in long term recovery as being dangerous. It is dangerous because when you “coast” you are complacent and you are not initiating any positive changes.

Framing your life in terms of bad habits to eliminate and good habits to pursue is another way of inspiring positive action.

There is always more refinement that can be made in your life. We never fully arrive in our recovery and say “OK, that is all the changes that need to be made, I am ready for life in recovery now!” We never arrive at that point and thus we are always going to be pushing ourselves to make new changes.

Ask yourself:

“Do you have any bad habits that you could stand to eliminate?”

“Do you have any positive goals that you want to pursue in your life? What new habits could help you to achieve those goals?”

Take action today! Recovery is positive changes.


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