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If you’re addicted to drugs, alcohol, or even cigarettes, getting clean can be significantly more difficult than you think. In fact, for many of us, quitting and going cold turkey for a few days is the easiest part of the process. Today, some 46.3 million Americans qualify as having a substance use disorder. If you’re one of them, you know that quitting is a lot harder than stopping drinking or stopping using. You might find that no matter how many times you make it through going cold turkey, you always relapse – whether that’s a few days, a few weeks, or even a few months later.
Why does that happen? Addictions are complicated and often less about oral or mental fortitude and more about your mental health, your behavior, and your environment.
Behavioral addiction means that you’re mentally rather than just physically addicted to drugs or alcohol. That’s especially noticeable when you move past the first few days of withdrawal without much difficulty and then relapse when the mental symptoms become more significant. For example, cigarette smokers attempt to quit an average of 8-11 times before actually quitting. Of those, most make periods of 4-18 days between relapse, effectively moving them through all of the chemical addiction and withdrawal symptoms.
Behavioral addiction includes habits and behavior built around drug or alcohol use. It means you reach for that substance when you’re stressed or want comfort, when you want to have a good time, or even to feel normal if you’ve been using for a very long time. In some cases, that can involve reliance, such as with pain medication and benzodiazepines, where you may actually experience significant rebound symptoms or panic attacks when you don’t have the drug – despite there being no physical cause. And, with many drugs, people develop seeking behavior, where they habitually get and take the substance, without even thinking about it.
Many people use as a form of self-medication or coping with stress, trauma, mental health disorders, loneliness, and other problems. Even if you’re not doing so, triggers can set off behavioral responses that result in you using. For example, for many people in early recovery, the smell of alcohol can set off cravings, resulting in drinking.
On the other hand, you might drink or use as a response to stress. You might have habitually used as a way to calm down after a long day at work, to get to sleep after a day at a traumatic job, or to relax enough to be social. Each time you’re in one of those situations in the future, you’ll experience cravings, if you don’t also treat those issues and develop new coping mechanisms for them.
Any of these can trigger a relapse. However, it’s also important to note that even good things can be triggers. For example, if you used to drink or use while partying, you might find that you’re going to keep drinking and using every time you want to celebrate something.
Stopping cycles of relapse can be difficult. However, seeking out treatment is the first step to getting clean or sober for good.
Of the 46.3 million Americans who qualify as having a substance use disorder, just 2.7 million received any addiction treatment in 2021. This means that if you quit drinking or using, you probably did so on your own, without therapy or counseling to give you the tools to treat the underlying problems behind addiction. Here, cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, dialectical behavioral therapy, motivational therapy, and other therapies can all help you to build a toolkit of coping mechanisms, new behaviors, and new ways to respond to life. They can also help you to understand why you behave the way you do, which will give you more insight and control into those actions – so you have a better ability to step back, to resist cravings, or to find a new coping mechanism when you’re feeling stressed or upset.
It’s important to note that rehab alone is not enough to “cure” an addiction. In fact, an estimated 85% of all people attending rehab eventually relapse – although most quit again fairly soon after. Recovery is an ongoing process and if you’re trying to go at it alone, without a support network, and without tackling triggers, you’ll continue to fall back on old coping mechanisms – which are likely substance abuse.
Having good support networks is crucial for recovery. For example, if you can call someone and talk when you’re feeling stressed, you’ll likely feel a lot less stressed. If you can share about cravings, you’ll likely feel a lot better about them. And, if you know that other people are rooting for you to stay clean and sober, you’ll have extra motivation to do so. Joining long-term aftercare programs or 12 Step groups like AA and NA can help you to stay in recovery. However, you’ll also want to build those support networks within your friends and family as well, so you can turn to the people closest to you as well.
Eventually, addiction is a deeply complex thing. For most of us, it extends well beyond chemical dependence or physical addiction. Going through withdrawal is just one step of many in moving towards recovery. Instead, you’ll have to treat behavioral addiction, treat and find coping mechanisms for underlying problems behind addiction, and work on new coping mechanisms and strategies for triggers that could cause you to relapse. Approaching addiction holistically, as something you have to change your life to recover from, and which you can proactively prevent by preventing triggers will help you to stay in recovery.
If you’re struggling with addiction, it’s important to reach out and get help. Quitting on your own is very likely to fail and it can increase the dangers of relapse. Getting help and moving into therapy will give you your best chances at staying in recovery.
If you or a loved one is seeking help for alcohol or other substance abuse, contact us at Stairway Resource Center today. At Stairway Resource Center we provide a 60 to 90-day outpatient program that takes place in an engaging and supportive community setting. We offer dual diagnosis treatment and daily group and individual therapy for our clients, in addition to fun community-based events and activities.
Cristina is a bilingual clinical social worker with over 10 years experience working in the field of mental health and addiction, both in the non profit and private sectors. Cristina received a diploma as a certified substance abuse counselor before returning to school to receive a Masters Degree in Social work at USC. Cristina uses a client-centered trauma focused approach in her treatment modalities, blending evidenced based practices such as CBT and EMDR to create an individualized treatment plan to support each client’s unique needs.