About Mental Mastery

Why do I keep relapsing? (how to stop for good)

Overcoming an addiction can be hard. But it doesn’t have to be if you implement these four strategies for avoiding relapses.

Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

I’ll let you in on a secret. Two in fact.

The first is, most “recovering” addicts are not recovering.

They either haven’t removed all temptation or they continue to make excuses to relapse. There is a lack of relapse prevention in their recovery process.

Maybe this sounds like your situation. Clean for a number of days or maybe even hours and then relapse. You lose motivation to detox and feel embarrassed from your lack of self control… Which only contributes to the spiral of the relapse. Worse, it seems no one understands your situation or you’ve kept your drug addiction hidden.

But I get it. I know first hand that fighting an addiction is hard. I had a drinking and porn problem for several years and I knew two years before my last drink that I needed to make a change.

Those two years were filled with crippling hangovers and pissing off loved ones and friends. I had to hit rock bottom before I could find freedom over my addictions.

I call this rock bottom, my breaking point. The moment I had the courage to quit for good. The moment I decided to not continue my previous half-assed attempt at addiction recovery.

You keep relapsing because you haven’t hit your breaking point yet. The desire to watch porn, get drunk, smoke tobacco, play video games outweighs the imagined future of being clean, sober and having freedom from the slavery to your drug of choice.

Although sometimes this is not enough. You’ve probably hit rock bottom before, sworn you’ll never relapse again and then the next week given in to the temptation. Furthermore, there are four common reasons as to why an addict chooses to relapse and if you haven’t dealt with these reasons yet, the cycle will continue and you’ll keep making excuses to relapse.

1. You’re unable (or can’t be bothered) to delay gratification

It’s human nature to give in to the immediate reward instead of waiting for the far bigger reward in the future. After all, you don’t hear a crackhead say, “let’s get high next Tuesday”. It’s always “let’s get high right now.”

This phenomenon is called delay discounting where there are two rewards, the first with less value but available immediately and the second, worth a lot more but availability requires effort and time.1

The famous marshmallow test or Stanford marshmallow experiment is a classic example of delay discounting in action. Kids are placed in a room by themselves with one marshmallow in front of them and the promise of more if they can wait several minutes for the researcher to return. What’s interesting is that a later study found that the kids that could wait for the extra marshmallows were more likely to be socially adept, achieve higher grades in school and cope better under stress.2

This leads me to my second secret. If you can master delayed gratification, you will be able to achieve anything. Want to learn the piano? You have to say no to playing video games or watching Netflix and instead put the hours into learning.

Once I mastered delayed gratification, I was able to overcome my addictions. I started making progress but I was only able to do that after I stopped picking the low-hanging fruit and started reaching higher. I fought instant gratification to achieve long term satisfaction.

Unfortunately, the reality is very few master delayed gratification completely. The lure of instant gratification is a lifelong temptation. Fast food is everywhere and so is porn on the internet. You can go home and cook a proper meal or eat the donut now. You have to decide what you want in life. Live an average life or be extraordinary? The choice is yours.

2. You’re in a bad environment

The second reason is your environment or to put it bluntly, your environment is shit.

Every time you decide to get high, your brain is associating the rush of dopamine to a number of conditions. These conditions like location, time of day, and your emotions make up your environment.

The more times you relapse in a certain environment, the more those conditions are associated with relapsing. Neurologically this is called synaptic pruning, the process of frequently used synaptic connections growing stronger while others weaken in the brain.

It’s why when you’re home alone after a stressful day at work, you feel triggered to relapse. Your brain has hardwired that environment and you’re reminded of past relapses or substance use.

The synapses in the brain can be pruned, but they can also regrow. You can unlearn any environmental triggers you learned.

The trick to forcing new synaptic growth is to replace the common triggers to use drugs with a better environment so you aren’t reminded of previous substance abuse. A new environment where you’re less likely to fall for the temptation of relapse and can exercise strong coping skills.

Regardless of your triggers, here are three changes to your environment to implement right now.

  • Tidy up or declutter
  • Increase the amount of light
  • Introduce an indoor plant

Rearranging or getting new furniture can also help with creating a fresh space.

Having a healthy environment is a crucial step to long term recovery. On the Becoming Man podcast, I talked about creating an environment for success and how I removed myself from a bad environment.

3. You have a poor routine

Another reason why you’re relapsing is you have a poor routine. Perhaps you’re going to bed late and running on minimal sleep. A study reported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that 10% of recovering cannabis users linked their relapse to sleep difficulties.

There’s also many benefits to getting good sleep like:

  • Reducing your risk to health problems such as heart disease and diabetes
  • Improves your mood and decreases stress
  • Helps prevent sickness

Having a good routine is not only a quality strategy in your addiction treatment but it’s an absolute necessity to living a healthy life. If you’re struggling with establishing a routine, check out my article on how you get your life together.

4. You’re lonely

One of the problems with my alcohol use was that I drank with others because I didn’t want to be alone. I wasn’t comfortable with my own thoughts and individuality so I tried to fit in to feel part of the group.

This leads me to the fourth and final reason as to why you might be relapsing. You’re lonely or afraid to be alone.

An experiment placed rats all alone in cages and were given two water sources. One was normal water and the other was mixed with cocaine or heroin. Researchers found that the rats repetitively choose the drug laced water. Another study, known as Rat Park, placed multiple rats in a large cage with toys and the opportunity to socialize with other rats. There were still the two water sources, a normal one and one mixed with morphine.

The results were actually pretty surprising.

Not only did the rats prefer the normal water but the rats that were previously addicted to the water containing morphine chose to suffer the withdrawal symptoms because they preferred the socialization.

The key takeaway here is that socializing can greatly influence your recovery journey for the better.

Socialization distracts you from your withdrawal symptoms and if you’re socializing with good friends and family members, it’s harder for addiction relapse to happen.

Good friends can also double as peer support and a support group for when the urges are unbearable.

Now if you don’t have anyone to socialize with, you need to put yourself out there and make friends, and the best way to find friends is to take up a hobby. Don’t worry, I created a whole guide on the best hobbies to make friends with, read it here.

Now you know what causes relapses

In summary, to stop relapsing, you have to:

  • Hit a breaking point and have the desire to quit
  • Learn self control and delay gratification
  • Improve your environment so you aren’t easily triggered
  • Fix your routine
  • Distract yourself by socializing with good friends

I hope my perspective will set you up for a new life of long-term sobriety.

But if there is one important takeaway, it’s to never give up on your recovery plan. Sobriety made the biggest impact for both my mental health and wellbeing and I encourage you to keep fighting the good fight.

Do you want to quit drinking, but you just can’t?

Tell me if any of this sounds like you. You:

  • Try to have one drink like a normal person, but you end up making a fool of yourself everytime you drink.
  • You worry that you don’t know how to have just one drink like a normal person.
  • Don’t know how to socialize and have fun without alcohol and you want a change.
  • Worry that you might hurt yourself or others the next time you drink.
  • Secretly are afraid that you drink too much but you can’t leave the social life of alcohol behind.

Even if you didn’t see yourself in these statements, you know if alcohol is a problem that you’re having trouble beating

In my program Vicebreakers, I detail the strategies and tactics I used to *finally* quit booze after trying to put the bottle down for over.2 years. After numerous attempts and relapses, I cracked the code.

12/22/13 was the last day I drank alcohol. My life has been uphill ever since. 

If you want to learn the strategies that I use to finally get control my drinking habit, then check out Vicebreakers.

 

I want to get control of my drinking!

References

  1. Odum, A., 2011. Delay discounting: I’m a K, you’re a K. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 96(3), pp.427-439. 

  2. Mischel, Walter, Yuichi, Shoda, and Monica L., Rodriguez. “Delay of Gratification in Children“.Science 244, no.4907 (1989): 933-938. 


Ed Latimore, author, blogger, and retired pro boxer
Ed Latimore Author, retired boxer, self-improvement enthusiast

Further Reading

How to get unstuck in life (how I went from mediocrity to high achiever)
8 unexpected reasons why math is so hard
5 things to keep in mind for developing your writing voice
5 ways to instantly have good luck