If I’ve been sober for years, why do I still think about using substances?

Thoughts of relapse

Many first responders and even civilians successfully living in recovery still think about substance use from time to time. 

At some point in your journey through recovery and sobriety, you may have asked yourself, “If I’ve been sober for years, why do I still think about using substances?”

Do not worry. You’re not alone. This is a thought that most first responders in recovery experience on occasion. 

The high-stress environment and pressures of a first responder can make sobriety even more difficult than that of civilians. As you know, first responders are subject to experience more trauma than many other professions, and tough shifts or tragic experiences can easily weigh a person down. 

Maintaining sobriety can be challenging for those who are used to selflessly putting the lives and safety of others first. But, the KEY is to understand why we still think about using and how to handle the thoughts when they occur.

Don’t give thoughts power

You go through a string of six great months in recovery, you’re on track and thriving…then suddenly one day, unexpectedly, you think or even daydream about substances. Remember, these are just thoughts, do not give them power.

Unsettling thoughts of relapse often disrupt any sense of contentment built up over long bouts of sobriety. Everyone in recovery is familiar with thoughts of relapse, and thinking of it doesn’t make a person any more or less principled in their pursuit of recovery; it makes them human.

Another key distinction here lies in the understanding that thoughts of relapse do not determine relapse. If a person begins going down a path of negative thinking, there’s still time to consider the control held over their thoughts. Taking a moment to understand that thoughts of relapse are disconnected from actions can provide us with a sense of power.

Although it may be difficult to control the thoughts crossing our minds at all times, our power comes from choosing not to listen to the negative thoughts.

Risk and reward response

Often, the mind treats alcohol and substance use as a reward, especially for addicts. Chemically, the brain floods with neurotransmitters, hijacking the regulation of risk and reward responses, which allows all other positive experiences to seem inadequate in comparison to using.

On a neurological level, addicted individuals subconsciously count the seconds until the next opportunity to experience that reward. This is the reason long bouts of sobriety can flip in an instant, with the mind reverting to cravings of the past when it seeks a reward.

Reestablishing the reward system can take many years; don’t worry. In the meantime, the brain consistently desires to realize the incentive of using; refusing this drive can be difficult, as the desire originates from a chemical dependency in the brain. Ignoring these urges is less a matter of willpower and more about managing the craving to use when it arises.

Handling thoughts of relapse

If thoughts of relapse emerge, they usually surface alongside unhealthy thought patterns, many of which may seem familiar from the helm of addiction. Commonly referred to as “stinking thinking” by those who have graduated from treatment programs, the re-emergence of self-destructive thoughts signals the underlying desire to relapse. Once a person can recognize the signs of relapse, what does a person do with these corrosive thoughts?

If kept inside, they will eat away at the individual in recovery, pushing them closer to relapse. Speaking with a sponsor, trained counselors, or loved ones goes a long way in relieving the pressure created by these thoughts. If that is not an option, writing these thoughts and feelings down may alleviate some emotional and psychological burdens.

Mindful meditation is another healthy coping mechanism for thoughts of relapse, as it assists in identifying negative thought patterns and redirects the mind to think positively.

Thoughts of relapse are difficult to manage, but they point to underlying issues that could go unnoticed. As tough as they can feel, these thoughts are extensions of yourself; they require love and attention. Listening to them and learning from them is another step on the road to recovery.

About First Responder Wellness

At First Responder Wellness, we guide those ready to take the path to recovery and wellbeing. We offer various programs within a community of others who know what it is like to be in the front lines. For more information on how we can assist you, call 888-443-4898. 

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