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If you completed the questionnaire in the last blog and feel ready and willing to take some concrete action towards overcoming your addiction, read on. Some addictions directly affect our health (such as smoking, drinking, taking drugs or starving yourself) – if you find yourself in this category, it’s probably also worth seeking medical support in addition to embarking on your self-help programme. I am not a medical doctor – my expertise is in psychology and changing behaviour – and you may need further assistance if you experience strong withdrawal symptoms or the psychological trauma feels unmanageable.
- Seek the company of strangers. Although it might feel like a lonely path you’re treading, there’s not a single addiction out there that many other people haven’t already experienced. Addiction can lead to feelings of shame and isolation, but it is precisely these emotions that can prevent us from getting well. Whether you choose to go down the 12-step route, seek informal counselling or hang out in an online chatroom dedicated to conquering your addiction, find at least one other person to talk to about your situation. There are plenty of useful free online resources and books dedicated to addiction, but they should be used in addition to, rather than in place of, some form of human contact. And if you’re feeling really low and just need to talk to someone non-judgmental in the first instance, there’s always the Samaritans.
- Identify the triggers. It’s incredibly useful to know what makes you feel like acting out with your addiction – so that, with some practice, you can see off a full-on binge or episode before it starts. Try and think back to the last few times you experienced your addiction. What happened just before? Did you have a fight with your spouse? Was it after a challenging day at work? Or a phone call from your parents? Now, dig deeper. When that event occurred, what were you feeling? There is usually an underlying emotion that will set off the chain of thoughts that makes you seek oblivion. Is it fear? Shame? Anger? Guilt? The more information you have about yourself, the better your position to wrest back control.
- Feel the feelings. This may be the most difficult part. One of the reasons you’ve used whatever addiction you have is to avoid feeling certain emotions, so you’ll have got used to doing whatever it takes not to feel them. But, as the truism goes, the only way out is through. If these feelings have been suppressed for a long time, or feel like they could be dangerous in their intensity, you may choose to seek professional support. But remember, however painful it is, it’s just a feeling. It won’t kill you. Whatever you’re abusing to avoid the feeling may, but the feeling itself won’t. Find a safe place, both physically and emotionally, and let it all go.
- Keep a journal. A journal is a great ally for all types of psychological work, and an ideal place to note down what’s going on, how you’re feeling, what your plans are etc. Try not to think of it as a record of your “badness”, but more as a trusted friend who won’t betray your confidence. I would advise against showing it to anyone else – it’s important that you feel able to express everything uncensored. You may, of course, choose to look back when you’re a bit further down the road, and see how far you’ve come. But at the beginning, simply note down whatever feelings you have, your plan of action, and maybe keep a daily feelings diary. It’s also a good place to jot down your triggers when you notice them.
- Avoid the vacuum. Not the Hoover (although if you’re addicted to housework, this might be a good idea!). I’m referring to the space created by the absence of your addictive behaviour. This may take some advance planning because, if choose to cut down, or stop a behaviour completely, you may want to find something else to take its place. Not, I should say, as an alternative way of suppressing your feelings. But as something else to look forward to. If you’re a compulsive exerciser, you probably spend many hours doing it a week. So, what are you going to do instead? The more you plan to look forward to, the less of a sense of loss you will feel. Some addictions are possible to give up completely – such as gambling or drugs. In that case, you will have a large addiction-shaped hole in your life to fill. Others, such as work or overeating, are more subtle – it’s not desirable to stop work or eating completely, so you will need to find a happy medium. The further ahead you plan and the more tools you have at your disposal, the less you’ll have to rely on willpower to get you out of a tight spot when you feel overwhelmed and compulsive next time.
- Share your story. Not immediately, of course, but when you feel you have a little more of a handle on your addiction, there’s nothing like helping others who have just started their journey of recovery. Whether you mentor someone formally, speak at events, help to moderate a chatroom or act as a case study for a charity, giving back will help you feel better about yourself as well as enabling others to benefit from your experience. If this feels too raw or uncomfortable, there are other ways of giving back – such as fundraising to support a charity devoted to your addiction.
- Be kind to yourself. So, you fall off the wagon, you act out on your feelings, you overspend, you eat a whole packet of biscuits. Whatever it is, you feel like you’re back at square one and as though you’re never going to make it. You’re human. Seriously, nobody’s perfect. You pick yourself up, apologise to anyone you’ve hurt during this relapse, if that’s what you need to do, and get back onto it. Recovery from addiction is a journey, and however hard you work at it, there may be times when old habits die hard and you indulge or abuse your substance of choice. Forgive yourself, make a new plan, and start again, one day at a time.
If you have any other recommendations or suggestions for dealing with addiction I’d love to hear from you. Contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment at the end of this blog.