Stopping addictive behavior: What works?

I taught Sunday School at my church a few weeks ago. The topic was finding practical and specific ways of escape from the cycle of addiction. If 1 Cor. 10:13 is accurate that there is “always a way of escape” for every temptation, then it was my suggestion that we ought to become experts at finding the gifts of escape offered by God.

I began with a reprise of the cycle of addiction that is often attributed to Patrick Carnes. That cycle goes something like this:

During a period of abstinence the person has the impression they would never fall prey to “old” temptations. But then,  triggers happen. These can be positive (a success) or negative (tired, hungry, lonely, angry, etc.). Triggers can be internal or external. These usually result in some immediate automatic thoughts/desires. We begin a script such as, “I need, I gotta have, if only, I can’t take this…” If we keep up the dialog for very long we find ourselves engaging in SUDs (Seemingly Unimportant Decisions). These behaviors aren’t addictive per se but they are the things we do in an unthinking way that set up us for use. So, the bored person just wants to surf the web and…surprise, surprise…they look at porn. Or, the person who has an alcohol problem is feeling lonely and so goes for drive and…surprise, surprise…they end up at their usual liquor store. After beginning to act out, the person often feels defeated and keeps engaging in the addictive behavior because they have already broken the promise they made to themselves and others. Finally, at some point the person breaks out of the acting out and often does some form of penance. This might include promising over and over to be good next time, doing good things for God and family, or punishing self to make up for the failure.

Stopping Addictions at the Last Minute

When addicts first begin to fight their cravings, they benefit from developing a list of many things they can do to avoid giving in. I recommend that individuals create very specific lists of things to do other than acting out. Most people aren’t good at brainstorming in a crisis so a solid, long list is essential. Items on the list can range from comfort actions (talking with a friend, a cup of  tea, a hot shower, listening to music, etc.) to distracting and positive activities (praying specific prayers, walks, exercise, etc.) to altruistic actions (doing something good for someone else). These lists work best when we share them with those who support our sobriety and who help us troubleshoot when the list doesn’t work well.

A Better way? Building a Different Narrative

But, aborting addictive behavior at the last-minute is a bit like running up to a cliff and hoping to stop before going over the edge. It is good to have a plan for how to stop but it is better to interrupt the cycle before it gets very far. To invoke another analogy, it requires that we change the script if we want to have a different outcome. I like the imagery of script because I think we tend to narrate our lives. Consider these examples of how we narrate life

  • Do you have a “pre-conversation” (fantasy dialog) with someone you know will be difficult? That “conversation” is rarely neutral. You imagine what you will say, what they will say, what you will say, etc. What you imagine is less about facts and more about how you have scripted them and yourself
  • Do you ever determine the unspoken motivations of another? “I know he meant to hurt me because he always does” is narrative. It may be accurate, but it is still your creation of a script and not the same as reality.
  • Do you ever replay a shame experience? A success experience? That is you narrating your life

“So, this relates to addictions how?” you might ask. Good question. Most of us script ourselves as either in a denial story or a despair story in regards to addiction.

  • Denial stories tend to focus on external causes to our acting out. It wasn’t me, it was the devil. I wasn’t going to do that but I was so tired from dealing with my mother. I was just checking ESPN when I clicked the wrong link and got to porn.
  • Despair stories tend to focus on failure and inadequacies. I’ve already failed so I might as well just keep on with my addiction. If anyone finds out I’ll ruin my reputation. No one else struggles like this.

Build A Better Narrative

  1. Identify the subtle ways you tell your own story (look at the typical thoughts, self-invalidations, fantasies, “if onlys”, comparisons, etc.). Find out how these story lines lead you down a four lane highway to your substance of choice.
  2. Practice telling new (and truthful) pieces of your story from God’s point of view. Check out with your trusted friends if they agree with these new pieces. For example, “I feel alone but what is true but God has put these people in my life. I feel like a failure the goal isn’t for me to rise above the struggle but to reach out in the midst of it.” “I am weak but God is present with me in my weakness and isn’t waiting for me to become strong.” Remember, you have practiced old and distorted story lines for many years so don’t expect that one or two attempts will dislodge solidified beliefs.
  3. These new story lines need new goals. The former goal of not using vs. getting “high” no longer works. The former goal of avoiding pain, guilt feelings, or quelling cravings do not work. New goals need to be crafted that work for you. Find one that works for you. Some create goals that focus on the next positive thing. Others focus on goals to stay connected to others during a craving. Still others focus on goals to meditate on something wholly other than their craving.


Filed under addiction, christian counseling, christian psychology, counseling, Uncategorized

4 responses to “Stopping addictive behavior: What works?

  1. This is a super post with great counsel! I will be incorporating it into my work and will share it with the people in my world.

  2. deb

    This makes a lot of sense. Your first point in building a narrative is necessary and the most difficult. For many it is difficult to connect with our narrative and to understand what brings us down the road of addiction. How can we invite open discussion about our thought processes without holding judgement?

  3. Thomas Mabbatt

    I am a recovering heroin addict & alcoholic with 35+ years of active addiction, which included the careless criminal behavior, homelessness, becoming unemployable and all the misery, destruction and despair that is inherent to that lifestyle. I made the choices, one by one, that led me down that dark road. The good news is, I made the choice to hear the call of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. I continue to make that choice, day by day, hour by hour, and often minute by minute, regardless of my feelings about any given situation. The decision to accept Christ as my Lord means that I am committed to discipleship, which means that I am accountable to His Authority in thought, deed and action. There are no exceptions.
    Since the human person is most often views himself differently in the Christian perspective than from the psychological perspective, the integration of each discipline is the starting ground for developing a coherent relapse prevention schema, which the addict must have in focus 24/7. In other words, if I were to rely on anything outside of my walk with God in anything I think, say, or do, than I am already going my own way, which, in my case, is the way of the addict. The only choice I have in the matter is keep my eyes fixed on ….(Hebrews 12:2), and so I choose.
    At this stage of my life, I have been called to counsel those who are lost, as I was and I am pursuing my educational goals at TMCC at present.
    God Bless
    53 in Reno, NV 18 mos clean and sober.

  4. Pingback: Retelling the Story (in crisis, loss, & healing) | the long way home

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