It’s a well-worn assumption that once we enter rehab, we leave in recovery with our addictions completely conquered. If only life, recovery and the addiction cycle were this simple.
Many of those who have been through the doors of South Pacific Private more than once will attest to the fact that just because you’ve knocked one addiction on the head, it doesn’t mean you’re free. In fact, the evidence suggests that you’re highly likely to pick up a new addiction to replace your old one.
Tori Siggery, Inpatient Program Manager at South Pacific Private Hospital refers to this as the ‘Whack-a-Mole Effect’. You know that old carnival game where you whack the mole down with a mallet, only for another to pop up in its place? “It’s is the perfect analogy for what many people experience when they go into recovery for addiction for the first time” says Tori, “unfortunately, it’s often the reason people come back to rehab for second or third stints.”
For those who have experienced life in addiction, they likely know the feeling. When we stop drinking, we might start smoking. When we stop using drugs, we might start gambling. When we stop gambling, we may start excessively shopping. Each time we remove an addiction to a substance or process, we ultimately have an urge to substitute it with something else.
Why do our brains seek out substitutes?
When we’ve been living with an addiction, we’ve essentially trained our brains to crave. The further into the addiction we get, the harder it is for us to feel the natural release of dopamine we get out of life’s every day pleasurable experiences. Bit by bit our tolerance for a substance increases the more we use, as the high we seek becomes harder and harder to get. It happens quickly and it happens easily. But re-wiring or unlearning this pattern once we’re clean of a substance isn’t so simple.
The symptoms of withdrawal from an addiction can be physically painful, and so it’s natural that our brains will seek out reprieve with something else that brings us pleasure as we slowly detox and bring our levels of dopamine back to normal, functional levels.
This is the danger zone, where many people transfer their past behaviour of addiction from one thing, to another in an attempt to remove the unpleasant feelings associated with sobering up.
How to avoid the Whack-a-Mole
Recovery from addiction is a long journey, and one that should be approached from a holistic perspective; addressing the past history or trauma that may have occurred in order for the addiction to take hold in the first place. By undertaking deep, self-analysis we often uncover parts of us that we didn’t know were holding us back in life, and it can be extremely liberating for many people to discover why they may have developed an addiction. This knowledge and self-awareness is often what reduces the shame and self-blame that people with addiction can experience. Tori’s advice? “Get some professional help. Whether it’s reaching out to your doctor, a therapist or attending an AA meeting, the more work you do on yourself, the more likely you are to address the underlying cause of addiction and stop the cycle of seeking out a high”.
There are some other things we can do to avoid addiction replacement as well. “It sounds simple, but it’s a good idea to try and replace your addiction with healthy things” says Tori. “Whether it’s yoga, surfing, writing, or meditating, find something else to fill that void and nourish yourself spiritually”. Otherwise says Tori, we run the risk of filling the void with something less than desirable, and re-entering the painful cycle of addiction. On certain ‘healthy’ habits, Tori warns “we do still need to be careful. It is possible to form an addiction to something traditionally perceived as good for us, such as exercise which when taken in excess can lead to detrimental health outcomes.” The same goes for clean, or healthy eating patterns which can quickly become disordered and develop into Orthorexia, which is an obsession with eating healthy food.
Finally, Tori says it’s also important to know your triggers. “When we’re triggered, we’re actually re-igniting that learned behaviour from our past addiction. It can be an incredibly powerful neurological response, and one that’s hard to respond to with reason and control.” But, Tori says, if we know what to look out for then we can avoid the triggers, or pre-plan our response to them. “Think back to when you were in your addiction, and what triggered you to act. Then, write it down” says Tori. A trigger may be as simple as a particular time of day (like a Friday afternoon or Saturday night) or it could be something specific, like a particular route home after work that takes you past the bottle shop. “Plan your triggers” says Tori “I can guarantee that they will surface from time to time, but if you’ve got strategies in place, your chance of addiction replacement or relapse goes down significantly”.
If you’re replacing one addiction with another, reach out for help
At South Pacific Private we treat the entire addiction cycle and are committed to helping clients and their families achieve long-term, sustainable recovery. If you or someone you love is experiencing addiction replacement or relapse, reach out to our caring Intake Team for a free, confidential discussion about what help is available on 1800 063 332, or take an online assessment now.
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