Addiction Recovery: Breaking Free from Habits

Discovering how your habits and compulsions control you is the first step in understanding how to break free from them.

Using nicotine, alcohol or drugs as an habitual way to cope may point to an addiction. Similarly, compulsions to eat, shop, work, or exercise may also signal a deeper emotional difficulty. The first step in addiction recovery is recognition that doing what feels good or what relieves stress may actually be exacting an unacceptable toll.

The word “addiction” implies an habitual behavior that cannot be controlled or that has become a compulsion. Most who suffer from an addiction are in considerable mental pain, caused either by stress or by the cost of the addiction itself. Their suffering drives an addiction that helps them to cope, feel good, or just get by. Behavior, brain and biology all get caught up under the wheels of the addiction cycle, making it harder to break free.

Dr. Wu’s approach in helping people with addiction recovery is to help them to learn skills to slow down the sequence between impulse and addictive action, to develop alternative skills to relieve tension, to recognize their motivations, such as understanding what purpose their addiction serves, and to gradually help them to find ways of being more self-sufficient and less dependent on their “drug” of choice.

Balanced rocks symbolize Dr. Wu's approach for addiction recovery working from a mindfulness therapy and psychodynamic perspective.Dr. Wu’s approach for addiction recovery is to work from a mindfulness therapy and psychodynamic perspective.  Addiction is heavily action-oriented while mindfulness recruits attention, among other ways, as a brake between impulse and action.  Mindfulness therapy can also provide skills that offer deeper relief than the addiction itself.

Working with addiction recovery from a psychodynamic therapy perspective, people engage in addictive behaviors because they are trying to use either a substance, like alcohol or drugs, or behavior, like sex or internet or shopping, to manage their mental and emotional states. The addiction may help to manage intense anxiety, or be used to manage feelings of emotional hunger or deprivation. Sometimes it helps them get through a difficult day, manage the rough patches or help in times of frustration and anger. Others feel it helps them manage boredom and emptiness. Many don’t know why they do it.

Dr. Wu works with patients interested in addiction recovery in her Boston office, to identify what might be motivating addictive behavior or compulsions and to develop new skills of coping.

Addiction can affect you in many ways:

You may feel shame and blame yourself, but feel unable to get a handle on it

There may be blame by your family members, coworkers or others about your addictive behavior

Addictions are often expensive and time-consuming; they can hog your time and resources

Your addiction can lead to increasing isolation and loneliness, as relationships and the quality of those relationships are forfeited for the addiction itself

You feel the inevitable let-down; after shopping, drinking or exercising you don’t find peace or fulfillment, just more hunger and need

Your alcohol or drug addiction kills brain cells, leading to shrinkage of the brain, while compulsive addictive behavior has a “dumbing down” effect, reducing instead of increasing your ability to cope with your environment.

People usually come to psychotherapy at the point when their addictive behavior threatens their jobs, relationships, or their health. Many seek help when they’ve been advised by their families, physicians or workplace, or as an outpatient follow-up to inpatient rehabs.

The line gets crossed from bad habits to addiction when the behavior persists despite the harmfulness of the behavior. Smokers and heavy drinkers know that their behavior invites severe health consequences, yet they feel that they either don’t want to stop or simply cannot stop.

Addiction persists because the reward is felt to be more desirable than the consequences, even if those consequences are dire. Part of this is biological: drugs like cocaine are so effective at activating the reward centers in the brain that some people will literally die for it.

Read more about Mindfulness Therapy.