The thinking patterns of an addict play a significant role in maintaining or exacerbating addictive behaviors. We spend the most time thinking about what we prioritize the most. When an addict has negative or irrational thoughts about addiction, also known as cognitive distortion, this hinders recovery. Our thoughts can lift us or tear us down, and cognitive distortions will only fuel our anxiety and push us closer to substance abuse.
Understanding the Link Between Addiction and Thought Patterns
Understanding the relationship between our thought patterns and addiction is one of the main components for success in long-term recovery. We are what we think. While some of our thoughts may be out of our control, our thought patterns are not. What we choose to think about daily eventually creates our reality.
An article in Psychology Today discusses the link between thought patterns and reality. Jennice Vilhauer, Ph.D., says, “What we control, and where we start to create our reality, is how we perceive/interpret/think about the events in our life that generate our feelings about those events, and how we subsequently respond with our behavior.”
For an active addict, taking control of the mind—thoughts, thought patterns, and thought processes—is a part of the treatment process in rehab. Our thoughts align with our actions—so if someone constantly thinks about drinking or doing drugs, they’ll likely end up doing it if they don’t substitute those thoughts. Cognitive distortions manipulate addictive behaviors, which will curb your recovery growth—in treatment or long-term recovery.
Denial is one of the most common cognitive distortions in addiction. Many people refuse to accept their addiction because they fear the shame and judgment that comes with it. Denying your problem with addiction allows it to grow and fester while you choose to overlook it. Admitting a drug or alcohol addiction can be challenging, as nobody wants to accept they need help or treatment. When a problem is hidden and ignored, it becomes more damaging for the individual trying to cover it up.
All-or-Nothing Thinking (Polarization)
A polarized thinker with an addiction believes they must either abstain from the substance entirely or keep using it—with no in-between. All-or-nothing thinking, also known as black-and-white, is another cognitive distortion with extreme, problematic views, often perpetuating addiction and preventing recovery. This type of thinking pattern among addicts causes them to believe their only option is to get sober through complete abstinence for the rest of their life. Abstaining from substances is not invalid, but all-or-nothing thinkers take it to the extreme. Black-and-white thinkers would view sobriety as never being able to drink again or being in environments with people who drink. This way of thinking often steers addicts away from seeking treatment.
Catastrophizing is a cognitive distortion that exaggerates situations and imagines the worst possible outcomes. This type of thinking is common in those with mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and addiction. A catastrophizing thinker as an addict, for example, imagines that if they try to get sober, things will only get worse for them physically, emotionally, and mentally. Another example of catastrophizing thinking would be someone in recovery fearing the idea of relapse because it will ruin their recovery process entirely. Expecting the worse outcome in every situation causes addicts to live in fear and holds them back from experiencing and enjoying life in recovery.
Minimization as a cognitive distortion is downplaying the consequences of substance use and the severity of your addiction. Nobody wants to admit they have a problem or are struggling with anything, especially drugs or alcohol. Acknowledging that you have an addiction problem is the first step to recovery. Minimization thinking is the opposite of catastrophizing thinking—it focuses on the positive aspects of the situation while minimizing the negative aspects. Addicts with this cognitive distortion believe they can handle and manage their substance use independently. Downplaying a substance use disorder (SUD, only allows it more room to progress and exacerbate to the point where you’re no longer in control—your addiction is. Allowing your addiction to control you controls every aspect of your life—your mental and physical health, relationships, and career.
Emotional reasoning is a thinking pattern that tells addicts that their emotions are their voice of reason. This cognitive distortion is how addicts convince themselves they need drugs or alcohol to function and live. Leading with your emotions is almost always problematic and harmful to the individual and those involved, especially if one is actively using. It creates a dependence on the substance to manage and maintain emotions. Emotional reasoning in addiction recovery is particularly challenging as it prevents addicts from recognizing and addressing the underlying issues contributing to their addiction.
Justification is when the addict rationalizes their substance use to cope or feel better about their problem. Justifying your addiction is another way of refusing to admit that you have a problem and need help—like denial. Justification thinking is another type of cognitive distortion in addiction recovery that is used as a form of self-medication or a way to cope with the stress or pain the addict is experiencing. An example of justification thinking in addiction would be someone rationalizing the amount of alcohol they’ve had because it was a tough week. When we justify addictive behaviors, it enables our addiction and creates a sense of resistance to change or hesitancy to seek treatment.
Lastly, personalization is a cognitive distortion that involves taking responsibility or blame for things that are not your fault. An example of personalization thinking in addiction would be someone believing their habit is to blame for every bad thing that happens to them and those closest to them, even if it isn’t. This type of negative thinking can be problematic in addiction recovery as it diminishes self-esteem and confidence, making them feel inadequate and helpless. Understanding how to recognize and fix personalization thinking will help improve self-esteem, better understand situations, and supply an addict with the willpower to seek treatment.
Overcoming Cognitive Distortions in Addiction Recovery
Learning to overcome negative thinking patterns in addiction recovery can be challenging and draining, especially if you do it alone. Treatment programs offer professional support and individual therapies that help addicts better understand addictive behaviors and thoughts and how to correct them. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one of the most common types of therapy used in addiction treatment centers. CBT is effective in improving cognitive distortions and behavioral patterns linked to addiction. Challenging and reframing your negative thoughts are constructive for developing a more balanced and realistic way of thinking. Taking steps to overcome cognitive distortions like treatments, peer support groups, and self-reflection will help individuals maintain stability and further their recovery.