How Can We Change the Reward System of Addiction?

Our addictions are fueled by a phenomenon called the reward system, where we are driven compulsively to use our drug of choice or to engage in our addictive behavior of choice because we know that once we do, we’ll feel a certain kind of reward. The reward we feel might be a rush of dopamine and other good-feeling chemicals the body naturally produces. It might be the escape we feel when we get so high that we zone out and forget whatever is stressing us out and causing us anxiety. It might be physical pleasure or release. It might be detachment from our painful emotions. We get hooked on this reward, so much so that we become addicted to the feeling of it. How can we change the reward system of addiction?

As we’re working to recover from our addictions, we want to find new ways of giving ourselves some of these same positive feelings – pleasure, release, healthy detachment, relief. These feelings are not unhealthy in and of themselves. What is unhealthy is how we go about attaining them, what measures we will take to feel them, and how dependent and attached we become to them. We get so hooked on them that nothing else matters. We prioritize the reward over everything else in our lives. We sacrifice our happiness and well-being just to have a taste of the reward. We want to have a healthy, balanced relationship to these emotions instead, and we want to be able to reward ourselves with positive things.

Our sobriety teaches us that we can reward ourselves with things that nurture us and make us happy that don’t then bring us down and contribute to our pain. We can reward ourselves with gifts and activities that don’t cause us to feel hungover, regretful, sad and ashamed the next day. We can be rewarded without feeling sick, disappointed and disgusted with ourselves the next morning. We can use self-care, for example, as a positive reward whenever we want to commend ourselves for an accomplishment, give ourselves a break, or allow ourselves some down time. We can use things we look forward to as our reward after a difficult day. We can take some of our favorite activities, such as spending time with friends, cooking a favorite meal or walking in our favorite park, as the reward for a job well done in any area of our lives. We can reward ourselves simply as an act of self-love and self-appreciation.

We can create a new reward system in our sobriety that doesn’t hurt us the way our addictive reward systems did. We can find things that we enjoy, that we love to do, that make us feel fulfilled, at peace and at ease, that don’t contribute to our self-destructiveness and that don’t fuel our patterns of addiction.

Riverside Recovery is committed to helping you uncover the issues fueling your addictions. Our treatment programs include multiple forms of therapy, family workshops and mindfulness-based relapse prevention education. Call (800) 871-5440 for more information.