McWelling Todman, Ph.D.

McWelling Todman Ph.D.

Seeking Equilibrium

Recovery from Boredom (Part 2)

Boredom maps and conditioned cues

Posted Jul 23, 2012

This article is part two of a larger essay that was originally published in the online journal RecoveryView.Com               

In part one of this two-part article, I proposed that the management and mismanagement of boredom plays a central role in the recovery of all addicts. Specifically, I suggested that the experience of being bored “depletes” the reserves of “will power” that can be used to bolster restraint in the face of subsequent temptation to use. This phenomenon, which is commonly referred to as “ego depletion," has been extensively studied in the laboratory but its role in the boredom-relapse nexus has been significantly underappreciated.It was also argued that for most of us, the craving for change that is typically prompted by feelings of boredom is normally managed by a suite of well-established and reasonably reliable boredom-management tools and strategies. They include such things as hobbies, relationships, work, and socially sanctioned behavioral addictions such as watching television, browsing the internet and even day dreaming. However, in the case of the recovering individual, these alternative strategies have long ago dropped out of their boredom-coping repertoire, thereby erecting a strong bias toward strategies that invariably lead to drug seeking and drug use. In other words, when it comes to the avoidance and management of boredom, by the time you have become an addict you have become very much a one-trick pony (i.e., get high and stay high).

In this installment I would like to take the boredom-relapse discussion a little further in terms of the probable mechanisms at play, and also provide some concrete suggestions about various strategies for mitigating the frequency and intensity of one’s boredom.

Boredom Expectancies and Conditioned Boredom Cues

Anyone who has experienced the cycle of relapse and recovery quickly becomes aware of the of the role boredom and idleness plays in triggering their desire to use drugs. Moreover, boredom inducing environments, much like anxiety provoking environments can be anticipated and often avoided with enough experience. Indeed, most of us have a pretty good idea of when and where we are likely to become bored and we strive as best we can to avoid or minimize our exposure to such contexts. In other words, we develop expectancies about the boredom-inducing potency of specific environments and activities. These expectancies do not disappear, however, just because one becomes an addict. And because the recovering individual has a limited arsenal when it comes to avoiding anticipated boredom there is a greater likelihood of the individual responding to both boredom and the anticipation of boredom with a sequence of decisions that invariably lead to contexts where there is a high probability of relapse into active drug seeking and use.  In other words, I am suggesting that the relapse-prone behaviors that are commonly referred to as “Apparently Irrelevant Decisions” or “stinking thinking” are more often than not the enactment of unconscious boredom-avoidance strategies. 

And why should this happen, you may ask. Well, think of it as the pre-emptive pursuit of environments and activities that have proven to be reliably interesting and pleasurable in the past, which in the case of the recovering addict are almost always environments rich in relapse triggers (e.g., old drug using relationships, neighborhoods, bars etc.). Basically, places, practices and people that used to be fun before recovery became a goal.

This kind of behavior (i.e., “stinking thinking” or Apparently Irrelevant Decisions”) sans the role of drugs and alcohol is in fact fairly common. Consider for a moment an activity that you know will be tedious but which you are obligated to perform (for me this might be things like filling out tax a return or cleaning out the garage). What happens almost immediately after the decision is made to engage in such an activity is that your mind starts to wander to irrelevant but eminently more interesting things that you could be doing. And not infrequently, your actions will follow suit and you will actually begin to engage in an activity different than the one you set out to undertake. A fairly common example of this phenomenon is the bane of all college students: completing the long overdue term paper. You are sitting at your desk, finally determined to write that term paper that you have been putting off for several weeks, but then your attention begins to gradually shift to a phone call you didn’t make earlier in the day or the television show that you will miss. And of course you rationalize the distraction and the delay by telling yourself that you will only spend a couple of minutes on the phone or an hour watching television. Now imagine the same scenario with a distraction one thousand times more powerful in its perceived attractiveness. Then couple this with an abnormally short list of considerably less potent alternative sources of potential distractions and I think you get the point.

Unfortunately, however, it does not end with expectancies. If it did, the boredom-relapse connection would be a lot easier to manage than it is in practice.  Less apparent than expectancies, even to veteran users, is the fact that boredom, just like an anxiety response, can become associated with environmental and experiential cues. For example, a young man who becomes reliably bored in school might eventually begin to experience twinges of boredom in response to attributes and activities commonly found in academic settings (e.g., libraries, textbooks, sitting in lectures, reading) even when they occur outside of a school environment. Unlike boredom expectancies, however, the recovering individual is seldom aware of the sources of these cued effects, but they nonetheless trigger a sequence of activity designed to remove the individual from the current environment. And it is on these occasions, when the source of boredom is effectively hidden from the recovering user, that he or she is most likely to slide into the type of decision making in which there is truly little or no awareness of the potential risks for relapse.

Of course it is possible and common for individuals to recognize that they are putting themselves at risk for relapse, even if they are unaware of the initial conditions that triggered the high risk behavior, and to then actively resist the temptation to engage in the actions that will bring them closer to relapse. But, as I have already explained, prolonged resistance to temptation leads to ego-depletion, so if an individual is constantly expecting to be bored, it is only a matter of time before temptation prevails.

Tips for Managing Boredom

My colleague Stanton Peele once famously noted that individuals don’t become addicted to substances per se, but rather they become addicted to the experience of taking drugs.  I would like to elaborate on that insight a little by adding that individuals become addicted to the experiences associated with taking drugs only to the extent that they play a role in mitigating and avoiding boredom.  If we accept that very simple premise, then the potential tools for managing boredom—current, expected and cued—are fairly easy to discern.

Generally speaking, effective coping with any type stressor requires three types of knowledge: Knowledge about the self, knowledge about one’s environments and patterns of living, and knowledge of the strategies that are effective in managing and avoiding the interactions between the two that result in the onset and protraction of the stressor.  For example, if one has a phobia of rats, you would want to know whether or not you are likely to experience similar symptoms with mice or other furry animals, how severe your symptoms are likely to be,  and the kinds of maladaptive things that you are prone to do in an effort to escape or avoid an encounter with a rat. You would also want to know when and where in your typical daily routines you would be likely to encounter rats, mice or other furry animals, and the cues that would lead you to expect such encounters. And finally, you would want to know some effective/adaptive strategies that would limit your contact with rats and/or minimize your discomfort if contact with a rat is unavoidable. The same logic applies to Boredom management.

Another point needs to be made, albeit probably a controversial one. I am of the opinion that when stripped to their essence, almost all treatment models embrace the same goal for recovering addicts: The substitution of an addiction to a chemically mediated experience for something else that is as intrinsically rewarding but does not involve a chemical. To the extent that this something else consists of many different and potentially pleasurable activities, so much the better; and to the extent that they are of the sort that are compatible with the prevailing cultural standards and expectations (e.g., fly fishing, playing poker, surfing), better still. But let’s not kid ourselves. What those new experiences are substituting for is a boredom management tool based almost exclusively on the use of chemicals. 

Step 1: Know your Boredom Proneness Level

There is now irrefutable evidence that we all differ in our innate susceptibility to boredom. There is equally convincing evidence that those among us who are the most boredom prone are at greatest risk for a host of untoward outcomes, including addiction and relapse. Since foreknowledge is to be forearmed, it behooves us, especially if one is struggling with addiction, to know how susceptible you are to boredom. As a rule of thumb, the more boredom prone you are, the more difficult recovery is likely to be. You can determine your boredom proneness level by completing the boredom proneness scale  (Farmer and Sundberg, 1986)  which is available at

Step 2: Create a Boredom Map

Because many of the questions on the Boredom Proneness Scale tend to focus on how one typically feels in certain potentially boredom-inducing situations (e.g., looking at a friend’s vacation photos), it provides a crude and indirect index of the range of an individual’s boredom expectancies. Consequently, if your boredom proneness scale score is high, then it is more than likely that there are a large number of situations and activities in which you believe boredom is likely to ensue. It therefore seems prudent to have an actual listing of what those situations and activities are likely to be. This involves sitting down in a quiet place and trying to think of as many boring situations and activities that are likely to turn up at least once during a typical two week period.  This may take several sessions and should never be done to the point of boredom. If you happen to think of an additional item during the day, write it down on a scrap of paper and add it to your list later on when you have the time.

Once you have assembled a working list (it will never be complete and should be updated continuously), place a copy in a prominent location in your home. This is the first component of your Boredom Map.

Step 3: Monitor your boredom frequency, intensity and duration

Research suggests that when an individual is subjected to chronically monotonous conditions, even if they have low levels of boredom proneness, they will suffer many of the same negative outcomes that have been found to be associated with the trait of high boredom proneness (e.g., relapse). Some of us are fortunate to have access to living environments that are rich in potential novelty and positive reinforcement, whereas at the other extreme, a not insignificant proportion of the population find themselves trapped in dull, repetitive jobs with limited access to recreational resources. 

Consequently, although it is important to know exactly when and where one is likely to be bored, it perhaps even more important to have a sense of the frequency, intensity and duration of one’s boredom over time, as it constitutes the best measure of one’s level of success in avoiding and managing the when and where. This kind of information can only be obtained by carefully monitoring one’s boredom over several weeks and should result in a written record of some sort that can be consulted at a later date. 

Step 4: Identify boredom cues

Armed with your Boredom Map and the results of your boredom monitoring, you now have a place to start in terms of identifying those hard to notice Boredom Cues. Again, taking some time in a quiet place to examine your Boredom Map and your boredom monitoring results, try to identity the elements that seem to crop up repeatedly across a variety of situations and activities. These elements may include things like having to wait for an extended period of time with strangers or an even more prosaic challenge like having to read and follow written instructions. This list would constitute the start of a crude inventory of your boredom cues. Like your boredom map, it should be a living document that grows and changes as you learn more about your boredom experiences.

Step 5: Linking Boredom and Boredom Cues to Substance Seeking Urges

Once  you have a good sense of when, where and how much you get bored over a two week period (i.e., from the Boredom Map and the Boredom Monitoring results) it is sometimes helpful to also try to identify the times when one: 1. Feels the urge to seek out and use drugs or alcohol; 2. Has thoughts of doing so; and/or 3. Absentmindedly seeks or uses drugs independently of drug-seeking urges or thoughts.   If done properly, this exercise helps to increase awareness of the interconnected nature of boredom, boredom cues and  drug/alcohol related activity.

Step 6: Develop and Practice boredom coping Strategies and Skills

An individual’s Boredom Map is the product of their level of boredom proneness and the intrinsic boringness of their daily routines and customary living environments. Although there is some uncertainty as to exactly how malleable the boredom proneness trait is, there is no disagreement that daily routines and environments can be made less monotonous. I am also of the opinion (but can’t state definitively) that at least part of the boredom proneness trait is accounted for by differences in the availability of certain boredom-coping skills (e.g., the ability to engage in controlled daydreaming).  Indeed, it may be that the major differences between high-boredom prone and low-boredom prone individuals is in the relative sizes of  their repertoire of coping strategies, the differential effectiveness of their coping strategies and/or skill differences in selecting and executing strategies. This would mean that all things being equal, a low-boredom prone individual should be more effective in rendering their daily routines and environments less monotonous that a high-boredom prone individual, and the more intrinsically monotonous the individual’s typical environment, the more skilled the individual needs to be. 

An important implication of the view that boredom coping is a skilled activity is that one can learn to cope more effectively with boredom. It also suggests that many of the skills associated with boredom coping are probably acquired during the early stages of psychosocial development, much like other cognitive and social skills that are known to be critical for effective self-regulation in adulthood. In other words, one would expect that as one gets older, you also get better at managing your boredom; and most research seems to support precisely that. Indeed, helping our children form good boredom management skills may be one of the most lasting and beneficial gifts that we can give them, and it may well start with the quality of the early mother-child bond in infancy.

Below is a short list of boredom coping strategies that most individuals are capable of mastering. And like any other set of skills, good boredom coping takes practice. Especially, if one has been relying on a single strategy (drugs) for many years. You will notice that all of these techniques have one thing in common, and that is that they help to mitigate and/or preempt the effects of ego depletion (see part 1 of this article on this blog at: )that tend to occur with sustained periods of boredom.  They are techniques that allow an individual to parse potentially boring events and tasks into more tolerable chunks of time by deliberately shifting attention to an activity that affords a certain degree of relief in the form of novelty and reinforcement.   Of course not all techniques are suitable for all situations, but learning to apply the right technique to the right situation is part of challenge of becoming proficient in coping with boredom.

Selected Boredom-coping Strategies

Controlled daydreaming: Daydreaming is a natural and effective method for distracting ourselves from stimuli and tasks that are perceived be less than interesting. Experiments have shown that when individuals are physically restrained there is a corresponding increase in internally generated images in the form of fantasy and daydreams. (The most extreme example of this occurs in sensory deprivation studies where hallucinations are frequently induced.) Controlled daydreaming is a technique where one voluntarily and intentionally takes a planned “time out” from a boring activity by engaging in a short period of reverie.  The trick is to have a pre-established list of day dreaming topics to bring to mind quickly, and to keep in the back on the mind that one has to disengage and return to the task after a reasonable amount of time. The topics can be such things as “what would I do if I won the lottery” or they can be brain teasers or riddles from a book that you can work on in your head. There are also mental games, such as trying to remember the names of the state capitals or the names of academy award winning movies over the last ten years. And finally, there is the pre-bucket list. This is a list of things that you fantasize doing before you die or get too old. They can be categorized into: Places you want to visit, Things you want to accomplish and Skills you want to acquire.

Texting and twittering, Blogging: These are proxy activities for face to face social interaction, which as I explain below, is one of the most potent and important boredom-coping resources. Unfortunately, they are not always practical in all situations.

Word and number games—Crosswords, Sudko etc: These activities are often included (along with sports and reading—see below) in an all purpose category of “Hobbies." If a person in recovery can develop or resurrect a true passion for a hobby, that’s great, but more often than not the person in recovery either never had a hobby that they were truly passionate about, and/or the ones they had are not a practical for use as an everyday tool for boredom management (e.g., scuba diving, horseback riding).  Activities like crossword puzzles, however, are inexpensive, provide a fairly immediate sense of accomplishment (positive reinforcement) and they are highly portable (i.e., you can do them on the train, in the doctors office etc.).  Also, with repeated practice one tends to improve fairly quickly, making frustration and pre-mature giving up less and less of a concern. The downsides are: 1. They are not practical in every situation (e.g., during class); 2. Not everyone has the necessary academic or intellectual preparation; and 3. Novices are unlikely to persist on difficult problems and may experience it as failure.

Diary writing:  Getting in the habit of writing about one’s life has the effect of re-exploring ones daily activities. Through this process, individuals often discover new perspectives on things that they do repeatedly and routinely, thereby restoring a certain degree of interestingness and novelty to the otherwise familiar. This kind of reflective writing can be done the old fashioned way, with pen and paper, or it can be done on a computer. It can also be done in an interactive online forum where feedback is provided by other individuals. This has the advantage of adding even more perspectives on the events one’s life, as well as providing a source of ongoing social stimulation.

Sports: Playing a sport and keeping fit is something that everyone should aspire to, but sticking to an exercise regimen is hard for most of us and it is not a realistic goal in the early stages of sobriety. However, becoming a sports fan is within the reach of almost everyone. Vicarious participation in a sport is in my opinion a much overlooked boredom coping strategy. My research group is about to conduct a study in an attempt to confirm our hunch that ardent sports fans have far less boredom in their lives. The reasons that we believe this to be true include the following: 1. The weekly (if not the daily) schedule of even the casual sports fan is somewhat structured by schedules of the teams and sports that they support; 2. Support of a specific team or interest in a specific sport encourages social interaction with like-minded others; 3. There is higher prevalence of watching, day dreaming, reading and thinking about the sport and the events associated with the sport; and 4. All sports fans to some extent place an emotional wager on their sports team every week, and in so doing experience a mild but similar type of “rush” that real gamblers get when involved in waging for money.

Reading:  Reading for fun is something that many individuals take for granted, but there are many more who read almost exclusively for utilitarian reasons (e.g., to get the sports scores or to set up the new DVD player). This is unfortunate because reading is perhaps one of most potent coping tools available to us. Of course reading for enjoyment presumes that one knows how to read, and how to do so fluently;  but once the skill of reading is mastered, it something that allows us to transcend the present and to explore places and times  that stay with us long after we have put down the book. In essence, books expand and support our imaginations, the very thing that we need most when trapped by monotony. 

Books are highly portable, inexpensive (free if you use the library) and there is an endless supply of them. Setting aside regular blocks of time to read every day can remove huge swaths of unstructured time form the typical week of the recovering addict. And keeping a paperback handy when out of the home in order to keep periods of potential boredom at bay is probably one of the most useful and effective relapse prevention strategies that does not require extensive practice.

Take Steps to Implement Pre-Bucket List: Begin to implement the plans you have for Visiting the Places you always wanted to visit (e.g., Hoboken…just kidding), accomplishing the Things that you always wanted to accomplish (e.g., get a college degree), and acquiring the Skills you always wanted to acquire (e.g., learn to play the piano). In some sense this is simply setting goals and acting on them, but it is effective because it reinforces the controlled daydreaming technique discussed above and it forces the individual to organize and ration his/her time, thus reducing the net amount of unstructured time.

Step 7: Educate your support network about boredom

One of the major coping resources not included in the preceding list is social interaction. Social relationships are a major source on novelty and positive reinforcement for most human beings.  In fact, it may be the major reason why women tend to be less boredom prone than men (they tend to be more socially involved and connected than males) and why individuals with psychological disorders that are characterized by poor and unstable inter-personal relationships, such as individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, are also subject to high levels of boredom.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is for an individual in recovery educate the members of their social support network as to the importance of their role in helping mitigate boredom. By providing the members of the social network with information from their Boredom Map and information about when and where their boredom is likely to most intense and sustained, they can begin to collaborate on developing patterns of interaction that anticipate and interfere with potential periods of intense and sustained boredom. Far too often the person in recovery is left to their own devices by family members and friends who typically assume that as long as the individual goes to meetings regularly, their role is limited to making sure that they are not enabling addictive behavior. The irony here, of course, is that they seldom do very much to enable the boredom-coping strategies that are needed to replace the very effective strategy that they hope to discourage. Indeed, the most effective way that a social network can help someone stay sober is to become interested in their boredom.

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