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September 11, 2018


September is National Recovery Month, and it’s an opportunity to learn more about what it means for a person to seek help for an addiction and the challenges he or she faces to attain recovery and stay sober.

Compulsive Behaviors Indicate Potential for Relapse

September 11, 2018

September is National Recovery Month, and it’s an opportunity to learn more about what it means for a person to seek help for an addiction and the challenges he or she faces to attain recovery and stay sober. In my work as a substance abuse counselor at ThedaCare Behavioral Health, I have a special interest in helping people in recovery to prevent relapse. Many people think that a relapse, or return to using drugs or alcohol after a period of sobriety, is an in-the-moment decision; however, relapse is generally not a singular event. Most often, it’s a process that takes place over a few weeks or months, and sometimes even years. Research shows that people in recovery start to exhibit thought patterns and behaviors far in advance of their actual return to using. For people in recovery, their families, and counselors, the key is to recognize these behaviors and intervene before active addiction begins again.

Many behaviors that hint at a potential relapse are compulsive in nature. These behaviors—compulsive shopping, exercise, sex, work, or use of other drugs including “safe” drugs like caffeine or nicotine—are indicators a person is feeling uncomfortable and increasingly susceptible to relapse. It is a good idea to develop new interests and friend groups, especially if a person is separating from friends or routines that involve using. The key is to engage in new activities in a healthy way, where the person in recovery maintains free choice and control over his or her activities. When a person seeks pleasure in a new interest, like cooking, exercising, or even redecorating, the objective is to engage in these activities as positive outlets. A positive outlet is different from a compulsive behavior because it is a healthy, moderated pleasure that does not result in pain after-the-fact.

The pain-producing process can go like this: an interest in cooking could turn into a food addiction, and redecorating can lead to unrestrained shopping and spending. A person who begins to exercise can develop a substitute addiction that results in an obsession that rivals the same harmful addiction he or she once had to drugs or alcohol: time away from family, excessive spending, and feelings of moodiness and withdrawal when exercise is not possible or accessible. When the individual in recovery, or his or her family, sponsor, or counselor recognizes the development of a compulsive behavior it’s an indication that a relapse could be on the horizon.

It’s helpful to recognize this tendency for addiction replacement because being out of control in any area of one’s life cannot lead to true sobriety and recovery in the long run. Here are some signs of compulsive behaviors that can indicate an addiction replacement and potential relapse to substance abuse: obsessive thoughts about the new activity or vice; losing sleep to participate in the new activity; trouble at work, school, or home; troubled relationships; neglecting self-care or personal hygiene; and experiencing stress or anxiety if unable to participate in the new activity.

One of the most important things we can do to support people in recovery is to understand that addiction is not temporarily tied to one substance or vice. Addictions are the result of a craving to fulfill a need, and if that need remains unmet, a person can transfer his or her addictive behavior from one substance or habit to another. If you or someone you love is in recovery for an addiction and shows signs of developing compulsions, it means your recovery work needs a boost. Step up and ask for help from your counselor, sponsor, or sober support group. Yes, September is Recovery Month, but every moment matters when it comes to living in recovery.

Caitlin Reider is a substance abuse counselor ThedaCare Behavioral Health.

About ThedaCare
For more than 100 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to finding a better way to deliver serious and complex healthcare to patients throughout Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization serves over 200,000 patients annually and employs more than 6,700 healthcare professionals throughout the region. ThedaCare has seven hospitals located in Appleton, Neenah, Berlin, Waupaca, Shawano, New London and Wild Rose, as well as 31 clinics in nine counties and the ThedaCare Regional Cancer Center in Appleton. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving our specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a non-profit healthcare organization with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs as well as a foundation dedicated to community service.