What are the healthiest habits to form in addiction recovery? What are the most important habits to form that can contribute to success in long term recovery?
It is possible that the answer to this will vary a bit from person to person. All I can suggest is based on my own experience and relate what habits that have helped me the most in my own journey. They may or may not make a big difference in your own recovery and therefore the most important thing that you can do might be to experiment. This is what makes the 30 day trial such a powerful tool to use. If you want to “try on a new habit” then one of the best ways to do so is to use a 30 day trial. Normally 30 days is long enough to establish something as an ingrained habit so if you decide that you like the change in your life then it is pretty simple to just keep going with the change after the 30 days is up.
The idea of a 30 day trial also helps you get your foot in the door. Most people can picture a month of time in their mind and so they can mentally commit to a single change for 30 days, even if it is pretty tough at first. As long as you give yourself that “out” after 30 days then you should be able to get through just about anything for a single month.
Therefore you can use this technique to try on new positive changes in your recovery journey. Want to start exercising? Commit to to doing so every day for the next 30 days. Follow through on this commitment and then at the end you can evaluate. If you really don’t see any benefit or point to it then you have given yourself full permission to quit after 30 days and try something else. But if you decide that the exercise is beneficial to you then it is pretty easy to just keep going with your new habit at that point.
Quitting smoking works in a similar way. In fact the timeline for quitting cigarettes is more like a 10 to 14 day trial rather than a 30 day trial. If you can make it to two weeks without any nicotine then you can evaluate again at that point and decide if you want to stay quit or go back to smoking. The 10 to 14 day length is because your decision will no longer be clouded by cravings and physical withdrawal symptoms. You can make a clean decision without being affected by the drug itself.
This is a fantastic way to create healthy changes in your life because it challenges you just enough will also being manageable. The results are powerful if you can commit to something and stick it out for 30 days.
So what are the best habits to form in addiction recovery? I have tried to form many new positive habits in my journey and some of the most effective ones were not the most obvious. And as usual your mileage may vary so be sure to experiment with lots of positive changes and then implement the ones that have the most impact for you. In other words, “take what you need and leave the rest.” But at the same time, make sure that you are taking enough action to produce decent results. If you never try to change anything then you are just lazy/complacent and can expect a difficult path in recovery. On the other hand if you try lots of new positive changes and are always pushing yourself to do a new 30 day trial then you will be getting lots of data and feedback as to what works and does not work well in your recovery. You have to try new things in order to find what works well for you.
So what things should you try?
Obvious but necessary: physical abstinence
The first habit to establish is a bit obvious but it still needs mention here because it is by far the most important one, and that is physical abstinence from addictive drugs and alcohol. This is recovery itself and without this foundation you are not going to be able to establish any other new habits in your life. There is no way that you could have the discipline to maintain a 30 day trial of any kind if you are still abusing your drug of choice. Therefore physical abstinence must come first and is the baseline for success.
My opinion is that “clean time matters.” Some people try to argue against this and will say things like “the person with the most clean time is whoever got up the earliest this morning.” I think this is a stupid argument and it is not wise to invalidate the months, years, or decades that someone may have accumulated in continuous sobriety. Clean time matters and it is important.
Now I am not suggesting that clean time is the only thing that matters or that we should put it up on some sort of pedestal. What I am suggesting is that in your own recovery you must protect and guard your own clean time so that it remains continuous. For example, take two people in recovery from addiction who both got into recovery on the same exact day six months ago. One of them stayed clean and sober for the entire six months and the other one relapsed halfway through the journey and then started over. Which one is in the better position right now?
For me it is a no-brainer. The person who relapsed had to start all over. Whatever they had learned in their first recovery attempt all got thrown out the window. Their relapse sort of invalidated all of their progress and they had to start over from scratch. I know this to be true because in the past I struggled to get clean and sober so I know what it is like. You don’t get to keep your old progress when you relapse. It all goes “out the window.” Then if you try to get sober again you are starting all over from scratch. That is just how it goes. Therefore you should protect your continuous sobriety and your clean time like it is the most important thing in your life. In reality it is the most important thing whether you realize it or not!
So as you remain clean and sober you start to accumulate clean time. You get 30 days clean, 90 days, six months, and so on. This is a big deal and it is important and you should protect and cherish each milestone. You may choose not to make a big deal out of it and celebrate but you had better protect it with all of your energy and effort. Clean time matters and continuous sobriety matters. If you relapse periodically then you have nothing, no real progress.
The habit of physical abstinence is something that can be practiced and learned. You can extend this concept into new things during your recovery journey as well….for example, with quitting cigarettes. Many people in recovery are also addicted to nicotine and so they may get a chance to practice the physical abstinence habit more when it comes time to quit smoking. The same principles apply (though the implementation will differ slightly) and so you can use what you have learned in addiction recovery in order to help you overcome nicotine addiction as well. While they are not exactly the same the habit of abstaining from a substance is still fairly similar.
Some people might argue that abstinence is not really a “habit” but I would say that it is a concept that can be practiced and learned over time, so it certainly qualifies for me. It takes a great deal of discipline to maintain physical abstinence and it also takes discipline to establish most new habits in life, so to me they are one and the same.
Abstinence from drugs and alcohol is the most important habit you will establish in life so it makes sense to think about it and actually practice the concepts a bit (increase discipline, increase self control, seeking support from others, etc.).
Physical abstinence may be obvious, but what are some of the other habits we might explore in our recovery journey?
Non obvious but high impact: regular exercise/fitness
Many people pay lip service to the idea of exercise in recovery. They agree that it sounds like a healthy habit to establish and that it can only help in the recovery journey. But even with this positive vote coming from most people, how many of them really establish a consistent habit of regular, vigorous exercise in recovery? Precious few.
Let me give you some background on this one. At one time I was in early recovery, living in a long term rehab and under the guidance of a therapist. This therapist was trying to help me and was making a few different suggestions for me. I was in my first year of recovery at the time. One of the suggestions that he made was that I start working out in some way. Regular exercise. He thought it would be a good habit for me to establish.
So I attempted to follow through on this suggestion and I tried to start exercising on a regular basis. It did not really take off for me at the time though. I was also following other suggestions of going back to school and working a part time job. Of course I was also “working a recovery program” and attending meetings and such. So the exercise thing just did not take off for me at that time. The timing was not right and even though I gave it a fair trial (I kept up the exercise for a few weeks at least) it just never really became an established habit. I dropped the idea entirely when other demands distracted me away from the idea (work, school, and meetings).
This is a key point in the story because my therapist was trying to get me to establish this new healthy habit in life and it was just not working out. The timing was all wrong. I was too early in my recovery journey to really embrace this new habit and benefit from it. I had other, more immediate challenges on my plate at the time (work, school, meetings, etc.).
But that did not mean that this habit was not right for me. Years later I would revisit the “exercise habit” and it would have a huge impact on my life. In fact, I believe that this is probably the highest impact habit that I established in my recovery, period. Nothing is more helpful to my overall recovery than my regular exercise. It is just that powerful.
And this is why I say that it is “non-obvious”–because it turned out to be a huge part of my recovery in the end, but in the beginning I did not see that it was relevant at all to my sobriety. During my early recovery journey I did not see that regular exercise was important to my sobriety in the least. I was one of those people who paid it lip service: “Oh, sure, exercise is a good habit to have to support you in your recovery.” But at the time I had no idea of the full impact that this habit would have on me in the long run.
And what exactly was that impact? Suffice it to say that regular exercise has become one of the foundation blocks of my life and of my recovery itself. There are a number of benefits to exercise and it is impossible to describe and convey them all to someone else without that other person actually experiencing what it is like to be in great shape and work out every day. You feel better, you get a big endorphin rush, your sleep is better and more consistent, your self esteem is boosted, and so on.
In fact there are some recovery programs for addiction that focus exclusively on physical exercise as a means of recovery. This should give you a strong hint as to the power and effectiveness of exercise at helping people to stay clean and sober. The reason that I get so excited about it is that it is non-obvious and seriously underestimated. People hear the idea and they know that they should probably spend more time getting into shape, but when it comes right down to it they have no idea how powerful of an impact this could make in their life.
For me, physical exercise was the healthiest habit that I have formed so far in recovery (beyond physical abstinence itself). It is my single biggest suggestion to anyone who is in long term recovery, though it is probably the least adopted suggestion. People nod their head politely and agree that exercise is important, but very few will take the plunge and actually get into shape. It’s a hard sell but the benefits are too great to ignore.
Connections with others and early support
In early recovery your success will depend upon your connections with others. This will not remain true in long term sobriety as eventually your own motivation and personal growth efforts become more important (as you fight complacency in long term sobriety). But in the early days of your recovery journey it is important that you connect with other people and find support in your recovery.
This is absolutely a “habit” and it is one that you should put energy into establishing. The easy way to do this is to simply follow the default path in recovery and start attending AA/NA meetings every day. Doing this is the shortcut to establishing new connections and getting lots of support in early recovery.
There are alternatives to this if you do not like the meeting circuit but they are much harder to implement. By the 18 month point in my own sobriety journey I had completely left the meetings and was finding support in other ways (I also needed far less support at that point as well). Some of this support that I found outside of meetings was with people in the real world (friends and family) but I also found support in the online world through recovery forums.
In my opinion you need support far more during the first year than what you need in the future. In fact the first year is critical and in particular the first few months of your recovery are especially critical. You need support for a few reasons:
1) To relate to others – we can feel like we are going crazy in early recovery because of the new path we are on combined with withdrawal symptoms. We need to know that we are OK and that we are not crazy. The only way to get that reassurance is to talk with others who have gone through it too. This is the biggest thing that makes 12 step programs helpful–they allow you to relate to others. The whole point of AA is to connect and say “I went through early recovery and I know you feel crazy but I made it and you can too.” Relating to others with this type of support is the most helpful aspect of recovery groups.
2) To learn from others – this is NOT as important as relating to others but it is still relevant. Most people in AA believe that this is the real purpose of the program–to learn how to live a sober life. In fact the steps are rather arbitrary and the more powerful function of AA is relating to others. That said, you can still learn a thing or two from other people in early recovery (whether that is with AA or outside of it).
3) To manage a crisis – are your hands shaking and you feel like you need a drink or a drug right now, this very second? If so then you might just call your sponsor or a peer in recovery and tell them you need help immediately. If you do this and you make it through the episode without relapsing then you understand how this form of support works in recovery.
I am not big on seeking outside support in long term sobriety, but I do believe it is essential for success in early recovery (for the 3 reasons listed above).
Seeking and using support is a habit that can be learned and practiced. Use it to your advantage.
The feedback loop and self analysis
So far we have considered 3 healthy habits to establish:
I want to leave you with one more healthy habit that you should consider and that is this:
* Seeking feedback from others.
This one sort of goes along with the idea of “support” but it is actually separate from that.
What I am suggesting that you do is to seek feedback from other people in your life as to what your current path in recovery should look like.
You do not have to become a total robot and give up all control to others–you just need to seek their opinion and take their advice into consideration.
Do this with several different people in your life and then weigh their ideas for yourself. The final decision is always yours and you do not have to commit to anything just by asking for advice from others.
If you can learn how to consistently tap into the wisdom of others then you can save yourself a lot of heartache and grief in your journey. Taking advice from others can multiply your effectiveness.
What habits have you found to be the healthiest in your recovery? Please let us know in the comments!