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Addictive Thought Patterns – What They Are + How To Break Them

An addiction affects more than just the way you use drugs or alcohol. Addiction can change the way we think, the way we feel, and the way we behave as well. 

At the most fundamental level, an addiction is a series of brain changes that make it hard for people to stop drinking or using on their own, creating addictive thought patterns that can be difficult to overcome. 

But by understanding these addictive thought patterns, you can challenge them – creating a pathway away from addiction and toward a better life in recovery.

How Addictive Thought Patterns Come About

The last decade of addiction neuroscience research has made it abundantly clear that using addictive substances creates lasting brain changes, hijacking the brain to encourage substance use. 

Most of these changes occur in the dopamine reward pathway, a group of brain structures that are responsible for learning, repeated behaviors, and anticipation.

In an unaddicted brain, the dopamine reward pathway encourages people to socialize, eat great food, and pursue hobbies or activities they find enjoyable. 

But addictive substances overload this pathway with levels of dopamine far outside normal levels, making these activities pale in comparison to the effect of drugs or alcohol.

When these pathways change, our thoughts change with them. 

It creates the phenomenon of craving. It diminishes less rewarding hobbies. It encourages us to pick up another drink, to push sobriety off for another day, and to disregard the consequences of our actions so that we can use drugs or alcohol again.

Thankfully, you can rewire your brain – but it takes time

The brain has a remarkable capacity for regrowth and recovery, and sobriety will revert these changes if you give it a chance. 

But first, you need to learn how to overcome the addictive thought patterns which can hold you back.

A man wrestling with addictive thought patterns stares in contemplation over a balcony
addictive thought patterns

Common Addictive Thought Patterns

Addictive thought patterns are the things we tell ourselves that keep us going back to our drug of choice over and over again. 

They’re what holds us back from recovery and pushes us away from making meaningful progress in our lives. While these thoughts can come in several varieties, they typically fall into the following categories:

  • Rationalization
    • “One more won’t hurt.”
    • “If you had my problems, you would drink too.”
    • “I’m only hurting myself.”
    • “I need to use drugs because of _____.”
  • Denial
    • “I can stop anytime I want to – I just don’t want to.”
    • “My addiction really isn’t that bad.”
    • “I only use recreationally.”
  • Isolation
    • “Other people just don’t understand.”
    • “I’m better off without them.”
    • “They’re just going to judge me.”
  • Hopelessness
    • “I’m never going to get better, so why try?”
    • “I’ve failed before, so I shouldn’t try again.”
    • “Treatment just doesn’t work for me.”

These are just a few examples – and the thought patterns holding you back could be totally different. Some people struggle with shame and guilt, while others hold a sense of superiority or inferiority that blocks them from achieving recovery. 

But importantly, just because you think these things doesn’t mean they are true. 

You are not your thoughts. 

Addiction has set hooks into your brain which creates these addictive thought patterns, and you can break free if you start the path to sobriety.

Breaking the Cycle of Addictive Thoughts

Whether you’re still living in addiction or well into your recovery, you can start to dismantle these addictive thought patterns through concentrated effort. 

Breaking the cycle isn’t always easy, nor does it always happen in a straight line – but by reading this article, you’ve already taken the first step towards meaningful change.

You’ve already contemplated whether these thoughts affect you – the next steps are to identify the particular thought patterns that you want to change, challenge them with new lines of thinking, and resist the urge to act on your first impulse. 

1. Identify Patterns that Don’t Serve You

The first step is identifying the addictive thought patterns that are holding you back. This requires a bit of self-reflection, and it can be challenging at first to differentiate between helpful and harmful thoughts. If your goal is sobriety, ask yourself:

  • “Does this move me towards recovery, or away from it?”
  • “Am I being honest with myself, or distorting the truth to serve my addiction?”
  • “Is there another more accurate description I’m not thinking about?”

It can be helpful to work through your thoughts with a supportive friend or counselor, who can provide a more objective perspective of your situation. 

Alternatively, writing these thoughts down can help to view them from an outside perspective, and keeping a journal of your thoughts can be tremendously beneficial.

A woman sits on the floor with a bottle of wine, wrestling with addictive thought patterns
how to change addictive thinking

2. Challenge These Thoughts

Once you’ve identified the patterns of thoughts you want to change, the next step is to challenge them when they occur. 

For example, let’s take one of the most common addictive thoughts that people experience on their path to recovery:

  • “I can’t stay sober. Every time I’ve tried to stop drinking or using, I’ve relapsed – so I shouldn’t bother trying.”

This thought is obviously counterproductive to your recovery – and can lead you back to substance use if it isn’t challenged. When you have a thought like this, say to yourself:

  • “I haven’t been able to sober up before, but that doesn’t mean I’ll fail this time.”

In the beginning, you may need to challenge your thoughts regularly throughout the day. But as your brain begins to heal, and you build more time in recovery, the process gets easier. 

3. Take Contrary Action

No matter which addictive thought pattern you’re facing, they all lead to a similar conclusion: another drink or another dose. 

When your thoughts are slipping towards relapse and you’ve challenged whether they truly serve you, it’s time to take contrary action.

This could be any number of things: go for a jog, spend some time in meditation, or reach out to a supportive friend. 

Train yourself to do anything other than acting on the initial impulse caused by addictive thinking patterns, and eventually they’ll lose their power. 

Resources to Help

Overcoming thought patterns that have become habitual is no easy task – and reaching out for professional help is often the quickest way to make progress. In fact, the steps outlined above are some of the same strategies used in cognitive behavioral therapy, as well as a number of different evidence-based mental health treatments. 

Reaching out to a therapist can provide expert insight into putting these strategies into practical application and offer a stable source of support and encouragement in the healing process.

If you cannot or would rather not meet with a therapist, you can find many of the strategies and resources therapists use in a book called Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy by Dr. David D. Burns.

And of course, there’s always addiction support groups who are ready to help people achieve recovery. Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, and SMART Recovery are all great ways to find support and learn new ways to overcome addictive thought patterns.

The journey isn’t easy, but you can break free from addiction – and the patterns of thoughts and behaviors that come along with it.

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