Throughout the years, there have been many misconceptions about the disease of addiction. Before programs like Alcoholics Anonymous started, treatment facilities believed those with an addiction to alcohol or drugs were hopeless. Later, Alcoholics Anonymous presented the idea that addiction is a disease. Here we are, almost 100 years later, and science has proven that the addicted brain is biologically different than the average brain. People with an addiction to drugs or alcohol aren’t morally flawed; they have a legitimate illness.
When we discuss how addiction is a disease, it’s beneficial to think about it like cancer; although it can go into remission, it can always come back. In order to stay sober, addiction treatment programs, as well as 12-step fellowships, are extremely important. Even with all this help, it’s also important to realize that willpower plays a major role in staying sober. In programs like AA and NA, using the concept of a Higher Power can be extremely beneficial for getting that strength you need. Aside from the spiritual aspect, you can also use psychological science to help you stay sober.
Dr. Kelly Mcgonigal is a Stanford University health psychologist and lecturer. She has written ground-breaking books such as The Upside of Stress and The Joy of Movement. One of her best-selling books is titled The Willpower Instinct, and this book is based on an extremely successful course at Stanford. The course became so popular with students when it came to breaking various habits that they started offering this course to non-students.
By learning about the psychology behind willpower, you can strengthen your recovery even more. You’ll know what does and doesn’t help your willpower so you can stay on the right track of long-term sobriety.
Understanding the Prefrontal Cortex
Before jumping into how to maintain high levels of willpower, you should know about two main parts of the brain; the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system.
The limbic system is the home of parts of the brain such as the hippocampus, amygdala, nucleus accumbens, and dorsal striatum. These parts of the brain are the most powerful and are responsible for your emotions, memories, and cravings. This part of the brain is what floods you with dopamine when you drink alcohol or use drugs. Once you become addicted, the nucleus accumbens gives you a small dose of dopamine when you’re anticipating the drink or drug, which makes you crave even more.
Basically, this part of the brain wants you to make emotional, irrational decisions based on cravings.
If the limbic system is the gas pedal, the prefrontal cortex is the brakes. Unfortunately, the prefrontal cortex is the weaker part of the brain, but it’s the most important area. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for the following:
- Emotional regulation
- Logical decision making
- Fear modulation
When working on your willpower, you’re going to want to do whatever it takes to strengthen the prefrontal cortex. With these tips, you’ll learn various strategies that will help you build stronger willpower while also improving the capabilities of the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is like any other muscle in your body; the more you use it, the stronger it gets. Through regular practice of these techniques, you’ll have better willpower as well as better emotional regulation and the ability to make more rational decisions.
1. Avoid Triggers When Possible
The first, and most important, strategy you need to understand is avoiding people, places, and situations that can influence you to drink or use. You’ve probably heard the common saying, “If you keep going tot he barbershop, you’re going to get a hair cut.” This is actually true based on research from Roy Baumeister. He coined the term “willpower depletion”. Summarized, them ore you use your willpower, the less you have. It’s like gas in your car.
If you keep going to bars or hang out with friends who are getting drunk and high, you may be able to resist for a while, but eventually, your willpower will be depleted.
2. Improve Your Stress Management
Stress is an inevitable part of life, but you don’t need to be a victim of it. Studies show that when you’re stressed, your willpower decreases significantly, so you need to keep it in check. There are a variety of different strategies, but regular exercise is one of the best options. Research has proven that exercise decreases stress, and it also releases neurotransmitters such as serotonin, endorphins, and dopamine. Not only will you have reduced stress, but it also helps with symptoms of depression.
In Western culture, meditation gets a bad reputation, but more and more people in the United States are coming around to it. One of the main reasons people are turning to meditation for everything from anxiety, to addiction and willpower is because of the scientific evidence. Each time you meditate, it’s like doing a pushup for your prefrontal cortex. Some research shows that if you even meditate for five minutes a day, you’ll start to receive the benefits after a few weeks. How did you think monks are so great at avoiding temptation?
4. Avoid the Good Decision Trap
A fascinating study that Kelly McGonigal cites discusses how people are more likely to make bad decisions after they made a good one. You’ve probably experienced this when trying to diet. Maybe you ate a really healthy breakfast and lunch, and then you binge eat for dinner or down a pint of ice cream. This can happen with your addiction as well, and it’s a trap many people fall into. Countless people relapse after reaching a sobriety milestone as a way to “reward” themselves. This is a willpower trap that a lot of people don’t even recognize is happening.
5. Get Some Sleep
McGonigal also cites quite a bit of research about sleep. Sleep is one of the most important things you can do for your mental and physical health. A lack of sleep greatly reduces willpower because it decreases the functions of the prefrontal cortex. When you’re tired, you lack a ton of willpower. There are a wide range of strategies to help you get better sleep. Some of them include exercising during the day, decreasing late-day caffeine consumption, and avoiding screen time before bed.
As you continue on your recovery journey, just remember that recovery is a marathon and not a sprint. A lot of long-term recovery is dependent upon finding out what works for you. So, continue going to meetings and therapy, but also be sure to use some of these strategies to help strengthen your recovery. You’ll also see how improving your willpower can help you in a variety of other aspects of your daily life.
Here at Ethos Recovery, we provide our clients with the tools they need to get sober and stay sober. If you or a loved one is struggling with the disease of addiction, contact us today.