In this blog, we take a look at five common addictive thinking patterns, which not only occur in active addiction, but often continue into recovery. Whilst these mental processes are not exclusive to people with addictive disorders, they are important to understand for those who wish to recover from an addiction. This is because of the role they can play in triggering a return to an addictive substance or behaviour, even in well-established recovery. With each addictive thinking pattern, we also highlight one simple idea that can restore mental well-being and help to prevent relapse.
One of the most common addictive thinking patterns is to become very focused on one particular thought or idea over all others. Strong emotions can develop around recurring obsessive thoughts, such as feelings of anger or jealousy or sadness. With the cyclical nature of obsessive thinking, these emotions can intensify so much that they feel overwhelming or impossible to shift. The subject or object of the mental obsession could be something quite small – perhaps the way a stranger looked at you on the bus or a comment made by a friend that felt very hurtful. Or it might be something big – wanting to repair a family relationship or worrying that you might lose your home.
One approach is to write down all of the obsessive thoughts going through your mind. Don’t analyse them as you write them down – just get them all on to a piece of paper. Then read them to a peer in addiction recovery, a sponsor or mentor, a counsellor or a close friend you trust. Ask that person is they can identify with what you’re going through. Have they ever had a similar addictive thinking pattern? Or do they have any suggestions about how to resolve the situation you’re in? It can be helpful to ask people to tell you about any similar experiences they’ve had and how they overcame them (rather than give their opinions).
If obsessive thinking continues unchecked, it can become a resentment or grudge. This is where unhelpful, destructive or overwhelming thoughts recur frequently without resolution, typically with associated emotional discord. Resentment often has a detrimental impact on mental health and physical health, including increasing anxiety, anger or stress levels.
In recovery from addiction, it’s important to challenge addictive thinking, especially when it turns into resentment. Otherwise, it can play a role in triggering a slip or relapse into active addiction.
One effective approach with resentment is to try to look for any ways that you could change your own thoughts or behaviour in connection with what’s troubling you. Expecting others to change is always precarious – even in situations where it’s very clear the other person is in the wrong. The only reliable way to overcome resentment is to change your perspective towards it. This may take time to achieve, however, especially with longstanding resentments – in most cases, asking for help from other people in recovery from addiction can make a big difference.
Another common cycle for addicts, including people in recovery, is to experience addictive thinking that is very polarised. ‘All or nothing’ thinking often creates unhelpful blind spots, which need to be uncovered in order to solve the problem at hand.
For example, you might have had an argument with a family member, which is bothering you greatly. An addictive thinking pattern develops as a reaction to the row – either your relative apologises to you or you won’t speak to them again. There are no other outcomes to this situation that you can see or accept. Strong feelings of anger are building, affecting your health and wellbeing.
A period of rest or meditation can sometimes help to reveal alternative solutions that are less extreme. Purposefully switching off the mind can bring about a temporary release from troubling thoughts, often resulting in surprising inspiration about how to proceed. If it feels too difficult to sit quietly or get to sleep, then activities such as walking the dog, listening to music or taking some exercise can interrupt the cycles of addictive thinking and lessen the intensity.
Another pattern that can arise in people suffering from addiction is negative thinking. This kind of addictive thinking can take many different forms – including finding the news very depressing each morning, or being extremely dissatisfied with an aspect of your appearance, or feeling undervalued by a partner or boss. Often, people can feel that there’s nothing they can do to change the cause of their unhappiness. This can lead to an increasing sense of powerlessness or futility about your circumstances.
One of the most effective ways is to look for any areas where you do feel you have some choice. Perhaps you could take a break from tuning into the news every morning – just for a week or two – to test out if you feel any better. You could affirm out loud the aspects of your appearance you do like. You could write a list of reasons to stay in your job, then compare them to all the reasons to look for new employment.
Sometimes, it can feel scarier to put these kinds of actions into practice – so the negative addictive thinking can take hold again. With perseverance, however, focusing on the choices you do have available can really improve the situation.
In both active addiction and recovery, people can believe that there are certain pressing thoughts or issues that they simply cannot share with other people. For example, you might have a health problem, which feels too embarrassing to discuss with the doctor – so you keep it to yourself instead, worrying about what’s wrong, turning to the internet to look up your symptoms. Or perhaps there’s someone you really want to ask out on a date – but you fear they will turn you down and you feel unhappy about that. Maybe you’ve been thinking about using an addictive substance or returning to an addictive behaviour – but you’re not telling anyone about it.
It’s very obvious to say that confiding in other people can help – but there’s a bit more to it than this. For addicts in recovery, attending regular support groups with likeminded people can help create a positive habit of sharing what’s on your mind. You may not feel able to talk openly with the whole group straight away – but you might hear someone else at the support group talk about a similar situation. This can help you to find common ground with other people, breaking down isolation.
For help with addictive disorders, including alcohol and drug addiction, gambling, gaming addiction, sex addiction, love addiction or eating disorders, speak in confidence to UKAT. Call free on 0808 274 0903, email firstname.lastname@example.org or use the live chat or call back function on our website.
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