When someone suffers from substance abuse disorder (SUD) or alcohol use disorder (AUD), it’s often difficult for the people around them to understand what’s going on and why the person simply can’t stop. “If they wanted to, they’d just quit” is a common statement. But recovering from drug or alcohol addiction involves so much more than willpower.
The Challenge of Addiction Myths
No matter how much qualitative information is shared in the news, through scientific research, or by reputable treatment centers, many people still don’t consider addiction a medical disease. Here are some of the typical stigmas involving addiction and willpower:
- It’s a character or personality flaw. This has a lot to do with our moral perceptions and how someone is “good” or “bad” if they use substances and become addicted.
- “Addicts” are bad people. Even the most strident efforts of addictions specialists rarely change the minds of people who believe a person with an addiction needs to be punished rather than given help resolving physical, emotional, and mental issues. Unfortunately, many people struggling with AUD or SUD feel this way, too, which is why only 10 percent of all people with these disorders seek necessary treatment. This stigma also contributes to damaging self-talk and labels.
- Addiction is a choice. This line of thinking is where the myth of willpower overcoming addiction takes root. Yes, someone often makes a conscious decision to use drugs or alcohol. The domino effect of addiction begins once these chemicals begin to alter brain processing and bodily functions, creating an uncontrollable pattern of compulsive use. No amount of willpower can completely combat this result.
- Addiction can be cured. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, addiction can be treated effectively, just like other chronic health conditions such as asthma or heart disease. But it cannot be cured—only managed successfully for a lifetime. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism agrees.
When people break away from the myths of addiction and work toward understanding how comprehensive treatment enables someone to examine the underlying reasons for their behavior and what can be done about it, this is when traits such as steadfast resiliency and willpower can benefit recovery efforts.
What Is Willpower?
The American Psychological Association says researchers apply the following definition to willpower. We’ve reprinted it verbatim to take each point individually and apply it to the addiction myth concept:
- The ability to delay gratification, resisting short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals
- The capacity to override an unwanted thought, feeling, or impulse
- The ability to employ a “cool” cognitive system of behavior rather than a “hot” emotional system
- Conscious, effortful regulation of the self, by the self
- A limited resource capable of being depleted
Having willpower or determination seems simple on the surface. Let’s set up an example.
When you’ve experienced success with a particular habit, such as exercise, your willpower to stay the course is easier to muster because you want to do it.
But if you have a problem with prescription opioids, as well as chronic pain, you might want to stop, but your brain and body chemistry has changed because of the medication, and your pain threshold is now hypersensitive, requiring even more medication to achieve the same effect. This is debilitating both mentally and physically. Why the difference?
- You have the willpower to exercise after overcoming minor challenges because regular movement provides your brain with endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine that helps you associate short-term discomfort with end goal achievement. By contrast, an addicted brain’s reward center is fed false chemicals that require a higher or more frequent push each time, so delayed gratification doesn’t result in achievement.
- If you wake up groggy one morning and don’t feel like exercising, there’s not a compulsion forcing you to do so. You can take today off and know it will be okay. But uncontrolled compulsivity is the root of addiction—there’s rarely an option to avoid it.
- With a habit like exercise, naturally-boosted “feel good” chemicals make it easier for your parasympathetic nervous system to keep you calm, “cool,” and collected. When someone has SUD or AUD, chemically-induced compulsivity overrides logic and rationality, negatively altering behavior.
- When you choose exercise to help clear your head or release nervous energy and stress, you’re using what psychologists call an internal locus of control to maintain well-being. Someone with biology affected by untreated AUD or SUD loses this ability to self-regulate.
- Even people who suffer a minor injury and can’t exercise for a while often find different ways to stick with it if the routine of movement is important to them. They can employ a “mind over matter” principle, within reason. However, a person whose mind, body, and spirit is damaged by substance abuse might spiral ever downward and lose hope, purpose, and faith in themselves because of how their brain chemistry is altered. When these negative emotions are compounded, “just quitting” simply isn’t an option.
Treatment Helps Boost Willpower
One of the reasons why 12-Step programs advocate “one day at a time” is because when you’ve found the courage to seek treatment and set a goal for recovery, each day of sobriety is an achievement. One day becomes five. Then 30. Then 180. Every point in the definition of willpower suddenly makes sense. When your mind and body are free of chemical dependency, it’s easier to use education, therapeutic methods, social support and, yes, willpower, to stay sober because you want to.
If someone you love has a problem with addiction, talk with them about your concern for their health and assure them you’ll support their efforts for treatment and recovery. If you’d like to know more about entering rehab, our admissions specialists are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to help.