Why Abstinence Is So Important During Recovery

Recovering from addiction requires a series of lifestyle changes that help individuals regain control of their lives. One of the biggest changes is a commitment to abstain or avoid drugs and alcohol entirely. Abstinence doesn’t address the behaviors, emotions, and mental health conditions that contribute to substance use, but being free of addictive substances can help individuals realize the extent of their addiction. Additionally, abstaining from drugs and alcohol can also help individuals strengthen their impulse control, think sensibly, and better regulate their emotions. Even though sobriety encompasses much more than avoiding drugs and alcohol, individuals practicing active sobriety do abstain from substances that can alter the mind.

We’ll explore why abstinence is the best choice for people in recovery in this article.

What is Abstinence?

Abstinence is the practice of restraining yourself from indulging in something. In terms of addiction, abstinence means avoiding or not engaging in addictive substances and behaviors. In short, abstinence is exhibiting self-control and restraint when it comes to drugs and alcohol. Even though abstinence isn’t easy, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) considers avoiding drugs and alcohol entirely to be the safest way to keep individuals from repeating harmful behaviors. In addition, studies have shown that the number one factor for successful sobriety is a commitment to abstinence.

The History of Abstinence

The abstinence approach to addiction recovery isn’t new. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), which began in 1935, was the first addiction program that encouraged complete abstinence. Today, most addiction recovery centers use the Minnesota Model of abstinence-based treatment. Created in the 1950s, this abstinence approach relies on 10 foundational beliefs. Even though the model was initially created for alcoholism, the approach is now used for all types of addiction.

Abstinence vs Moderation

Despite a long-lasting history of successful abstinence-based treatment, some behavioral health experts believe that abstinence may be too difficult for certain individuals to achieve. They believe in a moderation-based approach to addiction recovery instead.

The moderation approach to addiction recovery believes that people can recover from addiction by slowly reducing the amount of alcohol or drugs they consume. Also known as the “harm reduction” approach, this method was created as an alternative to abstinence-only programs, which were criticized for being unrealistic. Recovery leader Audrey Kishline rejected the idea that alcoholics needed to completely stop drinking and focused on moderation of “problem drinking” instead. Her idea was to help people who did not meet the criteria for alcoholism but still had substance abuse challenges. Many people attempt to follow the moderation method today. But the method can be risky, tempting, and unsafe.

Individuals who have a history of abuse and addiction should stay away from drugs and alcohol altogether. Trying to moderate how much is “too much” can be difficult for individuals to do. As they attempt to lessen the amount they consume, individuals might accidentally consume too much and relapse. Moderation can also make individuals feel as though they can control their substance use, giving them a false sense of wellness. Abstinence may not be the easiest addiction treatment approach, but it is the most effective. Here’s why.

Benefits of Abstinence in Addiction Treatment

Most people struggling with addiction cannot successfully moderate their substance use without full abstinence. If they could, they probably wouldn’t be addicted. Additionally, many addictive substances like drugs and alcohol lower inhibition. Even small amounts of these substances can cause individuals to lose control of how much they’re consuming. Abstinence, on the other hand, allows the brain to reset itself, which gives individuals a fair chance at making a full recovery.

Abstinence benefits the addiction recovery process because avoiding drugs and alcohol:

  • Removes all forms of temptation. Using a little bit of drugs here and there and consuming moderate amounts of alcohol keeps the door of substance use open. This may seem harmless, but individuals grappling with addiction have lost control of their drug or alcohol consumption. Allowing them to have some amount of substances can easily tempt them to want more. Some individuals may swap one substance or addiction for another. The entire process of moderation can be confusing, so actually giving up a substance entirely is typically easier. Trying to moderate consumption can feel like a never-ending punishment and pose a risk to recovery.
  • Establishes clearly defined recovery goals. One of the ultimate goals of recovery is a substance-free life. Moderation delays that goal by allowing individuals to continue to consume addictive substances, which can create confusion. Even after successfully lowering the amount of substances they consume, individuals will need to continue to lower how much they consume over time. Abstinence, on the other hand, establishes a clear and tangible recovery goal: no consumption of addictive substances. While taking the plunge may be difficult at first, individuals know what’s expected of them and can rise to the challenge.
  • Encourages individuals to seek professional addiction treatment. The moderation approach can trick individuals into thinking they have control over how much and often they consume addictive substances. Sadly, this can prevent them from seeking treatment. Complete abstinence can help individuals realize how much they’ve come to “need” and rely on drugs and alcohol. Recognizing this can help them realize why professional addiction treatment is so important.
  • Reduces the risk of relapse. Trying to control how much individuals drink or use can unintentionally result in relapse. For example, individuals who are trying to consume drugs less often might increase their dosage. Others might drink less alcohol more frequently, especially if they aren’t enrolled in a professional treatment program. This can increase their likelihood of relapse. In addition, consuming fewer drugs can lower an individual’s tolerance for their substance of choice. When this happens, individuals will need less of the substance to get the high they’re used to. If individuals are unaware of this, using the same amount of substance they used previously can cause them to overdose. Abstinence, by contrast, teaches individuals to avoid addictive substances altogether, which reduces their risk of relapse.
  • Provides an example of what long-term sobriety is like. Recovering from addiction means that the substance that once controlled an individual no longer does. Long-term sobriety is one of the best ways an individual can prove a substance no longer controls them. To be sober isn’t just about not being drunk. Being sober also means being sensible and solemn. Individuals moderating the amount of drugs and alcohol they use can still be affected by the substance. Additionally, they’re not as sensible as they could be when they’re using due to the effects of drugs and alcohol, including lowered inhibition. Abstinence provides a realistic picture of what long-term sobriety looks like: a substance-free, sensible, and thriving life.

Equipping Individuals To Live An Abstinent, Sober, and Empowered Life

Here at Meta Addiction Treatment, we know that abstinence isn’t easy, but we also know that abstinence often results in a successful recovery and long-term sobriety. Our mission is to help empower individuals to take charge of their recovery. You can abstain from drugs and alcohol. We can help you get there. Contact us today if you’re ready to live a sober and empowered life in the greater Boston area.

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