Overcoming Temptation In Recovery

Fresh out of treatment for addiction, many people are eager to resume their lives, possibly convinced that everything will get back to normal.

Others may not be so sure, but they’ve been equipped with a strong set of coping skills and practiced their behaviors so that they’re fairly sure they’ve got a good chance at staying sober.

Still others feel like they’ve just stepped into a maelstrom of uncertainty, not knowing when or how they’ll fall back into their addiction.

No matter which of these apply, the common denominator is that temptation will occur to each recovering addict. In recovery, however, the reality that temptations occur isn’t what’s important. The critical point of recovery is what the individual does about it.

Here are some suggestions to help overcome temptation in recovery.

Know the triggers

It’s different for everyone, but unless they’re handled appropriately, triggers can cause relapse in the best-intentioned recovering addict. Maybe the onset of the holidays (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s) brings back memories of rousing good times with friends and family — long before the drunken episodes caused irreparable family or social damage. It could be driving past a former drinking haunt, where through the open door in the cool summer night the sounds of booze-heightened laughter cause your heart to skip a beat. Sometimes a certain sound, smell, sight or combination, such as cigarette smoke and ice cubes tinkling in a glass sets off an almost unquenchable urge to drink or use.

Even television ads are cause for concern to recovering addicts. Whether it’s the tailgate party beer ad during football games or the beckoning call to the race track, to the recovering addict, these are often all it takes to relapse.

Oh, it probably won’t happen right away. Treatment is still recent enough that they’ve still managed to hold onto the handbooks, manuals, tips and techniques. Going through their list of what to do to handle triggers and stressors will most likely be successful in the short term. But what happens later on, when the triggers reoccur, and even stronger? What can be done then to ward off temptation?

Think about the consequences

The Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous contains much useful information about temptation in recovery. It is perhaps instructive to note that A.A. advises that sheer willpower and self-knowledge won’t help those individuals who have an “alcoholic mind.” In other words, while these individuals may have an understanding that they are alcoholics, and even have a plan for what to do to avoid falling for the lure of the triggers, when they’re caught off-guard, they make no fight against drinking at all. They just allow themselves to drink. They don’t think of the consequences.

But it’s just not that simple. The example of alcohol could just as well apply to snorting cocaine or popping pills, smoking marijuana, gambling, overeating, or compulsive sexual behavior. Even with a plan, even with the best intentions, something more has to come into play in order to thwart temptation. That something is an in-depth thinking through of the harm that can come from going through with the desire to drink, use, or gamble, overeat or engage in unhealthy sexual behavior.

Such thoughts about the consequences could include:

  • What will happen to me, my job, my finances, my health… if I go through with this?
  • What will happen to my family, my friends… if I pick up this glass, smoke this joint…?
  • What kind of legal complications am I setting myself up for?
  • What will this do to my health?
  • Can I afford to go down this path again?
  • What if I can’t come back from my addiction this time?
  • Do I really want to lose everything just for the sake of a drink, using, gambling…?

Subtle insanity precedes first drink

Again referring to A.A.’s Big Book, a recovering alcoholic knows when things are about to go south. There’s a “subtle insanity” that precedes the first drink. What does this mean? In essence, it’s that sneaky thought that the individual allows to stick almost before his or her eyes, written in large indelible marker. Maybe it’s something along these lines:

  • It would be nice to have a cocktail or two with dinner
  • I really miss seeing my friends. Maybe just one drink to let them know I’m still alive
  • One little joint can’t hurt. After all, I’ve been sober a month now
  • I can handle just a little. It’s not like one time will put me out of control

Of course there are lots more examples of the kind of subtle insanity a recovering addict engages in — right before they succumb to their self-deluded excuses and take that first drink.

The point is to recognize that this sneaky thought process will rear up and derail the unsuspecting individual. It’s the very unexpectedness that often catches people off-guard. Again, it doesn’t matter how long they’ve been sober or clean or how well they’ve been able to ward off temptation in the past. It’s today that counts. It’s what’s happening now and how they handle it that’s important. One day at a time, that’s the approach that works.

Constructive plans of action for recovery

Early in recovery, it’s recommended that individuals adhere as closely as possible to the plan of action that they’ve written out for themselves with the help of their treatment counselor. This includes attendance and participation in 12 step support meetings, going through the 12 steps, and making a sincere effort to put into practice all the new behaviors they’ve learned.

Each person should thoroughly know themselves after they’ve been through treatment. If they don’t, they didn’t pay attention or didn’t go through it honestly. Once an individual is an alcoholic, they can’t drink. Once you’re a drug addict, you can’t do drugs. Once you’re a compulsive gambler, you can’t gamble. Not once, not ever. Knowing this, a destructive plan of action would involve those subtle insanities taking over a constructive plan. An alcoholic knows he or she can’t drink. A constructive plan has the individual choosing new ways home from work so that the opportunity to see the former bar/club/hangout driving by is eliminated. A destructive plan of action would be to dismiss the warning and drive by or, worse yet, go into the establishment, just to see how strong they are. Guess what? This can only happen a very limited number of times (or only once) before the individual relapses.

A constructive plan should include a thorough cleaning out of the home, office, shed, garage, attic or basement — or anywhere a stash of liquor, drugs or other addictive substances are hidden. A destructive plan is to deliberately forget to mention to a friend, spouse, significant other, 12 step sponsor or group member, where a secret quantity still remains. How long before that stash gets raided by the recovering addict during a moment of unbearable craving and temptation? Not long, indeed.

Engage in new activities

Rather than existing day to day, barely getting by, recovering addicts can help avoid temptation by engaging in new activities. Finding something new of interest can re-energize life and time will pass by quickly while learning how to master it. Sports, hobbies, pursuing (or finishing) a degree, trade or skill, learning a new language, how to dance, ice skate, going on birdwatching tours or nature walks — the possibilities are endless.

It’s often said that creativity pushes aside gloom. You simply cannot create beauty without inspiration. To be inspired necessitates a positive energy. Therefore, if you’re learning something new, you’re in the process of creating new behaviors, new ways of thinking that revolve around something other than addiction.

There’s nothing keeping you back from learning lots of new things. Who says you can’t do many things simultaneously? As long as you take care of your daily responsibilities, tending to your job, family and important tasks, you should be free to pursue any and all activities that will prove beneficial to you in the long run. In fact, have short-term and long-term goals — and constantly revise them. As you achieve one goal, or subset of a goal, move on the next one, or create an entirely new list.

Don’t stop to think that going for a degree will take too long — such as 10 years going at night. Think instead of how much you’ll learn along the way. Take it one day at a time, each class at a time. Think in terms of here and now. Do this every day and the days and weeks turn into semesters, and semesters turn into years. Before you know it, you’ll have your degree, your apprenticeship, your mastery of a sport, or whatever it is that is your long-term goal.

These are all positive steps that will enrich and nourish your need to grow.

Keep healthy

It goes without saying that a healthy body is necessary to be strong enough to engage in all these new-found activities. Do regular exercise, whether that’s hiking or walking in the subdivision, through the mall or in the nature conservancy or beach nearby, or going to the gym, or just doing aerobics and light weights in the garage, apartment, on the patio or in the spare room.

The body produces endorphins – the feel-good chemical – during strenuous exercise. Always strive for a good workout. Not only will the result be an elevated mood, but the body will reap the rewards as well. Individuals who exercise 15 to 20 minutes a day, 3 or more days a week, can see significant improvement in overall body tone and mood in just a few weeks. It isn’t necessary to work into a state of exhaustion. It’s not even a good idea. Just get out there and get those muscles moving. Breathe deeply, work out a routine and do it.

What about spirituality?

Many addiction treatment and recovery experts advise individuals to nurture their personal sense of spirituality. This is good advice, and it works regardless of whether or not someone believes in God, a higher power, or the power of the spirit that resides within.

One way to go about this is to do deep breathing exercises. Some call this meditation, and it probably is part of the various kinds of spiritual exercises, yoga or self-reflection. The purpose for mentioning it here is that it helps the individual in several ways (whatever you call it):

  • Deep breathing calms you down. By focusing on the sound of your breath going in and out, shutting out all outside sounds, you are turning your attention inward. This helps center you, calming and relaxing you. Tensions melt away, along with stress, worries and anxieties.
  • Deep breathing clears your mind. While you are concentrating on your breathing, the rhythmic sounds of your breath, you aren’t thinking about anything else. Your mind gets a break from all the chaos and turmoil of the day. Don’t think the mind doesn’t benefit! Your mind needs time for rest and relaxation just like the rest of your body.
  • Deep breathing delivers oxygen to your body. All the muscles and organs of your body need the benefits of oxygen. By doing the deep breathing, regulating the breaths in and out, oxygen travels throughout your body to wherever it’s most needed. This helps aching muscles, tension-stressed lower backs and necks, that throbbing in your temples — to smooth out and heal.
  • Deep breathing re-invigorates you. Many people think they don’t have time to do deep breathing exercises. The fact is that this only takes about 10-20 minutes of your time. You could do it in your bedroom first thing in the morning or in your car during lunch time, even in the bathroom or rest area at work. Go to a picnic table in the park, sit on a hillside, or try deep breathing while taking a bath. Whatever location or time you do it, just be sure that you’re uninterrupted and you concentrate solely on the breathing. When you’ve finished, you will feel refreshed and invigorated.

What does this have to do with spirituality? You’d be amazed at how much clearer things become when you’ve centered yourself. When stress, tension and worries are gone, answers to problems often seem to occur, as if by magic. It isn’t magic at all. The answers are always there. It’s just that we don’t allow ourselves to see them because we’re too distracted by what’s going on around and within us.

Through meditation, yoga, deep breathing, going to church, seeking out a higher power or the power of the spirit, individuals in recovery have another very powerful method of overcoming temptation. Some say, in fact, that spirituality is the only true path to ongoing recovery.

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