What Is the Role of Willpower In Addiction Recovery?

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The word “willpower” is a double-edged sword when it comes to recovery from addiction. On the one hand, it’s important to recognize addiction as a disease, and not a lack of personal will—most people can’t “just stop.” But, some form of personal determination is essential in any challenging journey. So, where is the line? How does willpower fit into overcoming addiction?

As with other tricky aspects of recovery, the right approach is always whatever is most effective in helping you get better. But since there is significant controversy around addiction and willpower—including among treatment programs—let’s take a closer look at this issue, and how “will” really fits into recovery.

To Begin With: Why Addiction Isn’t Just About Willpower

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Photo by Vicky Sim on Unsplash

When faced with a friend or loved one who has an addiction, some people may ask, “Why don’t they just quit?” But “just quitting” isn’t that simple.

Addiction is a disease that changes the brain. Alcohol and drugs activate your “reward circuit,” which reinforces activities like socializing, eating, and sex. The brain encourages you to seek the pleasurable effects of these activities again and again, causing cravings.

Eventually, the reward circuit is over-activated, and it takes more alcohol to experience the same pleasurable effects. It becomes difficult to feel pleasure from anything other than alcohol.

The brain’s “stress circuit” also becomes more sensitive with long-term alcohol use. When someone stops drinking, they experience feelings like irritability, unease, and anxiety. These uncomfortable feelings motivate people to drink again. For some people, drinking becomes less about enjoyment and more about avoiding these unpleasant feelings.

Finally, long-term alcohol use impairs decision-making, impulse control, and the ability to think critically and solve problems. This makes it even more difficult to overcome cravings and the unpleasantness of not drinking. The nature of addiction means that even the strongest-willed individual likely needs more than willpower to change their relationship with alcohol.

“White-Knuckling” Through Recovery

The term “white-knuckling” has become a popular way to describe what it feels like when you try to quit on your own, through sheer willpower. Many people in recovery programs describe their difficulties with this—how impossible and draining it can feel to battle constant cravings without support.

There are reasons many people try to “white-knuckle” it. Misconceptions about addiction may cause people to believe they should be “strong” enough to overcome alcohol addiction alone. They might feel that it’s “weak” to seek help. They reason that they can exercise more, keep busy, and find more positive friends and activities.

While these are healthy life choices, they don’t get to the root of problem drinking. Alcohol misuse is typically rooted in issues like trauma, mental disorders, or chronic stress. Overcoming it means changing your thinking and behavior patterns, and learning healthier coping mechanisms.

White-knuckling recovery very rarely works. And for people who believe they should be strong enough to go it alone, relapsing can cause feelings of failure and shame. Often, the result is a deeper slide into heavy drinking.

Admitting that you have a problem and asking for help is a sign of strength. It takes vulnerability and courage. Will plays an important role in addiction recovery—you have to want to stop drinking to actually stop. But force of will needs to be combined with support, and asking for that support is its own form of bravery.

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How Different Programs Handle Willpower and Addiction

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Different approaches to recovery take different approaches to the question of addiction and willpower—the debate can even get heated at times. How well a program’s attitude meshes with your own perspective can affect which treatment works best for you.

12-Step Programs

The 12-step program was introduced in the 1930s by the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). As the name implies, it involves 12 steps to addiction recovery, and one of the main concepts is surrendering control to a higher power.

This begins with step one, which requires participants to admit they are powerless over their addiction and that their lives have become unmanageable. The second and third steps respectively involve believing that a higher power can “restore sanity,” and turning their will and lives over to the care of God “as [they understand] God.” Four of the remaining nine steps also reference a higher power, including Step 6, which asks God to remove “defects of character.”

The higher power does not have to literally be “God,” and AA is not affiliated with any specific religion. The higher power is meant to give you strength, courage, and something to lean on throughout the journey. For some people, it’s spirituality, the universe, or nature.

When it comes to willpower and addiction, programs like AA acknowledge that an additional source of strength is necessary to make a change. However, some people feel that language like “restore sanity” and “remove defects of character” implies that addiction is still the result of a moral failing or weakness. Some also feel uncomfortable with treatment that relies on belief in a higher power. And, despite the spiritual element, overcoming cravings in AA can still feel like “white-knuckling” for many.

Medication-Assisted Treatment

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is another form of support for people struggling with alcohol addiction. MAT involves medication combined with other forms of therapy, and it often has a higher success rate than traditional rehab and programs like AA alone.

Medications like naltrexone, acamprosate, baclofen, topiramate, and gabapentin help reduce cravings for alcohol. Baclofen and gabapentin, as well as benzodiazepines, can also help manage withdrawal and the unpleasant emotional and physical sensations it causes. This reduces the pain and stress associated with “white-knuckling it,” and makes willpower much more effective.

MAT also incorporates additional support, from medical supervision to behavioral therapies and recovery coaching. Addressing the issues at the root of problem drinking can also make behavioral change easier.

Addiction Counseling

Just as AA provides community support for the psychological challenges of quitting, professional counseling can give you insight and tools to persist in the change you are seeking. Some people will seek out a professional therapist for regular sessions. Recovery coaching, which focuses on helping people overcome barriers to recovery and stay the course, is another option.

Recovery coaches provide motivation and encouragement throughout the recovery journey. They can help you set goals, identify triggers, and learn new coping mechanisms. They can also assist you in finding local resources, assessing your progress, and adjusting your treatment plan as needed. The aim is to help you reduce stress, shame, and stigma as you work to change your relationship with alcohol.

Coaching is not the same as therapy, and is more focused on the here and now, giving you practical strategies to bolster your willpower. Rather than implying a lack of personal will or character, this kind of support emphasizes what you can actively do to make a positive change. You’ll still need personal determination to apply the tools and techniques you learn, but coaching gives you some trusted guidance as you go through this difficult process.

Willpower and Addiction Recovery: The Takeaway

The first step to changing your relationship with alcohol is wanting to change it—for yourself, and not just for others. Recovery is a challenging and often long journey. Willpower is essential to sticking with it.

But willpower alone isn’t enough to overcome a powerful disease like addiction. A variety of options like 12-step programs, medication, and recovery coaching are available to support you in making a change. Tapping into these resources is not a sign of weakness or a lack of willpower. Getting help and being strong-willed doesn’t need to be a contradiction.

Ultimately, different people need different things. It’s up to you to choose the tools and resources that will work for you, and which form of support matches your attitude towards willpower. Most importantly, addiction is not a sign of poor character or weakness. If you can’t overcome it through sheer force of will, that’s perfectly normal, and nothing to be ashamed of.

For more information on medications, coaching, online groups, and other forms of support, get in touch with the team at Ria Health.

Written By:
Ashley Cullins
Freelance writer with contributions to numerous addiction blogs and a passion for relatable content.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Writer specializing in targeted, informative content. Dedicated to making the abstract accessible.
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