Most people who engage in addictive behavior and develop an actual addiction find that overcoming this addiction is more difficult than expected.
Although the difficulty people have with getting off drugs are well known, they often believe that addiction is a myth and they can stop anytime they start using it. Or they feel like an exception to the rule.
This is even more likely with non-substance or behavioral addictions that involve activities such as overeating, sex, gambling, shopping, and exercise. What makes the situation even more complicated is that for any addictive behavior there are some people who are able to engage with the behavior without developing an addiction.
This applies to all behavioral addictions (some of which involve healthy or necessary actions such as eating, exercise, and shopping). But this also applies to substance use. There are some cases of controlled drinking, recreational marijuana use, and even controlled heroin use.
Most people think that they are among the lucky few who do not get addicted and sadly don’t realize the truth until it’s too late.
When they see the need for change, they may not even want to. It can take years to face the negative effects of an addiction before you realize that it is causing significant problems.
Make the decision to change
But sooner or later, most of the people who are dependent decide that change needs to take place. Once the decision is made, most people have a specific goal in mind. It could be to stop giving up some (but not all) addictive behaviors or substances altogether, reduce the time or money invested in addictive behaviors, or decrease the harm of an addictive behavior.
For example, many drug users choose to quit heroin or meth but continue to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes or marijuana. Many heavy drinkers aim to have just one drink a day or just socially.
It is helpful to make your goal clear before putting it into practice to change an addictive behavior.
Although quitting completely is the best path to wellbeing, reducing or eliminating the most harmful substance use is a huge improvement and will greatly reduce the harm caused.
The same applies to behavioral addictions: Those who decide to forego eating entirely are putting themselves at serious risk of an eating disorder. But stopping overeating and eating healthy is a healthy decision to change.
Complete abstinence from sex can be another form of sex addiction known as sexual anorexia. However, developing healthy intimacy after a sex addiction can be very fulfilling. And if you reduce compulsive exercise to healthy levels, it will likely improve health and wellbeing more than if you stopped exercising entirely.
Making the decision to change and what that change will look like is a process that often takes a while. This is called the contemplation phase, as it is about thinking about or thinking about whether and what the change should involve.
Ambitious goals are not always the best. Better to set a goal that you will actually achieve than plan to quit the cold turkey and relapse. This can be more dangerous than simply continuing without changes.
At this stage, it is especially helpful to consult a doctor, addiction counselor, or psychologist as these professionals can help you understand the risks and what they can do to alleviate.
Prepare for change
Once you’ve clearly defined your goal, you may still need to prepare for changes. Preparations include removing addictive substances from your home, as well as eliminating triggers in your life that increase the chances of using these substances again.
- Sex addicts may need to ditch porn and remove porn websites from their online history and favorites.
Over-eaters may need to search their grocery cupboards and get rid of supplies of candy and cookies.
Shopaholics and problem gamblers may have to cut up their credit cards and negotiate with their bank that they have just enough cash to cover bills and living expenses.
Perhaps the toughest preparations for social relationships, which are often addictive behaviors for people with addiction. Heavy drinkers often find it helpful to join a support group like AA in order to have a group of friends who understand what they are going through.
Suddenly quitting addicting behaviors can be lonely, especially if you’ve lost touch with people who aren’t indulging in the same behaviors.
Take the time to reach out to friends and family who will help you achieve your goals without judging when times get tough and you slip. You may also want to let the friends you drink, do drugs, or engage in addicting behaviors know that you plan to change.
You may not understand – or you may be pleasantly surprised. Either way, it’s a good idea to let them know of your goal and what they can do to support it (even if it means taking a break from the friendship for a while).
For alcohol and drug addictions, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor or local drug clinic about whether you need medical help in quitting. There are options for medication to help relieve withdrawal symptoms.
If you have an underlying mental health problem, like anxiety or depression, it can get worse during the withdrawal period. Usually, doctors and drug clinics are very supportive and helpful.
Ending addictive behavior
Quitting is a different experience for everyone. Some find the process liberating and empowering and believe that they can accomplish anything. Others find it painful, difficult, and frustrating and sometimes take many failed attempts to achieve their goal. Still others discover new sides to themselves during the quitting process (for example, a greater capacity for compassion).
There is no “right” way to feel while you are quitting. However, if you are feeling depressed or want to constantly return to addictive behaviors, you should seek support and treatment.
Getting treatment to overcome an addiction
There are many different treatments that can help you overcome an addiction, including medical and psychological treatments. There is no “right” type of treatment, although some approaches are better supported than others by research.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps a lot of people, and research shows that it is very effective in helping people overcome all types of addictions. But CBT is not for everyone. Other approaches may be better suited for those who do not relate well to analyzing their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Mindfulness-based approaches have become very popular and can be easier for many people to understand. As with CBT, mindfulness is helpful for people with underlying mental health problems such as anxiety or depression.
A variety of other treatments can be helpful, including couple counseling, family therapy, and neurotherapy. Medication can sometimes be helpful in the short term or long term. Talk to your doctor about the options that are available to you and that are right for you.
If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Authority’s National Helpline (SAMHSA) at 1-800-662-4357 Information about support and treatment facilities in your area.
Additional mental health resources can be found in our National Helpline Database.
Coping with withdrawal symptoms
Withdrawal symptoms can be a difficult aspect of overcoming addiction, both substance and behavioral. For substance addictions, the physiological aspects of withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable, feel like a bad flu, or even be life-threatening. For this reason, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor about the best way and place to get off a substance.
Fortunately, most acute withdrawal symptoms go away within a week or two of stopping. However, some people who quit an addiction find that certain withdrawal symptoms seem to persist. This is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome and in some cases can last for weeks, months, or even years.
The risk of dying from an overdose is extremely high if you’ve gone through withdrawal because your tolerance to the drug is much lower than it was before you stopped it. Make sure you have someone with you if you decide to use it again.
In addition, addictions can sometimes mask underlying mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, insomnia, and even psychosis. If you feel blue or agitated, or worry that the world or other people may seem strange or disturbing since you quit, talk to your doctor. There are effective treatments for these problems that are far more effective than addictive substances and behaviors.
Nobody who tries to reduce or end addictive behavior wants to fail. However, relapse is more common than overcoming an addiction on the first try. This doesn’t mean you will fail – it just means that you may need a few tries to get it right.
One of the most common reasons for relapse is food cravings. Food cravings are a powerful drive to use or engage in the addictive behavior, and they often occur during withdrawal. But they can also creep in suddenly and unexpectedly weeks, months or years after quitting. Although they can feel intense, you can learn to deal with food cravings without giving in to them.
Another common cause of relapse is the thought that you are now in control and that a drink, drug use, binge, or whatever doesn’t matter. Well it could and it couldn’t. Sometimes a relapse is a single drink or use and you will find yourself not even enjoying it anymore. Or it could be a slippery slope if re-used regularly or excessively. It could even mean overdose or death.
Coping with relapse
It’s important not to think of relapse as a failure. The first thing to do when you find you are relapsing is to understand what happened. Understanding why you relapsed is often one of the most important aspects of truly overcoming an addiction.
Once you understand your triggers and weaknesses, there are steps you can take to reduce the likelihood of relapse again. You can then apply what you learned the first time you quit or collapse to be more successful next time.
Behavior control after an addiction
Even if your goal was to stop completely, at some point in the future you may decide that you want to pamper yourself occasionally without doing it excessively. You can, but knowing exactly what you want to do is important.
For example, if you have an occasional drink with friends, you need to be able to have one drink and then stop.
Many drinkers find it easier to remain completely abstinent than to drink occasionally. If you plan to have one drink and end up having several, it is a good idea to reconsider your goals and what is achievable for you at this time of your life. This could be a new and liberating experience for you. It could also seem boring and difficult.
Avoiding substitute addictive behavior
Some people find that when they stop or change one addictive behavior, another comes to replace it. Heavy drinkers and smokers often overeat and gain weight. People struggling with sex addiction may be obsessed with exercise.
Addictive behaviors have similar neurological and psychological processes and create rewarding feelings and sensations. In order to replacement Addictive behavior is common in people trying to overcome an addiction.
The trick to avoiding substitute addiction is to find satisfaction in normal life experiences. These experiences may lack the intensity and high levels of addictive behavior, but when you get to know and like them it can lead to a new level of calmness that you may never have experienced before.
Many people feel more connected to reality and that relationships are more authentic than when they are constantly looking for pleasure.
The other important part of avoiding replacement addiction is addressing any underlying mental health problems. Addictions can cover up past trauma or underlying feelings of emptiness, sadness, or fear. Psychological therapies, as well as medication, can alleviate these problems in the long term, which tend to get worse over time.
Changes in relationships and friendships
Your relationships and friendships are likely to change as you overcome your addiction. It can take time to discover a new normal.
You may also be touched by the loyalty and simplicity of those who lead a life without chasing a high. You may find that friends and family, who you couldn’t get along with while you were involved in your addiction, welcome you back into their lives.
However, if you have hurt friends or family while you were actively involved in your addiction, it can also take time and effort to restore confidence.
You may also have less in common with the friends you spent the most time with during your addiction than you thought, and you may find that they are intolerant of your new lifestyle.
Remember, you are a great role model and you are doing these friends a great service by showing them that change is possible. That said, don’t let them pull you back into the life you left behind.
A word from Verywell
Long-term recovery is not a final goal, but an ongoing process of facing and dealing with life without withdrawing into addictive behavior. It requires ongoing commitment that can fluctuate at any time – especially during stressful times.
Ask for help when you need it. Others in recovery or professionals working in addiction understand that you still need support. We wish you all the best as you take this important step for your health.