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Willpower Isn’t Enough to Stay Sober

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Willpower Isn’t Enough to Stay Sober

It’s become particularly evident lately that we live in a country which places an exaggerated value on individual choice. The mindset has reached the point of, “Do what you want, when you want—your freedom of choice comes before everything else!” This kind of thinking puts the responsibility of your own outcome squarely on your shoulders, with no assistance from anyone else. While this treatment of “choice” may work for some people, it’s usually pretty disastrous for people suffering with substance abuse. Addiction is treacherous in the land of individual freedoms. Since behavioral diseases compromise judgment, relying only on your own willpower to shake the habit isn’t enough to stay clean and sober for the long term. This is partially why recovering addicts acutely suffer during quarantine: most recovery programs hinge on ongoing social support and networking to stave off relapse, which is far beyond willpower.

Beyond Willpower

Behavioral Diseases Inherently Compromise Willpower

Although there has been improvement in recent years, mental health still carries a heavy stigma. The very idea that some people’s judgment and willpower are influenced by different brain chemistry erodes at the sanctity of individual freedom. It’s the main reason many Americans seem to turn their nose up at people struggling to stay off their drug of choice. When addiction doesn’t affect you or anyone close to you, it’s easy to dismiss the notion of behavioral diseases as a lack of willpower.

This common condescension is rooted in ignorance. Alcoholism was declared to be a medical illness by the American Medical Association in 1956, and it was eventually classified as an official disease in 1987. Behavioral diseases inherently compromise the idea of willpower. While the idea of freedom of choice is alluring to many, it is a luxury not afforded to everyone. That freedom of choice too often returns recovering addicts to the bottom of a bottle. But there is no shame in willpower not being enough: it is a useful asset in moments of strength, but recovery has so many more tools that go beyond that and actually utilize proven psychology.

Recovery Tools Beyond Willpower

Rehab sets the gold standard for teaching recovering addicts how to rewire their thought processes. The most popular methods lean heavily on targeted therapies that are specifically catered to those who suffer with substance abuse.

  • WRAP Therapy

    The outline of WRAP is typically done with a rehab therapist upfront, but it can be updated and revisited long after detox and residential treatment are over. WRAP is an acronym for Wellness Recovery Action Plan, and it serves to outline crisis planning, a personalized wellness toolbox, and daily sober maintenance. These are all important components to staying sober, and many of the plans include relying on a fellowship or support network (not just personal willpower).

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

    CBT comes in many forms. One that can be done pretty easily in quarantine is playing the tape. This is an exercise to address cravings—rather than keep leaning into relapse, individuals can play out the all-too-familiar scenario in their heads. Over and over. This serves to break down the diseased thought process and instill a more realistic view of one’s own limitations through repetition.

  • HALT

    This is an acronym to address problematic emotions that erode at the will to stay sober. HALT asks the individual to stop, take a second, and ask themselves if their desire to drink actually comes from another need their body has. “Am I Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired?” These four bodily states can be addressed through better means than relapse.

  • Mood Medications

    Dual diagnosis presents special complications. It describes an individual who presents symptoms of both substance abuse and an underlying mood disorder such as depression or bipolar disorder. This can become a nasty cycle as one behavioral disease exacerbates the other; however, it can be partially addressed through psychiatric medication beyond willpower. These are best handled through a referring addiction therapist and professional psychiatrist who can prescribe appropriate meds such as SSRIs or mood stabilizers. Individuals should be careful to avoid narcotic medications like Xanax, which can lead to new addictions.

  • Group Fellowship & Sponsors

    Ultimately, recovery is a social experience. The fellowship of AA and NA exist to facilitate those in recovery to lean on each other for support by sharing feelings and experiences. These are also great avenues for finding a sponsor, who can offer guidance and support particularly in the early stages of recovery.

While personal choice isn’t enough to stay sober for most recovering addicts, these tools beyond willpower offer other resources to avoid relapse and maintain a sober lifestyle for the long term.


If you or a loved one is suffering with a substance abuse problem, our counselors are available 24/7 by phone: 855-737-7363

Posted in Addiction, Health and Wellness, Recovery, Relapse