What is the Connection Between Addiction and Impulsive Behaviors?

Connection Between Addiction and Impulsive Behaviors

What is the Connection Between Addiction and Impulsive Behaviors?

Connection Between Addiction and Impulsive BehaviorsFor many people, impulsivity or impulsive behavior and risk-taking behavior go hand-in-hand with substance use disorder or “addiction”. This means that, even when completely sober, people with substance abuse problems are more likely to engage in impulsive decision-making, risk-taking behaviors, and otherwise very quickly jump to things. However, impulsive behaviors have a complex relationship with addiction and substance abuse.

For example, impulsive behaviors are one of the leading risk factors behind substance abuse. People who are impulsive are less able to say no, more likely to make risky decisions like substance use, and more likely to take actions that could put them in danger. At the same time, substance abuse can increase impulsivity and sensation-seeking by changing how the brain works, which means that impulsivity will get worse as you continue to use.

That’s further complicated by the fact that people who are very impulsive often have complications from trauma, stress, and adverse childhood experiences. This means that the same factors which increase the likelihood of addiction are also likely to increase impulsive behaviors.

Impulsivity and Pleasure-Seeking

The thing that most people think of when they think of impulsive behavior is pleasure-seeking. Here, impulsive people may have a hard time saying no to things that make them feel good. They may quickly and with little thought do high-risk activities that result in adrenaline and a rush of feeling good. Think impromptu car races, binge drinking, binge eating, skipping school or work, etc.

These kinds of behaviors are often driven by a desire to feel good, usually as a result of learning poor coping mechanisms, trauma as a child, or brain development.

In some cases, pleasure seeking can look fairly normal. In other cases, it can look like seeking out extreme experiences, akin to going after roller coaster rides and bungee jumping. More often, it means someone who drinks or uses drugs, goes out too much, and indulges in fast food, sugary drinks, and other chemical ways to feel good.

Eventually, that puts you at risk of substance use disorder, because it means you’re exposed to substances, sometimes very regularly.

Sensation Seeking after Exposure to Drugs and Alcohol

The more you use drugs and alcohol, the worse sensation seeking is likely to get. For many people, this means that substance abuse results in the brain reducing its production of serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin. That means you feel less in response to whatever you’re doing. Therefore, you need more of the drug, the alcohol, or an even more gratifying experience to feel the same amount of pleasure from it. That quickly deteriorates into a pattern of escalation that can become dangerous.

As a result, using substances for sensation seeking very often results in a chronic condition with patterns of building tolerance, increasing usage, and dependence.

Stress Response

Impulsive people often use sensation seeking to manage stress and to feel good around negativity. As they use drugs and alcohol to do so, they reduce their ability to feel good in other ways, while increasing stress from mental and physical health problems, job stress, interpersonal relationship turbulence, and hangovers. That means an increase in stress and an increased need for sensation-seeking behavior.

As a result, people who are in this position often need to feel good more and more just to cope with daily life. The stress response refers to how the brain changes to adapt to drug use, which results in a vicious cycle where you feel bad and want to do something that feels good, but nothing feels as good as it used to, so you keep using more.

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self-medicationSelf-medication is a very closely related phenomenon to both the stress response and sensation seeking. However, here, the individual is specifically drinking to feel “not bad” rather than to “feel good”. That makes this a different response. However, it is one that impulsive people are extremely vulnerable to. Here, people are very likely to:

  • Drink alcohol to destress
  • Take extra pills or more than their prescription in case of pain
  • Use medication outside of a prescription
  • Preemptively take painkillers or drink to prevent stress and pain
  • Feel like they need a substance to cope with a problem

People who use substances to self-medicate typically start out doing so on an impulsive basis. “I feel bad and I know this will make me feel better”. However, like with sensation-seeking, it can very easily get out of control. That’s especially true when people self-medicate for stress, chronic illness, or other frequently recurring issues. And, with stress, drinking or using to cope with it actively makes the situation worse, because drinking and using do eventually create more stress in terms of financial stress, relationship friction, fatigue, reduced capability at work, etc.

It also means that the people who are most likely to be vulnerable to impulsivity are also the people most likely to be vulnerable to substance use disorders. That means people with recurring, existing, or chronic mental health problems from stress, depression, anxiety, or a mental health disorder.

Adverse Childhood Experiences and Impulsivity

The Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study was conducted during the 90s, with over 17,000 participants at the Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The study tracked how trauma at an early age impacted brain development as well as vulnerability to physical and mental health disorders. It found that more exposure to traumatic experiences resulted in an increase in impulsive and risk taking behavior. It also found that traumatic experiences before the age of 14 were significantly likely to impact physical and mental health problems, greatly increasing vulnerability to substance use disorders, mental health disorders, and even physical illnesses.

Therefore, the same factors that result in impulsive behaviors also result in substance use disorders.

In Short:

Impulsive behaviors increase risk of substance use disorder by increasing exposure to substances. They also make it harder to say no to further exposure because of sensation seeking and self-medicating patterns. People who are impulsive look for fast and easy fixes to stress, strong and negative emotions, and problems in their life. They also want to feel good, to experience highs, and to escape when they want to. That means impulsive people are very vulnerable to substance abuse. In addition, impulsivity gets worse as you use drugs and alcohol, which exacerbates the original issue further.

Getting Help

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, it’s important to reach out and get help. Today, your treatment options include behavioral therapy like CBT, which will help you to assess the underlying reasons behind addiction, to cope with stress in a healthy way, and to build healthy responses and behaviors that can help you to get in control of impulsivity, cravings, and difficulty managing substances in a healthy way. Addiction is a complicated disorder that’s impacted by hundreds of factors ranging from stress and environment to genetics and upbringing. At the same time, you can learn to manage it and you can get in control of your symptoms and your life. That may take months or even years of therapy, but having risk factors and having personality that contributes to a vulnerability to addiction does not mean you’re stuck with it. There is help and it will allow you to get your life back.

How to Stay Clean and Sober Over the Summer

sober friends on road trip during summer

How to Stay Clean and Sober Over the Summer

sober friends on road trip during summerIf you’re in early recovery, you know that recovery is a journey, you have to keep working for it. That can seem intimidating around things and events where you’d normally party or drink and use drugs or alcohol. For many of us, summer is about vacations, time off from school and work, and getting to party. For some of us, that can be intensely triggering. In other cases, it can mean facing the prospect of a “boring” summer, without the usual outlets of getting to let go and party.

The good news is that there are plenty of things you can do to have a great summer without drugs and alcohol. However, you might have to put in time to plan that summer. You might have to figure out what you can do, explore fun things to do, and look into ways you can feel social, get excitement, and enjoy being around others without drugs and alcohol. The closer you are to having been in recovery, the harder that might be. However, you can take steps that will ensure you stay clean and sober over the summer and hopefully enjoy yourself as well.

Mindset is Everything

It’s interesting how much of relapse is about mindset. For many of us, relapse is forwarded by finding ourselves reminiscing about the “good times” and getting to let loose, to party, to feel good. The minute you find yourself thinking in that way, it’s time to stop and reevaluate your mindset.

After all, it may be easier to let go of your inhibitions and go dancing or sing karaoke after a few drinks, but how much of it do you remember? How much of what is said is genuinely you? Do you get to make genuine connections with others? And what about the morning after when you wake up tired, dehydrated, and feeling bad? What about that? Most of us conveniently forget that drug and alcohol binges come with at least twice that amount of time of feeling bad. Correcting yourself by thinking about those bad times, thinking about throwing up, needing friends to get you home, passing out in places, being uncomfortable, having a headache – that’s all important too.

Glamorizing drugs and alcohol as part of your lifestyle is not going to get you a fun summer. However, you can actively confront your mindset when you do and make sure you remember the bad times as well.

And, having a summer without those bad times probably sounds pretty good right?

Make Sure You Understand Yourself

two friends chatting near the oceanIt’s important to know what triggers you. Chances are, if you’ve been going to therapy or addiction treatment, you’re already working on that. Understanding what is likely to trigger you means you can better plan having support networks around you when those triggers occur. You can also think about avoiding those triggers.

For most people, triggers look like:

  • Being around drugs or alcohol
  • Seeing people you used with
  • Being put in situations of stress
  • Being in situations that would previously have resulted in drinking or using
  • Being at parties or around others using
  • Being in certain environments like a beach, a bar, etc., that you might associate with getting drunk or using

For example, if you used to go to a resort in Mexico to get drunk and high over the summer, you probably don’t want to go to a beach in Mexico this summer. That will probably trigger you a great deal, and it will be difficult to avoid being surrounded by people who are heavily drinking.

Understanding your triggers means you can take steps to plan your vacation around those triggers and to have support when you can’t avoid those things. E.g., you’re going on a city trip and you know you can’t avoid bars, so you bring a sober friend you can talk to so you know you’ll get support even if you’re feeling cravings.

Here, it’s also a good idea to plan in how to react to cravings. That means figuring out how to take 15 minutes to do something with your hands, talk to a friend, solve a Rubik’s cube,

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Plan Sober Fun

two friends chatting near the oceanKnowing what to avoid is only half the battle. You also have to know what you think is fun, what you can do for fun, and where you’ll find enjoyment. You still want your summer to be enjoyable, relaxing, and entertaining. You still want to feel like you’ve had a good time. That often means planning in sober fun. What is “sober fun”? That depends on you and what you like. For most people, “fun” works out to:

  • Social time where you get to engage with others, including people you know and strangers
  • Challenge
  • Games
  • Feeling like you’re contributing or making a difference
  • Adrenaline

Not everyone will like all of these things. However, most people like at least some of them. You can work that out to:

  • Sober parties and social outings, like dance classes, where you get to engage with others without alcohol. Don’t be afraid to throw your own parties. But, keep in mind there are sober events in most areas.
  • Physical activities, especially group activities. Think dancing, skating, bouldering, and other similar activities. Swimming might be less fun because it’s less social on average unless you’re playing water polo. Hiking is a great choice whether you’re traveling or staying home.
  • Challenging activities, like bouldering, escape rooms, chess, or board games, are a great option.
  • You’ll still want to feel excitement, so do things that are exciting. That can mean taking spontaneous trips, going on rollercoasters or water slides, going skydiving, or asking people to dance. The point is that you want to feel excitement because that’s an important part of having fun.
  • Volunteering, helping out with friends, and contributing to your self-help group or family are also an important part of having fun. Especially as you move further into recovery, you’ll find that fun and enjoyment is more about building moments that are enjoyable and creating a life that is worth living, and that means giving back. You’ll find that volunteering is extremely rewarding, if not “fun” in the most classic sense.

If you’re traveling, it’s also important to make time to experience food, culture, and sights. That means hiking, eating, local music, and city trips as part of your planned fun.

Don’t Give Up Self Care Routines

Most of us learn significant self-care routines as part of rehab. That means you’ll have a routine of wake up at a specific time, eat something healthy, work out, clean a bit, do your therapy or maintenance homework, go about your day, come home, eat something healthy, clean up, have a bedtime routine, go to bed at about the same time every night. The order of that can differ a lot but all of those elements should be in it.

Here, it’s important that you stick to that routine as you go about your summer. It doesn’t matter that you might not be going to college or to work, you might be in a different location, etc., but you should still maintain the self-care routines. That normally means that you should exercise about 80% of days, you should eat healthy meals about 80% of the time, and you should go to bed at the same time about 80% of the time. It’s okay to give that up for 2-3 days of short vacation, but other than that, you should stick to your routines so you can maintain your self-care and your mental health.

If you think you’re struggling or you’re not sure about getting through the summer clean and sober, it’s always a good idea to ask for extra help. That can mean signing up for a self-help group at your destination, it can mean signing up for telehealth therapy, it can mean going into treatment over the summer. It’s important that you ask for the help you need so you have the support you need to get through your summer clean and sober.