How to Support Loved Ones Battling Addiction from Afar

3 helpful strategies that you can use in order to help your loved one in recovery when you're far away.

Addictions are a serious problem that affect millions of people in the United States and around the world. According to the statistics of the Addiction Center, almost 21 million Americans have at least one addiction, yet only 10% of them receive treatment. Addictions destroy not only the life of the person who suffers them, but they impact the whole family. They can break marriages, as well as relationships with friends and family members.

In this article, we will discuss three helpful strategies that you can use in order to help your loved one in recovery when you're far away.

How does addiction to alcohol work?

Alcohol abuse is widespread in America, and because it’s socially accepted, it is often overlooked, which makes it harder to stop until it’s too late. As in many cultures around the world, many Americans suffer from alcohol abuse disorder without knowing it. Everybody drinks with their buddies, everybody celebrates with alcohol, and you can get used to having too many beers without realizing how it happened.

Like most psychiatric disorders, substance dependence, whether it’s alcohol or another drug, is the result of the effect of genes and environmental factors acting together. However, in the case of addiction, the environment is a key fundamental component. Several psychosocial factors predispose someone to addictions, such as presenting another mental disorder, emotional instability, and traumatic experiences in childhood.

In the case of addiction, the environment is a key fundamental component.
Why is it so hard to fight an addiction?

Addiction is hard to fight because substances like alcohol modify the functioning of neurotransmission systems and brain circuits, producing cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes. In other words, these substances activate the brain's reward circuit, which includes certain structures of the limbic system, using the same physiological mechanisms as natural reinforcers (water, food, sexual behavior). When we are fighting an addiction, the battle is taking place in the deepest structures of our brains, which makes it really difficult. However, it’s possible to win, with the help of professionals, institutions, and support systems.

How can we help our loved ones through their recovery?

What happens to a person in recovery from alcohol or other substance abuse when they are left alone for some time? Psychological treatment in combination with pharmacological treatment is essential to achieve success, but social support is a key factor in overcoming addiction. There are three strategies that you can develop if this is your case, and you have to leave your family member for some time and go away.

1.     One day at a time

One of the most important motivational phrases in Alcoholics Anonymous is «One day at a time». This means that you have to focus on just one day, the present day, and try to keep sober for 24 hours. It’s a really powerful motivational strategy because as an addict, the idea of spending the rest of your life without the substance is overwhelming and heartbreaking. On the other hand, if the person just commits to staying sober for 24 hours, one day, it seems feasible. And in this way, if they are feeling desperately lonely because you are away, and you are worried about them relapsing, help them to repeat this affirmation every morning: just for today. It will be easy to keep in touch briefly every morning and remind them to think of the following 24 hours.  

2.     Keep a detailed diary

One of the main goals of individual cognitive-behavioral therapy in substance abuse disorder is the identification and prevention of situations and stimuli that can trigger consumption. In other words, identifying and avoiding risky situations is a key step in recovery. Keeping a detailed record of such situations can train the person in recovery to recognize them in a faster and more efficient way and to avoid them easily. Your loved one can journal every day about risk situations they foresee or they have avoided successfully. Then, they can share these journal entries with you so that you encourage them to keep on writing or you can help them clarify some situations.

Imagine that your son, who is in recovery, has to move to another state, and you want to help him keep this therapeutic journal. You can help him write about possible risky plans and suggest other alternative activities that are healthier for him. Handling group pressure will be another challenge he can write about, and you can remind him of specific ways to do it, which will reduce his anxiety.

3.     Identify and fight cravings

The more intense the reinforcing effects of a given substance, the more persistent the memories related to it will also be, and the more intense the craving to experience them again. There will be triggers for cravings, and it’s important to help the person in recovery to detect them. These can be emotional triggers, for example, a conflict with somebody, feeling lonely, or a social situation that causes anxiety. The important action when the addict is experiencing craving is to stop it by doing something else. A useful way to help in this case is to ask your loved one to call you or text you whenever they are experiencing a craving for alcohol, as they would call their sponsor in AA. In this way, they will stop the action of having the drink they desperately crave by calling or sending a message. Once they have reached you, you can help them find an activity that will break the cycle in their mind: go running, take a walk, or swim.

As we have seen in this article, recovery is possible, and supporting the person who is fighting addiction from far away is possible as well. The strategies we have described are practical and easy to follow. However, the most important condition for recovery is the decision of the addict to stop abusing alcohol or other substances. Although the support from their family members and friends is important, their will and their honest intention to become sober are what will really enable recovery.

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