A common misconception about addiction recovery is that it’s mainly a matter of self-control or willpower. In reality, addiction stems from a complex interplay of factors including genes, childhood environment, trauma, and mental health issues. These factors need to be addressed for recovery to last. If you try to stay sober on willpower alone, you will end up, in AA parlance, “white-knuckling” your recovery, which never lasts long.
However, willpower does have a role to play in recovery. There are always times when you meet with unexpected temptations or triggers, despite your best intentions and planning. A little reserve of willpower will help get you out of trouble. Recovery also involves making healthy lifestyle changes, which takes a bit of effort at first. You might find extra willpower helpful when you don’t especially feel like getting some exercise or going to a 12-step meeting. While some of us naturally have more willpower than others, there are ways we can increase our willpower, including the following.
You may have heard about research in recent years that suggests willpower is a finite resource and that you can run out if you use it too often. While this appears to be true in certain circumstances, people often draw the wrong conclusion from these results. They think it means you should use willpower as little as possible to conserve it for more important decisions. However, there are two important caveats that should make you think twice about this strategy. The first is that other studies show that people who believe we have limited willpower actually have less willpower than those who believe it’s an unlimited resource.
The second thing to consider is that while using willpower appears to deplete it in the short term, over the long term, your willpower gets stronger the more you use it. The key is to give yourself a break after exerting willpower, the way you would after a hard workout–more on that below. Look for opportunities to use your willpower in small things, like doing the dishes when you don’t feel like it or brushing your teeth with the wrong hand. Build your willpower in these small ways and you will have more when you need it.
In addition to strengthening your willpower, it’s also important to use your willpower where it will do the most good. For example, it takes much more willpower to refuse drugs and alcohol at a party than it does to just decline the invitation. It takes much less willpower to take a route home from work that doesn’t pass your old watering hole than it does to go in and belly up to the bar but not order a drink. Use your willpower on the easy decisions so you don’t have to use it for the hard ones.
Often, what appears to others to be incredible willpower is really just the result of good habits. We are largely creatures of habit and you can use that to your advantage. For example, if you make a habit of exercising first thing in the morning, it will be hard for probably the first eight weeks but after that, it will be pretty much automatic. You get out of bed, throw on your exercise clothes and head out the door. After a while, it becomes hard not to do it. Or, to take an easier example, replace soda–which is high in sugar and wrecks your mood–with water or tea. After a short time, you won’t even have to think about making the healthier choice but you will continue to enjoy the benefits. The keys to building good habits are to start small and tie the habit to something you already do regularly–getting out of bed or eating dinner, for example.
There are many reasons sleep is important for health and addiction recovery but for the purposes of stronger willpower, two reasons are most important: sleep improves your emotional regulation and your self-control. When you are sleep deprived or running a chronic sleep deficit, your prefrontal cortex is one of the areas of your brain that is most strongly affected and as a result, both self-control and emotional regulation are significantly diminished. You may have noticed that on days when you didn’t get enough sleep you are more impulsive and irritable. Regulating your emotions can be hard enough without throwing sleep deprivation into the mix.
In a way, meditation is like sitting down for 20 or 30 minutes a day and just practicing self-control. There are many types of meditation but the most common include varieties of concentration meditation and mindfulness meditation. In both, the goal is to keep your mind on something in the present, whether it’s your breath or whatever thoughts and sensations happen to arise. It’s normal for your mind to wander off and every time you bring your attention back to the present, you strengthen your willpower a little bit. This can noticeably improve your willpower in as little as a few weeks.
As noted above, using our willpower can make it stronger, assuming we give ourselves time to recover. If you constantly have to exert willpower, you will eventually wear down, just as you would if you ran constantly. That’s why so many diets fail–people feel like they’re constantly exerting willpower. The key is to take breaks so you can rebuild. Don’t stay in situations where you feel tempted to drink or use drugs. If you are under stress from work or family, find some time to rest and recharge. Eat a healthy snack and listen to music or something. It only takes a few minutes here and there throughout the day.
Willpower is only part of the story when it comes to recovery. The heavy lifting is done by therapy, healthy lifestyle changes, and social support. However, a bit of willpower can help keep you on track. This is especially true when combined with other factors like accountability and having a clear recovery plan for after treatment. At Hired Power, we can help you create a recovery plan for long-term success. To learn more about our services, explore our website or call us at 714-559-3919.
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