7 min read


Mariah Parker

Coping With Cravings And Setbacks On The Path To Recovery

Whether you are in recovery yourself, just starting your recovery journey, or supporting a loved one, we want you to know that every recovery experience is valid, and everyone deserves to feel better.you to know that every recovery experience is valid, and everyone deserves to feel better. To lend a little extra support, we gathered your most important questions about recovery on Instagram and asked our therapists who specialize in recovery for advice.
Coping With Cravings And Setbacks On The Path To Recovery
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It is National Recovery Month, a time when we celebrate the process of recovery from substance use disorders and raise awareness of their impact.

Whether you are in recovery yourself, just starting your recovery journey, or supporting a loved one, we want you to know that every recovery experience is valid, and everyone deserves to feel better.

To lend a little extra support, we gathered your most important questions about recovery on Instagram and asked our therapists who specialize in recovery for advice.

What are the steps of recovery?

The recovery process is a deeply personal one, so it will not look the same for every person going through it.

“Recovery is a journey which is unique to each individual and involves much more than refraining from particular substance or behavior,” says Yechiel Benedikt, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Recovery is a process of reconnecting with and honoring one’s true self, finding a sense of meaning and purpose in one’s life which is consistent with one’s personal values and healing from past negative experiences or actions.”

A recovery journey may have more steps, or fewer. The person in recovery may have periods where recovery is more or less difficult, and even times when they slip. That said, there are a few stages of the process that are common, and the first step is nearly universal.  

“The first step of recovery is to develop an awareness that there is a problem, explains Emma Demar, a MyWellbeing community member and NYC therapist. “ You can't recover if you are in denial. There needs to be clarity around what the issue is that you are trying to recover from.”

In the first stage of recovery, the person may also notice that they need additional support or request that support. “The first step in recovery is acknowledging that we are not in total control of our and that it is quite impossible to recover without help, support and guidance from others,” says Yechiel Benedikt.  “Even when we have accumulated a chunk of clean time, assuming that we are okay without support or accountability is typically what leads to relapse.”  

Once the person has become aware that there is a problem that they may need additional support in solving, the next step is choosing to move forward. Emma Demar notes: “It's about making the decision to recover. This needs to come from the individual in order for recovery to be successful, otherwise the individual will not be able to fully invest themselves in the hard work that recovery entails.”

After making the decision to recover, there are many paths people can take, from therapy to inpatient treatment to 12-step programs. “[Recovery can] involve going into program, it should include therapy,” John Kaplan, a MyWellbeing community member and NYC therapist, explains. But every step you take in recovery includes a love of oneself. That's the part that's healing, and lasting...”

It is so important to remember that the steps of recovery aren’t linear and that there could be setbacks along the way. A single mistake does not mean that your recovery journey is over.

“People get stuck on a linear journey and that encourages a sense of failure if they don't follow the "right" path, says Michael Shawe, an NYC therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “What's most important is developing a sense of self awareness and compassion for the parts of you that you dislike, as well as finding activities and connections that replace the sensations you're getting from these substances. You will make mistakes. When people punish themselves for their relapses, they tend to amplify the problem. Instead, breathe and acknowledge your journey and that it is long. Once you feel calmer, then hold yourself accountable and explore what triggered you.”

How do you try to reduce intrusive thoughts surrounding cravings during recovery?

A good starting point to coping with cravings is accepting them as a part of your recovery process.

“Cravings and feeling triggered to use are a normal part of recovery.” notes Elizabeth Wynn a MyWellbeing community member and NYC therapist. “It’s important for the person in recovery to identify the craving in the moment and recognize that it will pass.”

Once you accept that cravings are a normal part of the journey, it is easier to start to incorporate practices to help weather them. Here are a few of our therapists’ suggestions:

Start by normalizing intrusive thoughts.

“It is important to normalize that intrusive thoughts will occur throughout the recovery process,” notes Jessi Kupfer, an NYC therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “Being aware of the thoughts is the first step! Once an individual has the awareness, they can pause for a moment to reflect on what they're thinking. Answering some of the questions that pop up "why am I feeling this way?" "what would happen if I engage in that thought?". This creates space to make better choices and work on what we can control. Utilizing mindfulness and working towards accepting that these thoughts and questions exist are important. Sometimes when we try to make a thought go away it only highlights how present the thought is. This can perpetuate negative feelings about the thoughts we feel we can't control.”

Learn how to self-soothe.

Joanne Davies, a hypnotherapist and MyWellbeing community member, recommends a self-soothing routine to cope with cravings: “Find a physically soothing act that can be done anytime, anywhere. Some nice ones are stroking the back of the hand or touching the thumb to a finger tip (like in yoga mudras) or having a good slow soft blink! Practice putting some real caring intention behind that act when you’re not gripped by cravings so you have it down for when you’re not at your best.

“It also helps to say something encouraging at the same time, something like “I noticed. I am so proud of myself in this moment for riding it out.”

“The trick is to apply this salve to the craving as soon as you notice it and every time you notice it.  The more you notice and the more you remember to do it the more automatic it becomes. At the start you might notice you do it a hundred times  a day when the cravings are bad. You might even like to count them. That way you’re counting your victories and you’re noticing how the number comes down; and it really will come down.”

“Surf” your cravings.

"An exercise I have found particularly useful for people who experience cravings is 'urge surfing,'” says New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member Deana Capozziello. “[Urge surfing] shifts the experience of cravings from judgment/fear/powerlessness to being curious and present with it, allowing the person to wonder about the deeper need underlying the urge to misuse.”

“When practicing urge surfing, you imagine the 'urge' as an ocean wave and then, while practicing deep and intentional breathing, imagine riding that wave on surfboard through its peak and decline without being overtaken by it or 'wiping out'.  

“It's important that following this exercise to reflect on any thoughts, emotions or sensations that felt intolerable while urge surfing.  These often underlie or trigger the cravings, so through the exercise rather than being overtaken by urges you stay with them noticing what is happening with curiosity and noticing how these urges ebb and flow."

Write about what you’re experiencing.

As you reflect on the emotions, thoughts, or sensations that were unpleasant or intolerable, it can be helpful to write down what you’re experiencing. You can also review your writing to look for patterns and identify underlying triggers for cravings that you can reduce or avoid.  

“Journaling can be a helpful tool to mitigate the anxiety that occurs, says Michael Shawe. “Getting the thoughts out of your head and down on paper can help ameliorate the pressure and haunting nature of these thoughts. Try this prompt: What does my body need right now?””

Avoid people, places, and things that trigger cravings.

Once you have identified the thoughts, places, and people that trigger cravings for you, it can be helpful to avoid them during your recovery.

“One way to decrease the likelihood of cravings or intrusive thoughts is to stay away from people, places, and things that you associate with your drug of choice,” explains Shannon Gunnip, a New York City therapist and MyWellbeing community member. “For example, if there is a friendship or relationship in your life that is centered around the addiction, you may be more likely to feel triggered around that person because your brain or body may associate that person with your drug of choice.”

While reducing your contact with triggers can reduce the cravings you experience in recovery, you will likely still experience intrusive thoughts. ““Intrusive thoughts are inevitable,” says Josh Ring, a psychotherapist and MyWellbeing community member. “When someone is in the process of recovery, it could be very helpful to become aware of the feelings they are having when they become flooded with unwelcome thoughts. Are they overwhelmed, angry, lonely, sad?”

“If intrusive thoughts do occur, it is important to bring awareness to them in a nonjudgmental way,” Shannon Gunnip says. “Bringing awareness to the thought or craving is necessary because that awareness allows us the ability to choose a healthy distraction from the thought until it passes. One of my favorite grounding exercises for moments like this is to count 3 things you can see, 3 things you can hear, and 3 things you can touch.”  

When I’m working with a patient I am very aware of how difficult it is for them to live without the comfort provided by substance they have decided to go without. They are now forced to confront the unbearable feelings that were previously washed away by drugs and alcohol. It’s so important that they connect with a sponsor or a friend who they can connect with when they just feel like they are going to lose it and act out on destructive impulses.” -- Josh Ring

Connect with yourself and others.

In recovery, it is important to reach out in addition to looking inward. “Connect to yourself, connect to others,” says John Kaplan. “Intrusive cravings happen when we are trying not to know what's happening inside us, what we really need. They can be deeply related to unmet needs from our past. Destructive cravings are a last-chance distraction from connection from our feelings, our real needs.

Work on your cravings in therapy.

Therapy can be a powerful tool to help you work through your cravings and all the other ups and downs of your recovery journey.

Therapy also gives you the opportunity to connect to another person in a supportive and nonjudgmental space. “In this time of Covid it's especially hard to find that connection,” says John Kaplan. “The antidote is reaching both into yourself and out to others. In the work I do as a therapist, I help people learn how to reach out for help when sometimes that's what they never could do.”

Dean Olsher, an EMDR and music therapist, incorporates EMDR with addiction protocols to help people reduce cravings. He explains: “In this work, clients acknowledge what are called maladaptive positive emotions. These are the good feelings that may have drawn someone to start using a certain substance in the first place. What started out as a neutral coping strategy can tip over into unhealthy and/or dangerous territory. Bringing this understanding into our conscious awareness is a key first step in discovering healthier ways to connect with the positive emotions we seek."

There are so many different forms and approaches to therapy that could help you; try our quiz to figure out which type of therapy could work best for you or match with a therapist!

How do you stop yourself from being depressed during recovery?

If you are feeling depressed during your recovery, you are not alone.

“Depression during the recovery process can often be related to the stigma associated with addiction, which will hopefully be diminished once we learn to be more accepting and less judgmental and realize that addiction is a result of trying to cope with emotional pain and not simply negative or immoral behavior,” notes Yechiel Benedikt.

Larissa Gollub recommends that you recognize the emotions you’re experiencing: “Instead of denying the feeling, acknowledge and embrace it. Try to not judge yourself for feeling depressed nor make assumptions about the future when you are feeling down. Remind yourself that feeling depressed is expected during the course of recovery.”

Keep a daily schedule.

Making a plan for how you will spend each day and sticking to it can help you incorporate healthy habits that will ease both your depression and your recovery itself.

“Be encouraged to stay on a structured schedule daily, including eating healthy, engaging in physical movement, and any other safe activities that keep you busy,” suggests Larissa Gollub.  “Do this in a mood-independent way, meaning your mood may be telling you that it doesn't want to do any of this, but you will command your brain to tell yourself that keeping active is what will help you manage the depression. Write this statement in your own words. Then input this statement in your cell phone as a recurring reminder several times daily.”

Get some exercise.

Among its numerous benefits, exercise has been shown to reduce depression.

It’s important to make exercising as easy as possible for yourself if you are feeling the loss of motivation that often accompanies depression. “Move! Commit to at least 45 minutes of vigorous activity that feels challenging AND fun,” says Michael Shawe. “If it's too hard, you'll avoid it. If you're new to movement, find a personal trainer or a friend who knows fitness to help you get started. If you move and it's attainable your self esteem will improve and your mood will improve as well.”

Staying active can help you start to identify the activities that help you feel better and find other ways to improve how you’re feeling. “Stay active; as much as possible, move towards things that nourish you,” advises John Kaplan. “Recognize the "freeze" part of flight/flight/freeze response. Be mindful of when you get caught in it. Make a conscious choice to reach out for help, even if that's difficult.”

Therapy can help.

If you are already working with a therapist to support your recovery, speak with your therapist about your depressive feelings. Your therapist will be able to help you manage them, or find another specialist to support you.

If you are not working with a therapist, finding one to support you can help you feel better.

“When someone is in the process of giving up on using substance they are in a state of loss not unlike mourning the death of a loved one,” says Josh Ring. “They often feel, rightfully so, that something essential to who they are is missing . It’s going to take time to get through this stage. This is where therapy can be very useful. A strong therapeutic relationship can help a patient to process all the difficult and unbearable feelings that arise when a person makes the courageous choice to stop using drugs or alcohol. It’s ok to be depressed, that’s probably the right feeling at this stage in someone’s life.  But therapy provides a way out through the power of talking and understanding all the other feelings that are available to have.”

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About the author

Mariah was Head of Growth at MyWellbeing. She is a marketing expert in the areas of content strategy, digital advertising, business growth, and anything related to helping therapists grow their practice.

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