The issue of addiction relapse is a familiar one to many alcoholics and addicts. It seems there are forces at work beyond our own awareness, consciousness, and control that make us go onto automatic pilot when we are about to relapse. Many times addicts & alcoholics try to understand why they have relapsed and what happens before they pick up that drink and/or drug. It has been a somewhat frustrating experience to understand why – even in the face of complete destruction – that well meaning people with the best of intentions do what they do not want to do.

I remember when one of the participants in Prana Recovery Center’s Relapse Prevention Program picked-up. I was stunned!  Completely caught of guard and having my belief that our six pillars of wellness will bullet proof anyone from relapse shattered was difficult.  After all, it is a relapse prevention program. My first thought was “We failed him.” I  thought I had to immediately tweak the curriculum, create more engagement, and foster deeper relationships between participants.  I was devastated.

Then, through my mind/body practices of yoga, meditation, and prayer, talking with recovered people that I know and trust, and speaking at length with the participant, I found a golden nugget.  What the participant said was yes he relapsed but he didn’t drink to oblivion for weeks and months on end and find himself at yet another detox.  He said “The practices I am learning at Prana actually helped me immediately get right back on track.”

This gave me hope and curiosity to investigate what happens during a potential relapse. Some of the possibilities I have considered when trying to understand why relapse (“strange mental blank spot” is how AA’s Big Book describes it) is so prevalent include being on autopilot without awareness and brain loops that have been created by repeated experiences of picking up. There is also the mistaken belief, for some, that because we get sober we will no longer experience pain, loss, and suffering.

Often times a relapse is preceded by an internal or external event that is upsetting.  Lets say we get some disappointing or devastating news. For example, we get the call that we didn’t get a job when we were sure we would get a job offer. The disappointment, financial insecurity, shame, anger, etc that immediately surge, if left unnoticed, will quickly be in charge of our behavior.  These intense emotions make a drink or a drug look like a good idea.  And we have tried this experience before and the brain tells us that a solution is to pick up.

Bringing awareness to these intense emotions is one way to diffuse them so they are no longer in the driver’s seat. By naming these emotions, actually feeling where they are in the body, and describing them as what they are (pressure, swirling, tingling, numbness, etc.) there power is diminished and we have an opportunity to pause and interrupt the loop (habit) in the brain that is used to us automatically picking up a drink or drug when difficult emotions reign.

So how does one get this awareness?  It cannot just be wished for and it will appear.  Just knowing about it is not enough either.  We must practice working with awareness. This awareness comes about by practicing mindfulness and is exactly why mindfulness is one of Prana’s six pillars.

This habit loop within the brain is formed by repeated behaviors (relapse) to cope with difficult moments and eliminate suffering. We get stressed, we use, stress is temporarily removed. Feel stress again. Repeat. Again and again. Of course the difficulty is that we are never solving the root cause of our stress.   It is like putting a band aid on a severed limb.

Every time we give into our addiction we reinforce the neurological pathways that convince us time and time again that picking up will solve our problem.  This habit loop does not include recognizing that by giving into this urge we are creating more suffering for ourselves and likely others and not really solving the problem that activated the loop to begin with.

So how do we interrupt deep, unconscious habits and behaviors? Can we have an urge and not act on it? The good news is that yes we can!  Essentially it is learning to ride the urge through specifically observing the experience.

Front View of Abstract Human Head with Brain. Stock Vector Illustration. Abstract Triangle Human Brain. Abstract Concept of Human Brain.

Between Stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.  Victor E. Frankl

Overcoming The Brain’s Habit Loop To Defend Against Addiction Relapse

Dr. Judson Brewer, the director of research for the Center for Mindfulness, and Dr. Tara Brach, psychologist, and others, explain a four step process for breaking the habit loop by using mindfulness.  The acronym is RAIN:

R- Recognize & relax into the fact that you are romancing your addiction

A -Accept & acknowledge that the wanting exists. Do not suppress or deny that the urge is strong.

I – Investigate what the urge feels like.  Be specific. Get curious.  Look.

N – Note and label where there is tension, contraction, shortness of breath, etc. Whatever shows up, name it specifically.

It is important to be aware that what happens right before a relapse can be identified and labeled in order to activate the necessary pause to avoid yet another relapse.  Whatever we are experiencing really just comes down to bodily sensations. That’s it. It is actually not personal even though it feels it.

Just because we no longer drink or drug does not mean life will always be rainbows and puppy dogs.  We still experience pain and suffering at various degrees throughout our life.  Through mindfulness practice we can realize these experiences are just a part of being human and are not personal.

We are neither exempt from suffering nor destined to be a chronic relapser.