Most of your thoughts and beliefs are based on prior experiences and your conclusions about what has happened. Thought patterns start early in life. Many of your views reflect messages from parents, siblings, peers, teachers and other influential people in your life. Addictive thinking patterns are, in fact, distorted thoughts. Your thoughts may be either rational or distorted. Sensible or realistic thoughts are based on logic, facts, and reason. Distorted thoughts do not follow logic and ignore evidence of facts. Distorted thoughts may be misconceptions that arise from lack of adequate information or other people’s opinions and beliefs.
Addiction has a specific style of thinking that enables the addict to continue using their substance of choice despite adverse consequences. The National Institutes of Health published research on addiction and cognition suggesting there may be a cognitive difference in people with addictions causing their brain not fully to process long-term consequences. The addictive process reinforces distorted thought patterns. Your thoughts can harm your emotional life and become a reason to use and continue the addiction. Distorted thoughts can also trigger a relapse. Even if you remain abstinent, these thoughts can make living life sober so unpleasant that you want to return to the addiction.
Motivation for Behavior
The limbic and autonomic nervous systems receive signals from different stimuli. The limbic system contains the hypothalamus, which is responsible for regulating thirst, hunger, response levels to pleasure, sexual satisfaction, aggression, and anger. The autonomic nervous system controls our emotional capacity and fight or flight responses. The combination of these systems’ responses will elicit addictive pleasure or pain feelings based on the type of behavior that is experienced or substance that is ingested. Pleasure effects will immediately create a correlation between the action and how it feels – influencing continued substance abuse. Pain effects will typically cease the behavior or substance used.
The Connection Between Thoughts and Feelings
Your thoughts influence how you feel. For example, if you think you are working hard and will get a proper evaluation at work, you might feel confident and proud of your accomplishments. Or if you believe that someone is mistreating you, you might feel anger, irritation, or annoyance. Your thoughts and feelings are closely linked to behavior. For example, if you think that you are a loser, you might feel hopeless and might give up. Or if you think you are in danger, you might feel anxious or worried and might not leave the house.
Common Thinking Errors
Errors in thinking are standard if you are addicted to alcohol or other substances. Although some automatic thoughts are correct, many are not accurate or are only slightly based on truth.
Common thinking errors include:
- All or nothing thinking – seeing things as all good or all bad without the possibility of middle ground.
- Over-generalizing – reaching a general conclusion based on a single incident or piece of evidence.
- Filtering – focusing only on the negative aspects of people or situations while filtering out all positive aspects.
- Converting positives into negatives – rejecting your achievements and other positive experiences by insisting they do not count.
- Jumping to negative conclusions – drawing a contrary conclusion when there is little or no evidence to support it.
- Mistaking feelings for facts – confusing facts with feelings or beliefs.
- Personalizing – blaming your self for anything unpleasant and thinking that everything people say or do is a reaction to you.
- Putting yourself down – undervaluing yourself and your accomplishments.
- Magnifying and minimizing – unreasonably exaggerating the negatives and shrinking the positives when evaluating yourself.
The Mind of an Addict
One of the most prominent characteristics of typical addictive thinking is to externalize problems. This tendency to play the role of victim is unconscious on the part of the addict and is part of the denial system. Those addicts who have an easier time expressing hurt outwardly invariably take on the role of victim, while those who show anger outwardly with greater ease take on the part of being bitter or angry. The unconscious reward in this for chemically dependent individuals is that they never have to look at themselves, and therefore, never have to quit using substances.
Another dominant aspect of addictive thinking is self-centeredness. This selfishness occurs as the addictive behaviors become more and more the central feature of the addict’s life. The addict can’t see it, but once fully immersed in addiction, both they and their drug of choice become the center of their universe – until the addiction entirely takes over and they reach a point known as rock bottom. By this point, the addict is isolated and only concerned with using again. The reward center in the brain is damaged, as is the real-world they are no longer capable of seeing.
The natural inclination with addictive thinking is to repeat the same act over and over again while also believing they can manage their addictive behavior. Hand in hand is the addicts need for problems. As long as they have a problem, they have a reason to continue using. Because they are in a constant state of denial, they usually aren’t aware of this need for issues and are typically in conflict with someone or something.
Overcoming the Addictive Thinking Patterns That Can Lead to Relapse
Addictive thinking is not logical, ignores evidence of facts and can often lead to relapse. Recovery thinking reflects the reality of what your substance use looks like. It helps you stay sober!
When faced with addictive thinking, consider these four steps to creating a new recovery belief system:
- Listen to your addictive thoughts. What are you saying to yourself?
- Identify the addictive thought.
- Challenge it. Is it based on reality?
- Replace the addictive thought with a more realistic and accurate statement.
Addictive thoughts are never random, so the moments when they occur provide critical opportunities to learn what drives an addiction. Whatever event, circumstance, interaction, thought or feeling that happened just before the addictive thoughts will be a clue to the issues for which addiction is a solution. To distract oneself at just that moment is the last thing to do if you hope to gain control of addictive behavior.
Focusing on these critical moments when addictive thoughts first arise also has an immediate value. Even if the precipitating factors are unclear, just thinking about them at these times creates a necessary separation from the helpless feelings that always precede and precipitate addictive thoughts. Self-observation is an antidote to feeling helplessly trapped.
Working to suppress thoughts involves yet another mistaken notion: the false and destructive idea that addiction can be mastered through willpower. The idea that people can control addictions just by trying hard is a longstanding myth. Like every other psychological symptom, addiction arises from internal, at least partially unconscious, emotional issues and is an attempt to deal with them. Emotional symptoms are not treatable only through conscious effort. People with addictions can no more stop their symptomatic behavior through willpower than can people with depression, anxiety or phobias.
It takes a lot of work to deal with addiction, but not the job of pushing away thoughts. It is the work of observing one’s complicated feelings, motivations and conflicts, especially at the time of first thinking of performing an addictive act. Self-observation is not easy for anyone and is especially hard if thoughts are quickly followed by strong urges to act. Once you have identified the specific emotional factors leading to feeling overwhelmingly helpless — and then to addictive thoughts — it becomes possible to predict in advance when these thoughts will arise. That allows time to find ways to deal with these emotional precipitants before feeling flooded by them.