There are many types of addiction: drugs, alcohol, the Internet, social media, gaming, and compulsive shopping, and we are all – to a greater or lesser extent – susceptible to developing an addiction at some point in our lives.
This article will give you some effective tools that could help you or a family member overcome an addiction.
But let’s start at the beginning …
What Is an Addiction?
If you look it up in the dictionary, you’ll find two meanings:
- An inability to stop doing or using something, especially something harmful
- The need or strong desire to do or to have something, or a very strong liking for something
These two meanings are a good starting point to understand what we mean when we talk about “addictions”, although the reality is more complex than any definition. In fact, the first thing we should bear in mind is that an addiction is an disease.
According to an article published by Indiana University, in the US, “the American Medical Association (AMA) classified alcoholism as a disease in 1956 and included addiction as a disease in 1987”.
What’s more, in 2011, “the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defined addiction as a chronic brain disorder, not a behavioral problem or the result of having made wrong choices”.
As a matter of fact, as the addiction takes hold, the brain’s functioning is altered, and physical changes take place in the brain which make the addiction a disease.
Some addictions, such as drug addiction, make our bodies release dopamine, a substance which gives us a feeling of euphoria. In order to feel this again, we repeat the behavior, creating a stimulus–reaction cycle that ends up becoming a habit.
Por ejemplo, determinadas adicciones (como a las drogas) hacen que nuestro cuerpo produzca dopamina, una sustancia que nos hace sentir pletóricos. Para poder volver a sentir esta sensación volvemos a repetir el comportamiento, creándose un círculo de estímulo-reacción que acaba convirtiéndose en un hábito.
Putting all this to one side, however, we would like to dig a little deeper: after treating hundreds of patients over 30 years, we have come to the conclusion that an addiction is also the result of
- a social malaise;
- an appetite for strong emotions; and
- difficulty in managing emotions.
In other words, the disease of addiction is, above all, part of life.
But the good news is that there are many reasons to feel positive, because addictions can be overcome if you have the right tools – and that’s what we’ll explain next.
How to Overcome an Addiction
Generally speaking, there is no miracle cure. Therefore, don’t trust anyone who promises you immediate results when facing this disease.
Instead, you should consider that overcoming an addiction is a process that takes time. Depending on the severity of the addiction and on the individual, it can take weeks, months, or even years. But regardless of how long it takes, there is a solution.
The following are some strategies you can put into practice straight away:
1. Keep a diary to help you assess your addiction levels
Ideally, you’d use a paper diary where you can note down the number of times you consume alcohol (if possible, note down the quantity too), the amount of time you have been on social media, the number of hours a day you spend playing video games, or any other activities related to the addiction you’re trying to overcome.
This is a particularly useful tool for two reasons:
- You’ll tell yourself the truth; i.e., you’ll have objective data instead of guesses: 6 glasses a day, 5 hours on Instagram, 7 hours of gaming, etc.
- You’ll start understanding how serious your addiction is.
The idea is not to get overwhelmed by these numbers; they should encourage you to make the decision to change. And remember, if you do want to change, there are many professionals who can support you.
2. Compile a list of the changes you want to make
What’s the biggest motivator to overcome your addiction? This is a very straightforward exercise: Write down what your life would be like without addictions. This can be a simple list of what you would like to achieve:
- Spend more time with the family without arguing
- Have more money to travel
- Feel less tired
- Improve self-esteem
If you’re feeling creative, you could write a brief story about what your perfect day would be like.
When you’ve finished your list or story, keep that piece of paper to hand to remind you of why you want to change – and give you an extra shot of motivation whenever you need it.
3. Prepare yourself for the changes to come and set yourself a goal
You’ve already made the decision to change and you know how you’d like to see yourself in the future. But, as mentioned before, overcoming an addiction is a process, it’s not something that happens overnight. So you need to make your goals realistic; give yourself a month, three months, six months, etc.
You could even set a goal on a special date for you, such as your birthday, your wedding day, your graduation day, anything. This will help you stay motivated.
And bear in mind that you’ll need to allow yourself a degree of flexibility, as any ups and downs, relapses, and abstinence syndrome will all be part of the process (if the addiction involves physical dependence), so it’s advisable to have the support of a professional team to guide you and help you understand all the stages you will go through on your road to recovery.
4. Get the help you need
The two main pillars of your recovery process will be your family (and friends) and those providing you with professional support. Each case is different, of course, but remember: you don’t have to go through this alone. Isolating yourself because you are embarrassed to talk about your problem or think you can do it all by yourself are attitudes that will most likely make the situation worse for you. Relapsing is common and the likelihood that you might not want to try again may be very high.
Don’t hesitate. Try telling a person you trust (a sibling, parent, or partner) about your problem and your intention to quit, and let yourself feel accompanied by them. Don’t be too hard on them. Remember that, although they’ll probably be there at the most critical times, they might not always have an answer ready for you. To have that kind of support, you need qualified professionals around you to give you the best advice.
5. Find your own consumption or behavior triggers
What makes you want to consume drugs or play nonstop? Specific places, situations, or emotional states? You should identify exactly what drives you to consume alcohol or drugs, or play a video game for hours on end, and leaves you completely out of control.
For example, if some of your friends suggest a plan in which there will be drugs, you will have to decline. If you know that feeling stressed makes you drink more, try not to put yourself in stressful situations.
You won’t always be able to avoid these situations, because some will happen unexpectedly. But, if you have identified them in advance, you will be more aware and might even have some responses ready with the support of a therapist.
Remember: Changing habits is normally very hard. You’ve probably been repeating the same behavior or attitude, or leading the same sort of lifestyle, for a while; but you can change this by replacing some habits with others. We’ll get back to that a bit later on.
6. Accept your cravings
Acceptance is the basis for overcoming addiction:
- You need to accept you have a problem
- You need to accept that overcoming your addiction will take some time
- You need to accept that there will be relapses (but that you will recover)
- You need to accept your family’s help and the support of specialized therapists
All this is very brave.
But the same happens when it comes to cravings. Cravings and urges are part of human nature, and when you are addicted to something, they can happen at any time, even without an apparent cause and even if you have managed to avoid triggering situations.
Remember we said addiction is not just a habit? Changes in your brain’s functioning have taken place and now you have a higher number of cravings that push you to drink, smoke, game, buy, or check social media so as not to miss any updates.
However, most cravings disappear after only 15 minutes, and the more you practice, the fewer the urges. The key is to try to let those 15 minutes pass and get better at it little by little.
7. Organize your free time
In point 5, we spoke about triggers that lead you to consume and that may be certain people, places, or emotions. All these triggering situations can be minimized if you plan your day-to-day activities and, above all, your free time.
In fact, some activities, such as sports, produce a feeling of well-being akin to the sensations experienced when taking certain drugs.
So much so, in fact, that endurance sports such as running, swimming, and cycling release endorphins in the brain, which act as natural opioids. Something similar happens when you practice yoga, Pilates, mediation, and breathing or relaxing exercises.
You don’t need to resort exclusively to sports if that’s not your thing; you can also engage in other activities you enjoy such as drawing, coloring mandalas, writing, or listening to music. You could also enroll on a course or cook a dish you love.
The important thing is to plan ahead so that you are always entertained in some way, because without activities to keep you occupied, you’re more likely to feel the urge to consume again.
8. Don’t try to rationalize things
Remember we mentioned writing down why you want to change? We even said it’s important to keep that piece of paper to hand at all times.
Well, if you can hang it somewhere you can always see it, so much the better. In that way, when you start having thoughts such as: “One drink won’t hurt,” or, “I deserve a treat, I’ll have a smoke,” etc., you can look at that piece of paper and find encouragement to say out loud:
“No, I’ve come this far, and I won’t consume any more because I’d like to”
- spend more time with my family without arguing;
- have more money to travel;
- feel less tired;
- be more confident, etc.
Obviously, this strategy works along with other strategies, and sometimes it might not be enough on its own. That’s the reason we keep advising you to have the support of therapists who will guide you along your way. However, if you are on your own, this strategy will be a useful resource.
9. Don’t punish yourself if you do suffer a relapse
85% of individuals who have an addiction suffer a relapse. That’s what some recent studies suggest, so this idea needs to be approached from a different perspective. Relapsing is the norm.
That means you shouldn’t beat yourself up or put yourself down if you relapse because, as we said right at the beginning, overcoming an addiction is a process full of ups and downs.
What’s more, you could anticipate relapses by being aware of some of the most common warning signs: isolating yourself, stopping attending therapy, not sharing your emotions, poor eating and sleeping habits …
No matter how aware you are of these signs, if you do relapse, you shouldn’t only focus on the negative aspects; try to celebrate every achievement, however small.
For example, if you haven’t consumed any alcohol for a period of time, think about how well you’ve done so far. It means that if you have managed to do this once, you can do it again.
10. Helping others speeds up the recovery process
Even though there are no shortcuts, and each person has a different recovery time, it’s true that there is a very effective strategy to shorten that recovery period – helping others.
According to research carried out by Maria Pagano at Case Western Reserve University, building these new social links with other people not only prevents you from relapsing but also speeds up the recovery process.
It’s important to note that it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture and it’s not a question of saving the world. It could be something as simple as spending time with an elderly neighbor or relative, doing voluntary work cleaning up waste from beaches and woods, raising money for a good cause, etc.
When you help others, you feel valuable. It improves your mental strength, your confidence, and your willingness to persevere – and these feelings are extremely helpful in aiding the recovery process.
An addiction is a disease that can be overcome. You will most certainly go through difficult times, and you’ll have cravings that will make you relapse. But your chances of succeeding will increase with strong determination, the help of your loved ones, and, above all, the support and guidance of a specialized therapist.
If this is you, or if you have a friend or a close relative who needs this sort of help, at Dianova, we have spent over 35 years helping people who are addicted to give up alcohol and other harmful substances.
We are an advisory body to the United Nations and our multidisciplinary team of professionals specializing in psychology, psychiatry, and medicine have helped over 5,000 people overcome their addictions.
Get in touch with us by following this link and make the decision to change right now.