Illustration: Maja Moden
People in the midst of alcohol or drug addiction tend to imagine life without those substances as one of deprivation, which can make kicking the habit seem like a joyless and dreary prospect. But recovery has at least as much to do with rewarding oneself as it does with depriving oneself, a UCLA expert in addiction treatment asserts.
“People with the most success in staying sober tend to get involved in a range of pleasurable activities and do them frequently,” says Suzette Glasner-Edwards, PhD, adjunct associate professor at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and author of The Addiction Recovery Skills Workbook (New Harbinger Publications, 2015). “These activities can replace the time and energy that they had been spending on addictive behaviors, enabling them to experience pleasure without the devastating consequences of alcohol or drug use.”
Among the newest approaches Dr. Glasner-Edwards describes in her book is behavioral activation therapy, which advocates rediscovering life’s healthy rewards. Dr. Glasner-Edwards says the strategy is effective because it combats the allure of drugs and alcohol at their source. Rather than taking pleasure from the high level of dopamine that is released in the brain by drugs and alcohol, patients using this approach instead find that fulfillment through activities that they once enjoyed but perhaps lost touch with as a consequence of their addiction, or they discover new ones: Cook something new, plan a party, exercise, visit a museum, engage in a sport. “Ideally, you should have one pleasant activity worked into each day,” Dr. Glasner-Edwards says.
Patients are encouraged to rate how good — or how miserable — they expect the new (or renewed) experience will be on a 10-point scale and then, after the activity, to rate how fun (or not) it actually proved to be. “More often than not, an activity is more fun than you thought it was going to be,” she says, adding that seeing the pattern play out repeatedly can break down people’s resistance to pursuing future fun activities. “Just like the rewarding feelings that follow the use of drugs or alcohol in the early stages lead to forming a damaging habit, rewarding healthy behaviors can establish positive habits,” Dr. Glasner-Edwards says.
One important consideration in choosing such pursuits is whether or not the activity is likely to trigger a relapse. Dr. Glasner-Edwards counsels against activities that a recovering addict would associate with his or her substance abuse. Someone trying to stop using marijuana, for instance, might avoid attending concerts by musicians they used to listen to while high. Another consideration is people with whom the recovering addict spends time during his or her new activities. One recovering alcoholic whom Dr. Glasner-Edwards treated began grilling dinners for his friends. Although he relished his guests’ compliments about his cooking, there was one problem: They often arrived with bottles of wine or six-packs of beer. “I finally had to say, ‘OK, you have this love of grilling, but you have to be careful with whom you grill,’” she says. “Because if they bring booze, all of a sudden you’re feeling like, ‘Why not have just one?’”