man thinking with illustration of wheels turning

5 Thought Patterns That Can Easily Lead to a Relapse


Sober Recovery Expert Author

man thinking with illustration of wheels turning

Putting down the booze or drugs doesn’t mean that addictive thought patterns are no longer an issue. Addiction is a disease and even when you have that disease managed, you must be on the watch for addictive thought patterns, signs, and habits that may cause you to start using or drinking again.

The way you view a situation is a big deal, especially when you’re in recovery. Your thought life is an important thing to pay attention to as it can either make or break you when it comes to addiction. For example, if you get cut off in traffic and think, “That idiot! I should smash into his truck to teach him a lesson,” then honk your horn and flip him the bird, your thoughts about that incident can certainly impact your emotions and behavior. If you’re not careful, you can end up with some serious road rage or at the local bar downing a few drinks to calm yourself down.

If you're not carefully monitoring your thought patterns, you can end up relapsing due to addictive thought patterns that fuel addiction.

On the other hand, if you view someone cutting you off in a lighter perspective, you’re more apt to carry on in a calm, cool, and collected manner without the thought of drinking or drugging entering your mind. For example, you could take this perspective: “He cut me off! Geez. Some people just don’t pay attention out here. This is why I am extra careful on the road. I’m glad I was paying attention and nothing bad happened.” This attitude might be tough to adopt but it’s possible and can keep you smiling in circumstances that would otherwise put you over the edge.

Here are five common mistakes people often make in their thought life that can potentially lead them to a relapse:

1. "All or Nothing" Thinking

Have you ever used the terms “all,” “nothing,” “never,” or “always” when you are thinking or speaking about something? Perhaps you are in an argument and say, “You NEVER do…..” or “I ALWAYS have to….” These words are usually inaccurate and can get you into unhealthy thought patterns that can cause a relapse.

All or nothing thinking is known as what's called a cognitive distortion, and that's when we make an assumption based on minimal evidence. It indicates a way of thinking in extreme and exaggerated terms. It's healthier in these instances to look for the "gray areas."

2. Should Statements

When you use the word “should” in your thoughts and words, you might be setting up unrealistic expectations for yourself and others. For example, if you think to yourself, “I should be so much further in life than I am right now. I’m such a loser,” you run the risk of becoming very frustrated. This type of thinking can get you pretty depressed which can lead you to relapse. Avoid “should” statements for yourself and others and, in doing so, you’ll avoid some disappointment and frustration that can fuel addictive behavior. Instead, use affirming words and focus on your accomplishments thus far.

Experts suggest framing your "shoulds" as preferences, thereby making them easier to work on, and without the needless panic and anxiety that the word "should" produces.

3. Magnification or Minimization

To magnify something means that you make a mountain out of a molehill. The “no” you get when you ask someone out does not mean that you are a worthless, pathetic schmuck with no chance of ever landing a date. That’s just not true. To minimize means that you overlook the good things and focus on the bad. For example, if you’ve been clean and sober for two years, yet you focus on the five years before that when you were out there doing crazy things, you’re minimizing the good going on in your life right now. Magnification and minimization is another cognitive distortion, and it will only lead to unwelcome anxiety.

Stopping this habit lies in the awareness of when it's happening. Keeping an eye out for this type of thinking will help you to stop doing it and to instead take a more balanced and realistic view of any situation.

4. Overgeneralizing

Have you ever made a negative comment about a whole group of people even though it was only one person that ticked you off? Let’s say that you’re at a 12 step meeting and a guy makes a rude comment to you. Maybe you walk away hurt and conclude that all 12 step members are rude and insensitive. This is overgeneralizing. That guy might have been rude but not every member of a 12 step group is rude. Watch out for overgeneralizing in your thought life.

5. Blaming

If you’re walking around pointing your finger at a lot of other people, you may be headed for some more problems down the road. It is common for those in active addiction to blame others for their issues. Sure, some things might be the cause of others but if you catch yourself constantly blaming others and feeling like a victim, you might want to gauge your thought life. Is everything really everyone else’s fault or can you take some responsibility as well? Ultimately, as an adult, you are responsible for the who, what, and whys of your own life.

As you continue in your recovery, be sure to check your thought patterns every once in a while to see how you are doing. If you’re struggling with negative feelings like anger, depression, jealousy, etc., you may want to go through these common cognitive errors and see if any of them resonate with you. You want to be able to really spot any patterns, habits, and signs that can fuel addiction tendencies for yourself and deal with them as soon as possible. This will help you enjoy a happy and rewarding recovery.

If you or someone you know is seeking help with addiction, please visit our directory of treatment centers or call 866-606-0182 to start the path to recovery today.

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