Most people who choose to get sober have some sort of motivation driving them to do so. They might feel that their addiction is becoming an existential threat, and they begin to realize their mortality. Or they suddenly realize how the damage they’ve been doing to themselves and others has come to hurt not only them, but the ones they love – something they can’t forgive.
But these thoughts, no matter how powerful they are, don’t last forever. There are very few forms of motivation that are long-lasting, but all motivation is ultimately fleeting – and it needs to be maintained.
But to understand how to keep motivated, it’s important to figure out what motivation even is. How do we motivate ourselves? What factors go into how long we can stay motivated? And what role does motivation have in addiction, a disease that affects portions of the brain directly related to motivation?
How Addiction Affects Motivation
It’s definitely true that it takes a lot of motivation to stay sober. The thing about addiction is that it typically is not something we want to give up.
A person has become ‘addicted’, or affected with a substance use disorder, when their behavior and thinking reflects changes in their mind caused by long-term substance use.
Substances like alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, opioids, and methamphetamine, have long been researched and revealed to interact with the brain in ways that temporarily and permanently change our thinking. Some of the effects of drug use are reversible, and others are not, based on how much of a drug was used, and how severe the drug use was.
This matters because the long-term effects of drug use are reflected in parts of the brain that are dedicated to mood, decision-making, planning, reward, and motivation.
An addiction quite simply means that the brain has been warped into prioritizing the substance above all else – often drastically altering a person’s physical state and behavior over time as a reflection of how their thoughts have become centralized on the high. It begins subtly, but devolves over time, making it more difficult to resist drug use.
Regaining Control in Sobriety
During abstinence, when a person quits using the drug they are addicted to, the brain shifts and readjusts. If caused abruptly (quitting cold turkey), the shift causes withdrawal. Any drug, regardless of whether it is addictive or not, can cause withdrawal symptoms if it is taken often enough.
This is because drugs affect how the brain works, even if they don’t trigger the mechanism that causes dependence and addiction (this is true even for the most benign medications). Abruptly quitting throws the body off its equilibrium, as it has become used to a certain substance in its system.
In drug addiction, withdrawal symptoms can be quite severe. A unique symptom in addiction-related withdrawal is the craving, a powerful feeling of longing after the drug due to how the body prioritizes it in order to achieve another high.
Over time, cravings lessen, and the brain begins to heal. Portions of the brain that were directly affected by drug use begin to return to their former self. Some aspects of drug addiction are never truly remedied – some argue that the urge to use never goes away, but simply grows weaker.
Yet in order to withstand the effect that addiction has on the mind, a person must continuously fight their own instincts to use again – they have to go against their own wishes and seek motivation from places outside of their own mind. To an addicted brain, the easiest way to overcome the struggles of sobriety is to just use again.
Treating addiction often means helping an addict recognize this thought process and subvert it, using sobriety as an opportunity to grow and change. In one way, this includes helping recovering addicts create their own motivating factors.
Motivation must be understood as a collection of factors that influence change and behavior. Firstly, it’s important to see that we only truly require motivation when the objective is to change.
It takes more energy to do something differently than it does to follow the status quo – mentally-speaking, motivation is a reason for us to deviate from the norm. During addiction, the continued use of drugs is the status quo – despite its destructiveness, the drug use itself allows a person to ignore the damage it does and focus on the chemical high it provides.
Overriding that requires tremendous motivation because it ultimately goes against a person’s biological wishes – this is supported by the fact that as you combat addiction, you come across physical and mental withdrawal symptoms, and with newfound sobriety comes conflict, guilt, and other negative emotions previously drowned out by repeated drug use.
Rather than finding a single source of motivation, motivation is a system required to facilitate the changes that help shift life from addiction to sobriety.
In the past, motivation was seen to be a prerequisite for treatment. A person had to be motivated to get help. This motivation could only come from them. Motivation was an element that could only be brought to the table by someone who is addicted – they had to be motivated to make changes, motivated to seek help, motivated to survive the day-by-day of withdrawal and sobriety.
But as we learn more about motivation, we understand that it is far more complex than that, and that there are countless social factors that go into helping someone develop and maintain the motivation to do anything. Like all behavior, motivation can be influenced, and it can be caused.
Motivation in Sobriety
In other words, motivation can be externally developed through support systems, through sober living communities, through group therapy, and so on. It’s not just on someone to motivate themselves – it’s also on those around them to help them stay motivated and become motivated to begin with.
There is no single trick to getting motivated, but there are systems that help induce and maintain the will to continue staying sober and seeking out more sober habits. These include, first and foremost, a system of supportive family members and friends who help a person stay sober by making it easier for them to attend meetings, go to work, find things to do, and stay at sober living homes.
Motivation is also informed by how effective treatment feels, as a person is more motivated to continue being sober when they observe tangible changes in themselves and their lifestyle as a result of the choices they made under the advisement of clinicians, specialists, and friends.
They can also be demotivated as a result of failures incurred by suggestions made through others. In a way, motivation is something that must be maintained by everyone involved in the recovery process.
Different people are motivated by different things. For example, one motivating factor may be the fact that going sober enabled someone to improve their health and finally feel better or overcome a disease they had been struggling with.
It could be that their motivation is tied to the improvements they’ve been able to make in relationships with their family as a result of sobriety. Or, that they still need a motivating factor to stay sober.