Some people believe willpower is what’s needed most when overcoming drug addiction, but a new study provides evidence that the use of recovery strategies may be more critical than, and independent of, willpower during substance abuse recovery.
The researchers reported observations on how individuals — specifically those addicted to either alcohol or opioids — perceived their self-control and how it developed over time and provided a theoretical framework that may help better understand the application of strategies when facilitating recovery.
A total of 69 patients addicted to either alcohol, opioids or methamphetamine were interviewed over a 3-year span.
Anke Snoek, lead researcher and Ph.D. student at Macquarie University in Australia, believes willpower is commonly perceived as most critical in recovery because “in everyday cases, where self-control is required, we often rely on willpower, and willpower is often sufficient,” she said. “When we fail in these cases, to align our behavior with our intentions, it is often because we are weak-willed. So, most people understand self-control based on their own experiences with (failure of) self-control, and they think: ‘if I can refuse that second drink with my willpower, why can’t addicted people do that? They must be weak-willed.’”
“We would expect that people high on willpower would find it easier to recover from substance dependency,” Snoek explained.
Since the patients reported their own measurement of willpower, there’s a possibility that they have a false misunderstanding of willpower, however, Snoek added, “respondents gave detailed accounts of their lives and histories. I interviewed most respondents three or four times over several years. The impression I got from most people, is that they are indeed very strong-willed. In general, you need to be very strong willed and resilient to survive a life on the streets.”
Additionally, the study provided real-life examples from of patients who used skill power over willpower. Based on their responses, the researchers suspected that some participants were not as strong willed as they claimed. One participant described themselves as such, however, it was followed up with some doubt as the patient had mentioned the paradox of addiction and strong will. An additional explanation could be that the individuals are in fact strong-willed, but their willpower is concentrated on controlling ego-depleting and harsh life circumstances.
“[An] important thing that arises from our article is that addicted people do have a strong willpower,” she said. “The fact that they fail to control their substance use is not due to lack of willpower, but because will-power alone is not sufficient. I think that many people, also treatment providers underestimate the willpower of addicted people. If they learn how to use this willpower strategically they could greatly benefit from it.”
Snoek added that there was a finding that did not make it into the published version of the study. When the researchers contrasted… (continue reading) patients who attained steady recovery with those who had not, two details emerged: “One of the successful strategies concerned changing one’s environment,” she said. “The second one was controlling one’s emotions and internal states. Research has shown that emotions highly influence our self-control. When we feel miserable, our main concern — over other goals — is how we can feel better.”
The researchers concluded that although most participants characterized themselves as either strong-willed or very strong willed, there appeared to be no link among those having a self-perceived strong will and the status of recovery. Instead, the total sum of strategies used by patients differentiated those in steady recovery from those who were not. Those in recovery were also more excited regarding strategies than those who had not succeeded in controlling their drug use. Willpower only remained valuable when used strategically.
“There is not one solution in overcoming addiction. People need many strategies on different levels, they need willpower. It takes time to acquire those skills and know when to apply them,” Snoek said. “I hope the research contributes to more understanding on the struggles addicted people face in their recovery,” and “I hope this inspires people who are recovering from addiction.”