The word addict comes from the Latin term “addictus”, which can literally be translated as “slave” or “debtor”. It implies, therefore, a relationship of submission to an external element (the drug in this case), which becomes the creditor of a very expensive existential debt.

In this same sense, addiction subjects the person to a succession of changes at a neurological and behavioural level (investment of much time and effort in searching for and consuming the substance) that end up dispossessing him/her of his/her genuine freedom and will.

The process through which a consumer story is abandoned is not simple, and involves facing many difficulties that must be overcome successfully. The best thing, in this case, is to have useful tools at our disposal that make the path more bearable.

In this article we will reflect on how to avoid relapses into addiction , in order to offer keys that can contribute positively in this difficult time.

Preventing Relapses in Addiction: 10 Keys

Dependence on any drug implies the appearance of two basic processes: tolerance (the need for an increasing consumption of the substance in order to perceive effects equivalent to those of the beginning) and withdrawal syndrome (discomfort in the absence of the substance in the body).

Craving (or desire) describes a pressing need for consumption at the moment we are faced with stimuli that have been associated with it over the years (places, people, etc.). Its participation is frequent in a very high percentage of slips and relapses.

Giving up drugs is not an easy process, but it can also be a rewarding journey. In order to help facilitate and enhance such an effort, here are 10 keys based on available scientific evidence on how to avoid relapses into addiction.

1. Seeks a socially stimulating life

Many studies clearly indicate that living in socially impoverished environments is a very important risk factor for recreational consumption to evolve directly into dependency.

This finding could even be reproduced in animal models, with research comparing the addictive behaviour of mice depending on whether they were in the company of other rodents or lived alone (and with little incentive, such as tubes and wheels to move around and exercise).

Thus, it is known that having an adequate social network is elemental for reducing the risk of relapses in those who are going through the process of total abandonment of drugs. It is essential to have people close to you who offer their emotional support (sincere understanding, active listening, etc.), instrumental support (material help in cases of need) and emotional support (hugs and positive interactions).

It is also important to keep a distance from friends whose consumption habits may contribute to a later relapse, especially at the beginning of the process.

2. Avoid risk situations

When a person enters the process of giving up a drug, it is recommended that at first they avoid any individuals or situations that might have been related to their use. Such a strategy is known as stimulus control , and its purpose is to make environmental and behavioral modifications aimed at reducing the presence of craving (intense desire for consumption that arises from exposure to places or people who used to use the substance).

As time goes by (and as the person acquires greater control over his or her ability to inhibit the urge to consume), it can be useful to expose oneself to the situations one was avoiding (since one will not always be “running away” from reality), doing so initially in the company of a trusted person. In this way you will acquire a sense of superior control and develop a strong self-efficacy in managing desire-related affects.

It is also a perfect occasion to train some assertive behaviors , like saying “no” to an offer.

3. Go to therapy

Substance use can erode motivation for activities that were once rewarding, to the point that there is often a withdrawal from everything that bound the person to others. The process of recovering all that we once were implies facing a difficult reality , in which many of the sources of reinforcement and satisfaction have been able to vanish, so that a deliberate effort must be made to recover them or to look for different ones.

In this process it is important to have the help of a therapist, with whom to enhance the available coping strategies (or learn new and useful ones) to adapt to the environment and enrich it in a way that is personally satisfying. Also it may be necessary to address possible deficits in impulse control and decision making , two common problems among those who have lived a history of long-term consumption.

4. Beware of microdecisions

During the first months of withdrawal from a substance, the person gains increasing mastery of the situation and progressively feels more emotionally detached from her stage as a user. Thus, all the precautions that used to be taken in order to maintain abstinence enter into a period of greater laxity, in which it is more likely that there will be some slip in consumption (isolated and occasional use of the drug) or a complete relapse.

This is due to the assumption of decisions that may seem innocuous, but that harbor a real threat: “for one more nothing will happen to me” , “it has been a very hard day, so today I deserve it”, etc. There is ample evidence in the literature about this effect, so the person must remain cautious despite having gone through the most critical stage. While it is true that the first few months are a period of special risk, relapses that occur later are often directly associated with these microdecisions.

5. The effect of the abstinence violation

Slips in consumption, and even relapses, can be part of the normal process of giving up any substance. When assumed in a constructive sense, can provide valuable information about the precipitating factors in which it took place , and can be an incentive to articulate strategies aimed at promoting personal resources with which to reinforce abstinence in the future. However, many times the opposite result is triggered: the effect of violating abstinence.

This effect describes the painful appearance of deeply negative thoughts about oneself as a result of slipping or relapsing, such as “if I knew I couldn’t handle it” or “in the end those who thought I was a horrible person were right,” which precipitate adverse emotional states and episodes of uncontrolled consumption (binge). Addressing the issue, and contextualizing it within reasonable limits, is essential.

6. Learn to regulate adverse emotional states

Feelings such as shame, fear or anger can contribute to relapses among people who have learned to fight them with the strategy of consumption. It is relatively common for there to be some relationship between drug use and emotions that are difficult to bear or manage. This is why we must go deeper into the basic processes of regulation , which involve the identification, discrimination, acceptance and communication of internal states (for which the help of a good therapist may be needed).

In this sense, it is often also important to learn appropriate relaxation strategies, with which to mediate difficult emotions and anxiety (especially in their physiological dimensions). The most widely used are diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscular relaxation , as they have been shown to contribute positively to the process and increase the feeling of control over one’s emotional life.

  • You may be interested in: “6 easy relaxation techniques to combat stress”

7. Develops a hobby

When drug use takes hold, it not only dramatically displaces the rest of the things that used to bring happiness, but it rises as a motivated behavior that brings some degree of “satisfaction” (despite the negative consequences that almost always accompany it). This is because its effects directly affect the brain’s reward system (ventral tegmental area and nucleus accumbens), a circuit related to positive reinforcements and the sensation of pleasure.

The abandonment of drugs can leave a very important void in life , which should be counteracted with an activity that allows moments of recreation and enjoyment. In any case, it is possible that for some time one will live with an annoying feeling of inertia, but as the weeks go by one will set new goals to pursue (or recover those of yesteryear). The support of others and the deliberate search for moments to enjoy the simple things is essential in this process.

8. Avoid alcohol consumption

Even if you have not suffered from alcohol dependency, but from another substance, it is very important to avoid its use. It is a drug that exerts depressive effects on the central nervous system, inhibiting the prefrontal cortex and stimulating impulsive behaviour. Thus, under its effects it is much easier for a weakening of the effort to maintain abstinence to occur, and for a slip or a complete relapse to take place.

On the other hand, many people who in their time as consumers combined alcohol with another substance (such as cocaine, for example). In these cases, the subjective sensations of drunkenness can function as precipitating stimuli of the desire for the other drug . In the specific case of the combination of alcohol and cocaine, the effect can be devastating, since inside the body they are chemically transformed into cocaine ethylene (related to acts of violence and even sudden death).

  • You may be interested in: “These are the 9 effects that alcohol has on the brain in the short and long term”

9. Communicate your decision to others

Talking to others about the decision to stop consumption has two very important effects: can motivate the social support of the environment and generates new expectations about the person who is preparing to leave the addiction. Such expectations can be very different from those that existed until now (since it is not uncommon for friction to occur in interpersonal relationships that could have contributed to a shared grey horizon) and promote the desire to act in a way that is congruent with the commitment acquired.

10. Draw a decisional balance

Decisional balances are a useful exercise when people are preparing to make a change in their lives. It involves spending some time writing down on a piece of paper the expected advantages and disadvantages of the new scenario , detailing all the good things you want to achieve by giving up drug use (both in the medium and long term). This activity helps to clarify the initial confusion and establish a much clearer goal to pursue.

Once all this is written down on paper, it can be useful to keep it in a pocket when you foresee the imminence of some risk situation (visiting a place where you used to use, going to a party where others will use drugs, etc.) and read it when you feel it is appropriate (especially if you perceive that the desire is increasing and you are about to give in to it). It is a very good way to reactivate the neurological processes (prefrontal cortex) that oppose craving , and continue to maintain abstinence and enhance the feeling of self-control.

Bibliographic references:

  • Mohammadpoorasl, A., Fakhari A., Akbari, H. and Karimi, F. (2012). Addiction Relapse and its Predictors. Journal of Addiction Research and Therapy, 3(1): 1000121.
  • Sinha, R. (2013). The Clinical Neurobiology pf Drug Craving. Current Opinion on Neurobiology, 23(4), 649 – 654.