One reason so many people find sobriety challenging is that so many of their habits are built around drinking. Maybe you are in the habit of stopping at the pub on the way home from work, or maybe you open a beer when you sit down to watch television. Drinking is associated with use of other drugs, and people who try to quit the drugs without quitting drinking usually find themselves using drugs again. Smoking is highly correlated with drinking too, and people who quit drinking without quitting smoking have a higher rate of relapse.
When you get sober, you may also find other bad habits sneaking in. Maybe you quit drinking, but now you eat sweets all the time and you’re starting to gain weight. In the long term, obesity is almost as unhealthy as drinking.
The problem is that eliminating a habit is hard. It leaves you with nothing to do and bad habits love to fill a vacuum. A more efficient strategy is to replace a bad habit with a good one, or at least a neutral one. It still takes a bit of effort at first, but it’s the effort to start a ball rolling, not the effort to push it up a hill.
The first thing to do is try to understand why you do a particular habit. A smoke break might only partially about the cigarette itself and mostly about having an excuse to go outside for a few minutes and chat with coworkers. Is there some other behaviour that could serve the same purpose? Probably several. Maybe you could take a short walk or meet a colleague for coffee.
The simpler the substitution the better. If one action is just as easy as another but has a better outcome, there’s almost no cost to adopt it. For example, it’s just as easy to order water with lunch as soda and water is cheaper, healthier, and will help you stay at a healthy weight.
Another example is when people quit drinking and replace beer with fizzy water. If you’re used to coming home from work, sitting down on the sofa and opening a beer, a fizzy water works just as well. It has the same satisfying crack when you open it and it becomes part of the ritual separating the work day from leisure time. The only caveat is that you don’t want a new habit that is familiar enough to trigger a craving.
Obviously, replacing one habit with another won’t solve all your problems. You want to be especially careful about replacing one addiction with another. Replacement habits are a relatively painless way to make incremental improvements in your lifestyle, which will support your recovery in the long run.
Castle Craig is one of the most established and respected addiction rehab centres in the UK. Castle Craig provides consulting psychiatrists who diagnose associated mental illnesses like anxiety states, depression, ADD, PTSD, eating disorders, compulsive gambling, and compulsive relationships. For information, call our 24 hour free confidential phone-line: 0808 256 3732. From outside the UK please call: +44 1721 788 006 (normal charges apply).
Page last reviewed and medically fact-checked | January 29, 2020