Most addiction treatment centers spend a lot of time helping people stop their addictive behaviors but may not place enough emphasis on working to address addictive thinking patterns. Addictive thinking describes patterns of thinking that encourage and enable addictive behaviors.
Examples of addictive thinking include denial, externalization, conditional thinking, and the victim mentality. Unaddressed, these underlying patterns of thought are ones that can be stu15mbling blocks on the path to sobriety, and ones that can lead back to drugs, no matter how long a person has been in recovery.
Denial is the pattern of minimizing, normalizing, justifying, or finding excuses for substance use. It is an inability or unwillingness to face the fact that you have an addiction and that you need to stop using drugs and alcohol. Denial makes it easier for people to prevent or resolve feelings of guilt or regret about their substance use and how problematic it has become.
How denial can keep people abusing drugs and alcohol from making changes:
- “At least I don’t drink during the day”
- “I can skip a day or two without using”
- “I have a really stressful job”
- “It helps me with my back pain”
- “Now isn’t the right time to quit”
- “I’m only hurting myself”
- How denial can lead people in recovery back to drugs or alcohol:
- “I must not have a problem if I can stop for a month”
- “I can probably moderate now that I’ve taken some time off drinking”
- “Now that I know more about addiction and have worked on myself, I won’t fall back into the same patterns”
Expectations are rigid beliefs about what things should feel like, be like, or how things should happen. Expectations are formed about what using a drug will be like, as well as what it would be like to stop using. People who struggle with addiction often have positive expectations about drugs (believing they will make them happy, calm or help them feel better) and negative expectations about sobriety (it will be boring, hard, or unbearable).
How expectations can keep people abusing drugs and alcohol from making changes:
- “The withdrawals will be too painful”
- “I will never feel happy or relaxed if I stop”
- “I don’t think I could function without this medication”
- “I can’t handle the stress without drinking”
- “I’ll have nothing to look forward to if I quit”
- How expectations can lead people in recovery back to drugs or alcohol:
- “I thought once I quit that everything in life would fall into place”
- “I thought I would feel happier if I quit but I don’t”
- “I expected people in my life to forgive me but it’s taking a long time”
- “I thought the withdrawals would be gone in a few days but I still feel bad”
- “I was so much more fun when I was drinking”
Conditions are beliefs that we need something external (i.e. approval, a job, money, or drugs) to feel happy, at peace, confident or secure. People with addictions use drugs as conditions for happiness, self-worth, or stability, which is part of the reason it is so hard for them to quit. When people do get clean and sober, they may have made their sobriety conditional upon external circumstances as well, which puts their recovery at risk when these circumstances change.
How conditions can keep people abusing drugs and alcohol from making changes:
- “I can’t relax without having a few drinks”
- “I need drugs to be happy”
- “I won’t be able to function without drugs”
- “Life will be boring, lonely and sad without drugs”
- “I can’t feel normal without drugs”
- How conditions can lead people in recovery back to drugs or alcohol:
- “My health is the only reason I stopped drinking so if my doctor says my liver is ok, I can start drinking again”
- “I got sober for her so I would probably start using again if she left me”
- “If sobriety starts to feel worse than my addiction, I would probably go back to my old ways”
- “I love this job so I am not going to mess it up by testing positive for drugs”
The victim mentality operates off of the false idea that people are controlled by their circumstances, rather than seeing them as able to control or change their circumstances. Other people or situations are always to blame for poor choices that a victim makes, including drug use. The victim mentality is a mindset that protects the addict from having to take responsibility for their drug use or from being expected to maintain their recovery.
How victim mentality can keep people abusing drugs or alcohol from making changes:
- “I only started drinking because he/she left me”
- “My doctor got me hooked on these pills”
- “I need these pills because I am in pain all of the time”
- “The only time I don’t feel depressed is when I smoke”
- “Addiction runs in my family so it’s genetic”
- How the victim mentality can lead people in recovery back to drugs or alcohol:
- “I got really sick again so I had to take something for the pain”
- “My girlfriend left me even though she knew I would end up back on drugs”
- “My sponsor stopped returning my calls so I fell off the wagon”
- “People expected too much from me and didn’t let me focus on my recovery”
- “No one was willing to help me out, give me money or a job, so what was I supposed to do? I tried.”
Correcting Addictive Thinking
Addictive thinking developed over time and will take time to correct, but the following steps can help you through the process of retraining your mind to think in new, more helpful ways:
1. Build awareness: The first step in being able to correct addictive thinking is to become more aware of it so that you know what it looks and sounds like for you. Make a list of the addictive thinking patterns that you know you struggle with and specific thoughts that go with this pattern and think of these as “the voice of addiction” in your mind, rather than your own voice.
2. Interrupt thoughts: Once you know what the voice of your addiction sounds like and what kinds of things it says, you are prepared with the knowledge needed to interrupt this line of thinking. When you notice these thoughts, label them as the voice of your addiction to interrupt this line of thinking.
3. Don’t participate: The voice of your addiction can begin without your consent, but it cannot go on indefinitely if you don’t participate in the conversation. You participate in addictive thinking anytime you give it too much of your time, energy or attention. You participate any time you stop focusing on what you are doing to listen more closely to it, ruminate or repeat what it says, or think or stories or examples that prove it is right. Even arguing with it to disprove it is a form of participation. Instead, work on pulling your attention away from these thoughts.
4. Refocus on the present: The best place to train your attention is the present moment. Notice where you are and what you can see, hear, and smell. If you are in the middle of a task, bring your full attention to what you are doing and the movements of your hand or body. If you are talking to someone, focus fully on them, what they are saying, the sound of their voice and the expression on their face. Use these details to become fully present and each time your mind wanders back to an addictive thought, gently pull it back to the here and now.
5. Live according to different principles: Addictive thinking had as much power as it did not because of how much of your time and attention it took up, but also because of how much it influenced your actions and choices. If you truly want to work on correcting addictive thinking, you need to work on living by a new, healthier set of principles, which might include things like:
- Honesty vs denial
- Acceptance vs expectation
- Gratitude vs conditions
- Flexibility vs all-or-nothing
- Accountability vs victim mentality
Relapse is always a possibility, and people who have relapsed often describe that their relapse started in their mind and can identify subtle changes in their thinking that set them up to relapse. They might have started to think more fondly of their time using drugs or drinking, or they might have started to question whether they really had an addiction or if sobriety is more work than it’s worth.
Often, these old addictive thinking patterns are opportunistic, and come up during times when stress or life challenges are already making you more vulnerable. Paying attention and watching out for these old thought patterns will help you identify them early. Once you identify them, you can work on refocusing your attention on your new, healthier mindset.
Addressing only addictive behaviors is not enough to build a framework for lasting sobriety. It is also necessary to identify and address the thought patterns and beliefs that drove, enabled and preserved the addiction.
With practice of these skills and consistent choices made from a healthier mindset, it is possible to overcome addictive thinking patterns and establish a new mindset that protects you from your addiction.
- Relapse prevention for addictive behaviors. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy 6, 17 (2011).
- Wilson, G. T. (1987). Cognitive processes in addiction. British Journal of Addiction, 82(4), 343-353.
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