How to Overcome an Addiction

Tips for overcoming addiction

Verywell / Laura Porter

People who have a substance use disorder often find that overcoming it is more challenging than they expected. They may feel that addiction is a myth and they can quit any time they want or that they are an exception to the rule. This can also occur with behavioral addictions involving activities such as eating, sex, gambling, shopping, and exercise.

Learning how to overcome an addiction is important for anyone experiencing a substance use disorder (SUD), alcohol use disorder (AUD), or behavioral addiction. While challenging, recognizing that there is a problem and learning more about the process of quitting are important first steps in recovery.

This article discusses what you will need to do to overcome an addiction and offers tips that can help. It also covers the symptoms of withdrawal that you might experience and some of the effective treatment options that are available.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Why Overcoming Addiction Is So Difficult

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is a "treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences." 

People continue to engage in harmful behaviors despite negative consequences because addiction changes the brain's reward system, which increases the desire for the substances or experiences. These changes in the brain also affect impulse control and judgment, which makes quitting that much more challenging. 

Though addiction recovery is challenging, addiction is treatable. With supportive resources and the right treatment approach, you can overcome the physical and mental challenges you face in order to recover.

Recap

Addiction leads to changes in the brain that make quitting more difficult. Fortunately, addiction is treatable and there are things that you can do to improve your success in overcoming your addiction.

How to Overcome an Addiction

According to one model of behavior change known as the transtheoretical model, making any kind of change involves a process that starts with pre-contemplation and moves into contemplation.

During these early stages of the process, you might be in denial about the effects of your addiction. As you become more aware of the problems you are facing, you might then struggle with feelings of ambivalence even as you become more aware of your need to overcome your addiction.

Once you make that decision to change, however, you can begin the process of preparing to take action.

Decide to Change

The decision to change is one of the most important steps in overcoming an addiction. By acknowledging that a change is needed, it means that you recognize that there is a problem and have a desire to address it.

Making the decision to change and deciding what that will look like is a process that often takes time. This is known as the contemplation stage because it involves thinking about whether to change and how.

Ambitious goals are not always best, however. It is better to set a goal that you will actually achieve than to plan to quit "cold turkey" and end up relapsing, which can be more dangerous than simply continuing without any changes.

Consulting a doctor, addiction counselor, or psychologist is particularly helpful at this stage as they can help you understand the risks and what can help alleviate them.

Harm Reduction Strategies

During the pre-contemplation and contemplation stages of change, a harm reduction approach may be helpful. Harm reduction recognizes that while total abstinence is the goal, it is a process that takes time. Although quitting entirely is the best path to wellness, reducing or eliminating the most harmful substance use or behavior is a huge improvement and will greatly reduce the harm caused.

Prepare to Change

Once you are clear on your goal, you may still need to prepare to change. Preparations include removing addictive substances from your home as well as eliminating triggers in your life that may make you more likely to use those substances again.

This often means getting rid of paraphernalia or other items that might trigger your desire to use a substance or engage in a harmful behavior. You may also find it necessary to change your routine so that you have less contact with people or settings that trigger cravings.

Other ways to prepare include deciding what approach you plan to use to overcome your addiction and getting the resources that you need to be successful.

For example, a person who is trying to quit smoking would start by deciding whether they are going to stop smoking cold turkey or gradually reduce their nicotine use. Next, they would get the tools they need to quit successfully such as finding a support group, buying nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products, or talking to a healthcare provider about prescription smoking cessation medications.

Seek Social Support

Perhaps the hardest preparations to make concern social relationships. For people living with addictions, some of their relationships may revolve around addictive behaviors. In such cases, setting boundaries within those relationships and joining a self-help group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can be helpful for providing a group of people who understand what they are going through.

Loneliness can be a challenge when you are quitting. You may have lost touch with old friends and loved ones, and changing your behavior may make it difficult to spend time around people who are still using substances or engaging in certain behaviors. But finding people who support your recovery can be very helpful and may improve your outcomes.

Take time to contact friends and family who will support you in your goals. You might also want to let those friends who drink, use drugs, or engage in addictive behaviors know that you are planning to change.

They may not understand—or you may be pleasantly surprised. Either way, it's a good idea to let them know of your goal and what they can do to support it (even if that means taking a break from the friendship for a time).

Reach Out to Healthcare Providers

For alcohol and drug addictions, it is a good idea to talk to a doctor or local drug clinic about whether you need medical help in quitting. There are options for medications to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, you may need medical supervision during the detox process.

If you have an underlying mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, it could worsen during the withdrawal phase. Healthcare providers can be very supportive and helpful while navigating these challenges.

Recap

The first step in overcoming addiction involves deciding to make a change. From there, preparing, planning, finding support, and talking to a healthcare provider can help put you on a path to a successful recovery. 

Get Treatment to Overcome an Addiction

There are many different treatments that can help you during the process of overcoming an addiction, including medical and psychological approaches. There is no one "right" type of addiction treatment, although some approaches are better supported by research than others.

Psychotherapy

Behavioral therapies and other types of psychotherapy can help people improve their coping skills, develop new behavioral patterns, and change the underlying thoughts that often contribute to addiction. Different types of therapy that may help include:

  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): CBT is an approach that focuses on identifying and changing the thoughts and behaviors that play a part in addictions. It has been shown to be very effective in helping people overcome all kinds of addictions. But CBT is not for everyone. Other approaches may be better suited for those who do not relate well to analyzing their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
  • Mindfulness therapy: Mindfulness-based approaches like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be easier to relate to for many people. As with CBT, mindfulness is helpful for people with underlying mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.
  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET): MET is an approach that helps increase people's readiness to change. It can be helpful for improving the commitment and motivation to initial and remain in treatment.
  • Family therapy: Family therapy approaches can be helpful, particularly with teens and young adults. This type of therapy can help families learn more about how to support their loved one's recovery and can be effective for improving overall family functioning.

Medications

Medications can be utilized to treat symptoms of withdrawal, help people remain in treatment, and prevent relapse. The type of medication a doctor prescribes depends on the type of addiction that is being treated. For example, there are different medications available to treat opioid, nicotine, and alcohol addiction.

Medications can sometimes be helpful in both the short term and the long term. Talk to a doctor about the options that are available to and appropriate for you.

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Manage Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms can be a difficult aspect of overcoming addiction for both substance and behavioral addictions. With substance addictions, the physiological aspects of withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable like a bad flu, or can even be life-threatening. For this reason, it is a good idea to talk to a doctor about the best way and the best place to quit a substance.

You can also talk to a doctor about medications that can help you cope with the symptoms of withdrawal.

Fortunately, most of the acute symptoms of withdrawal pass within a week or two of quitting. However, some people who quit an addiction find that certain withdrawal symptoms seem to go on and on. This is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), and it can continue for weeks, months, or even years in some cases.

In addition, addictions can sometimes mask underlying mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and even psychosis. If you are feeling blue or agitated, or you are concerned that the world or other people seem strange or upsetting since you quit, talk with a doctor. There are effective treatments that can help.

Avoid Relapse

While it can be disheartening and frustrating, relapse is quite common. However, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, relapse does not mean that treatment has failed. The chronic nature of addiction means that relapsing is often part of the quitting process.

Around 40% to 60% of people working to overcome a substance use disorder will relapse at some point. However, it is important to recognize that this rate is comparable to relapse rates for other chronic health conditions such as hypertension and asthma.

Common reasons for relapse include:

  • Cravings: Cravings are strong urges to use or engage in addictive behavior, and they are common during withdrawal. They can also creep up suddenly and unexpectedly weeks, months, or years after quitting. Although they can feel intense, you can learn to cope with cravings.
  • Thinking you can have "just one": Another common cause of relapse is thinking you have control now and one drink, high, or binge, for example, won't matter. It might and it might not. You might find you don't even enjoy it anymore, or it could be a slippery slope to using regularly or excessively again. But it could even mean overdose or death.

Dangers of Relapse

Relapse is common, but it can also be dangerous and even fatal in the case of some substances. The risk of dying from an overdose is extremely high if you have been through withdrawal because your tolerance of the drug will be much lower than it was before you quit. Make sure you have someone with you if you decide to use again.

Remember that relapse is not a sign that you have failed. The first thing to do when you realize you have relapsed is to understand what happened. Understanding why you relapsed is often one of the most important parts of truly overcoming a substance use disorder.

Once you understand your triggers, you can put things in place to reduce the chance of relapsing again. You can then apply what you learned from the first time you quit or cut down to be more successful next time.

Tips for Overcoming an Addiction

Quitting is a different experience for everyone. Some people find it empowering. Others find it painful, difficult, and frustrating, sometimes needing many attempts before achieving their goal. Still, others discover new sides to themselves during the quitting process (a greater capacity for compassion, for example).

There is no "right" way to feel while you are quitting. However, if you are feeling depressed or find yourself constantly wanting to return to the addictive behavior, you should seek support and treatment.

Anticipate Changes in Relationships

Your relationships and friendships are likely to change as you overcome your addiction. It may take time to appreciate a new normal. However, it can also take time and effort for trust to be re-established if you have hurt friends or family while you were actively involved in your addiction. Strengthening positive relationships with the supportive people in your life can play an important part in your recovery and continued abstinence.

Avoid Replacement Addictive Behaviors

Addictive behaviors have similar neurological and psychological processes and create rewarding feelings and sensations, so replacement addictive behaviors are common among those trying to overcome an addiction. Focusing on finding rewarding, healthy strategies that support your long-term recovery.

Find Distractions

Look for things that will help occupy your time and keep your mind off of drug cravings. Even simple things like talking to a friend, watching a television show, reading a book, or going for a walk can provide a sufficient distraction while you wait for a craving to pass.

Treat Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions

The other important aspect of avoiding replacement addictions is to address any underlying mental health problems. Substance use commonly occurs alongside other mental health conditions.

Research has found that of the 20.3 million adults in the U.S. who have a substance use disorder, 37.9% also have another type of mental illness.

Addictions can cover up past trauma or underlying feelings of emptiness, sadness, or fear. Psychological therapies, as well as medications, can provide long-term relief for these problems, which addictions tend to worsen over time.

A Word From Verywell

There is no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to addiction recovery. Lifestyle changes, behavioral therapy, medications, and mutual support groups may all play a role in your treatment, but it is important to find the approach that works best for your needs.

Long-term recovery is not a final destination but rather an ongoing process of facing and coping with life without retreating into addictive behaviors. It takes continuous commitment, which can waver at any time—particularly times of stress.

Seek help when you need it. Others in recovery or professionals who work in addiction understand that you still need support.

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