Willpower, Addiction, and Recovery

woman looking stressed, with hand on head, thinking - willpower

Too often, someone who doesn’t understand addiction as a brain disease might say, “Well, if they really wanted to quit, they would.” This myth is all too common, and makes it even more challenging for people to consider substance abuse treatment and recovery. Willpower alone can’t help stop addiction—but it might aid aspects of recovery in the future.

Willpower: What It Is…and Isn’t

Also known as the “psychological science of self-control,” the American Psychological Association (APA) defines willpower as “the ability to resist short-term temptations in order to meet long-term goals.” The APA outlines other important characteristics:

  • 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.

The APA shares data from Roy Baumeister, a psychologist and willpower researcher at Florida State University. He outlines three primary factors that help people accomplish their objectives:

  • Internal motivation for change and the establishment of a clear-cut goal
  • Monitoring behavior to achieve that goal
  • The application of willpower, or impulse control

This seems like a simple step-by-step process, right? For many people, it can be. But for people struggling with drug or alcohol addiction, there’s a critical component missing from this equation: impulse control.

Why Addiction Is Compulsive Behavior

According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the definition of addiction is “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviors that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”

Substance use disorder (SUD) and alcohol use disorder (AUD) develop for numerous reasons, but one primary biological cause is that the ventral tegmental area—the reward and motivation center—of the brain is hijacked by chemical substances. This region releases high levels of dopamine, creating cravings associated with whatever substance caused that response. This impacts cognitive function and decision-making ability.

Further, the brain develops “reward prediction errors” or cues associated with the substance, which manifest into compulsive behaviors to achieve a reward the same as or greater than the reward provided by the substance.

Actual Mind Control

No matter how powerful key external factors might be to help someone have the willpower to just quit using—such as family, friends, home and employment security, and others—the physiological control addiction has on a person’s brain activity makes stopping difficult.

This is why treatment often unfolds in stages. SUD and AUD can’t be cured, but like other chronic diseases, they can be managed effectively. Professional addiction treatment teaches clients to develop methods of willpower and self-care that will help them maintain a healthy way of life.

How to Improve Willpower During Recovery

Can we increase our willpower, or self-control? Scientists say yes, but with a caveat: when someone has to exert more willpower in other areas of life, it’s more challenging to stick to healthy behaviors that require self-control. This is another reason why willpower is considered a limited resource. None of us can be expected to get chewed out by the boss, drive home in stressful rush-hour traffic, and walk in the door to find the dog has been sick all over the living room floor without getting a little frazzled.

Someone in recovery requires a larger toolbox of resources to help support their capacity for self-control. Here are some ideas:

  • Foster healthy routines and rituals. These provide numerous benefits, including a focus on purpose and priorities, connection to our core values, and a form of ceremony that enhances our mental and emotional well-being.
  • Expand holistic solutions. From yoga and proper sleep habits to breathing techniques and whole-food nutrition, these and other practices prop us up when we need it the most.
  • Choose alternative pain management therapies. No one can be expected to handle pain—especially chronic pain—gracefully or suffer in silence without difficulty. Fortunately, there are many remedies for people in recovery.
  • Learn to manage anxiety. Whether you have an anxiety disorder or tend to worry a bit too much when circumstances are out of control, daily care routines and support groups help provide balance.
  • Clarify and resolve elements of trauma. You don’t deserve to be stuck in an endless loop of cause and effect, and healing from trauma will allow your internal resources to replenish more quickly.
  • Understand your relapse symptoms. No one recognizes these better than you do—but a true example of determination and self-control is if you’ll take action to get a handle on them before the situation becomes too dire.

Learning to build resilience and willpower takes time, but your journey of recovery is a lifelong process of self-discovery and a testament to your power of perseverance.

Build a Strong Network of Support through Cottonwood Tucson

Another essential component to your ability to improve willpower is to have a network of support you trust. Alumni of Cottonwood Tucson can use the CaredFor app to connect, engage, and support one another. We also have an active private Facebook group and share valuable information on our public page.

Willpower alone won’t change the course of addiction, but evidence-based treatment will. Call us today if you or a loved one is ready for the promise of healing.

Looking for a Tucson, Arizona addiction rehab? For more information about Cottonwood Tucson, call (800) 877-4520. We are ready to help you or your loved one find lasting recovery.

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