The sad fact about recovery from alcohol and drug use is that almost everyone fails in the beginning, even when they have the support of loved ones, friends, and recovery groups. That’s primarily because unconscious emotions intensify the motivation to use substances and activate a network of entrenched habits that lead almost inevitably to relapse.

To lead a healthy life, free of alcohol and drug abuse, it’s necessary to change habits and regulate unconscious emotions that both drive and support abuse, in short, to develop the capacity within to create value, meaning, and purpose.

A program for maintaining sobriety should include the following.

1. A practice regimen to change habits that support abuse. Habits are comprised of a sequence of conditioned responses:

When “A” occurs, we think a certain kind of thought, feel a certain way, and are motivated to behave in a certain way.

“A” can be:

Obvious: e.g., cues from the environment like the smell of beer, the moans of someone high, the sound of laughter in a TV commercial.

Subtle: e.g., physiological states such as tired, hungry, thirsty, high or low blood sugar, elevated or depressed respiratory rate, etc.

Unnoticeable: reflexive avoidance of vulnerable emotional states – primarily guilt, shame, anxiety, fear, and sadness.

Once vulnerable emotional states are associated with substance use, the mere shadow of those states activate a series of automatic habits that lead to use.

2. Recondition the emotional system to make it stronger and more flexible. Abuse of substances impairs the ability to regulate emotions, as the substance takes on the protective, soothing, or exhilarating function of the emotional system. At the same time, emotional response patterns grow rigid in the dogged pursuit and justification of substance use.

3. Develop skill to regulate urges automatically. Because the network of conditioned responses that motivate the use of substances is processed in the brain thousands of times faster than conscious will, sobriety requires skills to regulate emotions that can function rapidly, i.e., unconsciously.

4. Build a sense of core value. The use of substances is self-reinforcing in that it lowers self-value and the ability to create value and meaning. The downward trajectory in self-value during substance use makes the substance seem ever more necessary. But a developed sense of core value reduces susceptibility to major triggers of abuse - guilt, shame, anxiety, anger, and resentment.

5. Supplement support groups with self-regulation skill – supply the missing elements in support group intervention.

Changing Emotional Habits that Lead to Substance Abuse

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