Addiction affects people from all walks of life-presidents struggling to stop smoking, doctors dependent on pain pills, elderly widows who gamble too much, and teenagers abusing stimulant drugs. Nearly a quarter of Americans have a nicotine addiction at one point or another, and more than one in seven grapple with a drug or alcohol use disorder. Overcoming Addiction: Paths toward recovery, a new report from Harvard Medical School, offers guidance for breaking unwanted addictive habits and starting fresh for 2009.
For many years, experts believed that addiction was possible only to powerful drugs or alcohol. More recently, they have recognized that excessive behaviors such as gambling, shopping, and sex also can lead to addiction. What's common to all addictions is the brain's response to pleasurable experiences, no matter what their source. Genetic research has uncovered that some people are predisposed to addiction in general, but not to a specific type. In other words, addiction is a disorder that manifests itself in many different ways.
A number of effective treatments can help people recover from addiction, including self-help strategies, psychotherapy, medications, rehabilitation programs, or a combination of these elements. All are described in this report, along with advice about coping with a loved one's addiction.
Action steps for change
If you're trying to overcome an addiction at the dawn of the new year, the following steps offer the greatest chance of success.
1. Seek help. Although people can recover from addiction on their own, others need advice and support from professionals, peers, or both. Your own doctor, a community mental health center, or a local substance abuse treatment center are good places to start.
2. Set a quit date. It might be helpful to choose a meaningful date like a special event, birthday, or anniversary.
3. Change your environment. Remove any reminders of your addiction from your home and workplace. For example, separate from those who would encourage you to be involved with the substance or behavior. If you are trying to quit drinking, get rid of any alcohol, bottle openers, wine glasses, and corkscrews. If you're trying to quit gambling, remove reminders of your gambling, such as playing cards, scratch tickets, or poker chips. Also, don't let other people use or bring reminders of the substance or behavior into your home.
4. Learn new skills and activities. Instead of giving in to an urge to use, come up with alternative activities, such as going for a walk, to keep you busy until the urge passes. Be prepared to deal with things that trigger your cravings, such as being in an environment where others are using.
5. Review your past attempts at quitting. Think about what worked and what did not. Think of what might have contributed to relapse and change accordingly.
6. Create a support network. Talk to your family, friends, and co-workers and ask for their encouragement and support. Also, consider talking to your health care provider about the method of quitting that is best for you. There may be medications that can ease the process for you, and increase your chances of success.
Harvard Medical School