One of the most common misconceptions about addiction is that anyone should be able to quit if only they put their mind to it. As advances in addiction science continue to educate all of us about this brain disease, it’s easier to clarify at what point willpower plays a role in sobriety.
What is willpower? The American Psychological Association (APA) defines it this way, which we’ve reprinted verbatim:
- The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self
- A limited resource capable of being depleted
Now, what is addiction? The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) provides this explanation: “Addiction is a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
Willpower & Recovery
Here’s the critical point to understand regarding the importance of willpower in recovery: until targeted, individual treatment helps heal the brain from its chemical imbalance as a result of alcohol and substance use, a person is still compromised. They won’t be able to effectively:
- Resist the temptation of drugs or alcohol.
- Have the ability to self-regulate and measure their emotional or mental responses.
- Maintain the steady focus and energy of sobriety.
Without a doubt, willpower is an essential recovery asset. But it’s not enough to enable someone to break the cycle of substance abuse cold turkey. As their minds and bodies progress through the healing process, they’ll gain additional coping skills, develop a better understanding of certain behaviors and how to manage them, and recognize and handle triggers before they become a problem.
The ASAM states that prevention efforts and treatment approaches for addiction are generally as successful as those for other chronic diseases. Like with other medical conditions, constructive addiction recovery management is key, and willpower becomes a valuable component in that process.
How Rituals & Routines Can Help
Too often, people with substance use disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD) have chaotic lives. This doesn’t mean they’re slumped against the side of a building every night, without a job, or any of the other typical “addict” or “alcoholic” myths and stigmas. In fact, many people are considered high-functioning with their SUD or AUD, sometimes to the point of over-excelling, but still suffer the physiological effects of addiction.
As noted by the ASAM definition above, drug and alcohol use interferes with a person’s ability to self-regulate emotions, thoughts, and compulsive behavior. So to improve willpower during recovery, routines and rituals provide a ballast of support.
How long does it take for new habits to become routine, and then for a routine to become a ritual? Generally, about 90 days. The easiest way to think of how they work together is that once you develop a consistent habit, it becomes part of a routine. This is when you’ll discover the power of willpower—it’s the glue that keeps you attached to what matters in your routine, the “conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self” as referenced by the APA above.
Once a routine is anchored into your daily life, it has the potential to become a ritual. Intention is the difference between the two. Here’s a good example: when you’re newly sober and attend a 12-Step meeting, it becomes a part of your routine. With every visit, you improve willpower because you recognize the value of this routine and are rewarded every time you attend. You begin to associate your improved willpower to manage SUD or AUD with each meeting—you want to go because you know it helps you. With this consistent intention, staying on course with sobriety using the 12-Step approach might become more of a meaningful ritual to you.
Other Ways to Increase Willpower
SUD and AUD treatment provides the foundation for physical, mental, and emotional sobriety. But what can you do to avoid depleting willpower, especially during the early stages of recovery? Premier Health states that “willpower tends to be greater if you’re working toward your own goals. If you’re making the sacrifice for someone else, it’s more a drain on your willpower.”
The organization offers these tips for better willpower:
- Set small goals in the beginning and focus your willpower on those. Using our 12-Step example from above, maybe one primary point in your sobriety journey is simply to attend a meeting or another support group to help reinforce your intention.
- Planning ahead bolsters your willpower. From what you’ll eat for the week to laying out your work clothes each night, certain aspects of planning reduce the conflict of making decisions and keep everything simpler.
- Avoid temptation. Especially in the early stages of recovery, you might have to change your friend group for a while or call a 12-Step sponsor more frequently to cope with cravings and handle triggers.
- Use mindfulness techniques to stabilize your willpower. These reminders help to focus on the present and avoid drama. Or use meditation, yoga, and other holistic methods to replenish your energy when you feel depleted.
Willingway Can Help
Another important tool in your quest for improved willpower is a strong support network. Even if you’re not a member of the Willingway alumni group, you can still follow us on Facebook for important news and activities or attend one of continuing care community groups in the Southeast for an additional boost to your sobriety willpower. With Willingway, you’ll never travel the path of sobriety alone.