The Rules of Recovery for Alcoholism

In order to be successful in treatment for an alcohol use disorder, it is important to follow some established rules of recovery. These rules can reduce the risk of relapse and make your journey toward an alcohol-free lifestyle more attainable.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), alcoholism, which professionals diagnose under the clinical term “alcohol use disorder,” is a lifelong brain disease that involves difficulty giving up alcohol, in spite of serious consequences, such as health issues or problems at work (1). Despite the chronic nature of alcohol use disorders, these conditions are treatable, and people can achieve lasting sobriety with proper recovery services.

Rule Number One: Stay in Treatment

The NIAAA recognizes alcoholism as a chronic brain condition, meaning that ongoing treatment is necessary. If you had a chronic medical problem such as heart disease, you would certainly stay in treatment to manage your health. The same consistency with treatment is required for alcohol use disorders, or there is a risk of returning to drinking.
As Dr. Steven M. Melemis has explained in The Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, people may begin to forget about their addiction or feel that they have nothing left to learn, so they stop going to treatment. Over time, this way of thinking can lead to relapse, so it is important to stay engaged with self-help meetings and other forms of treatment (2).

Rule Number Two: Avoid People, Places, and Things

Experts also report that one of the key pieces of recovery is avoiding people, places, and things associated with addiction (2). This means that you will likely have to avoid old drinking friends or bars where you used to drink during the height of your addiction. It can be difficult to give up old friends, but setting boundaries and avoiding situations that may trigger you to begin drinking again is necessary if you want to stay abstinent.

Rule Number Three: Change Your Way of Thinking

Another key component of recovery is changing your way of thinking. It is easy to become stuck in negative thinking patterns such as, “I can’t live life without alcohol,” or, “I’m no fun unless I have a few drinks.” These ways of thinking are dangerous and reinforce your addiction. Cognitive therapy may be necessary to help you change your negative thought patterns and replace them with a healthier way of thinking that promotes recovery (2).

Rule Number Four: Don’t Deny the Addiction

According to Dr. Melemis, denying that you have an addiction can lead to relapse. He defines some people in recovery as “denied users” meaning that they plan to start using again at some point. Eventually, denied users will convince themselves that they have learned enough in treatment that they can begin drinking again without losing control. They may feel that they can safely use alcohol in moderation, but this sort of thinking leads to a return to alcohol abuse (2). Instead of denying the addiction, it is important to recognize alcoholism as a chronic condition, regardless of how long you have been in treatment. You must acknowledge the addiction and accept that returning to alcohol use, even in moderation, can bring it back to life.

Rule Number Five: Practice Self-Care

Self-care is an essential but sometimes ignored part of recovery. It is important because it provides people with a healthier outlet for stress. After all, a study in Health Education Research found that 97 percent of substance abusers reported they used substances to relax, and 87 percent stated that relieving depression was a reason for using (3).

Instead of turning to alcohol to deal with stress or unpleasant emotions, you can utilize self-care methods. Exercise may be a particularly effective form of self-care for those in recovery. A recent research review published in the medical journal PLOS ONE found that exercise reduced depression and anxiety and increased abstinence by 69 percent among people in treatment for addictions (4).

Rule Number Six: Recognize That Relapse Happens, and Learn From It

One misconception about the recovery process is that relapse means failure, but relapse is a common and normal part of recovering from alcoholism. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, research shows that 40 to 60 percent of people in treatment for substance use disorders will experience a relapse (5).

While relapse is unfortunate, you should view it as a learning opportunity instead of a failure. After a relapse, you can take time to evaluate what triggered the relapse and what you can do differently to avoid relapse in the future. Hopefully, experiencing a relapse will help you to identify your triggers for drinking so you can manage them better moving forward. Chances are that you can also evaluate the previous five rules, determine where you fell short, and make a plan for incorporating the rules into your recovery journey.

Regardless of where you are in your recovery from alcohol abuse, sticking to established rules of treatment can increase your chances of achieving a life free from alcohol. Remember that it is important to stay in treatment, even if you feel you have nothing left to learn, and if you think that you have been sober long enough to experiment with alcohol again, you will likely set yourself up for failure, even with just a drink or two. Whether you have been sober for five weeks or five years, it is also important to continue to stick to self-care, practice healthy ways of thinking, and avoid people, places, and things associated with your alcohol use. These strategies can help you to stay abstinent over time, but if you encounter a relapse along the way, view it as an opportunity for growth and make a plan to recommit to the rules of recovery.

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