Developing Thought Challenging Skills

What is Addiction Part 6: How to Challenge Your Thinking About Substance Use

Estimated watch time: 7 mins


When you’re in a triggering situation, how you handle it can help you avoid relapse. One strategy is called thought challenging. Challenging your thoughts can help you outsmart and overcome your addicted brain.

This video focuses on how to notice and respond to your thoughts differently.

Video Materials:


Thought Challenging

In this lesson we will talk about how to challenge our thinking.

Thought challenging can be one of the most useful skills you have to outsmart your addicted brain. As you practice this method of transforming irrational thinking into balanced, realistic thoughts, you will learn to take a scientific approach to correcting the thoughts that are leading you down a path to self-destructive behavior, like drinking or using drugs. You achieve this by learning to notice and respond to your thoughts in different ways. So you first need to practice observing yourself. You do this by practicing, noticing your triggers, your thoughts and your cravings, as we did in lesson five, and then you will practice questioning whether your thoughts are rational, especially the ones that relate to drinking or using.

Thought challenging is a practice of questioning your thoughts about drinking and using by asking yourself if you have evidence that they are true.

After you question the evidence for your thoughts, you will find that if you don’t have evidence to support what you are thinking, then you will identify more rational, evidence based ideas that you can tell yourself instead. New, healthy, balanced thoughts will help you make behavior changes. You can set out to accomplish your recovery plan. So let’s take a look at some examples.

So a triggering situation….

Hanging out with drinking buddies at a party and your red flags thought is “Oh, I’ll just have one drink. It’s no big deal. I can control it.”

So that’s something you want to note, it’s like…”oh, there’s my thought, there’s my pattern.”

So then you want to put your thoughts on trial. This is something you do on paper or hopefully eventually you can do it just in your head. But to ask yourself, “Really is one drink ok? Can I really control my drinking enough to stop after one drink.”

So the facts. “Yes, having one drink is not destructive, but it’s also been a long time since I remember the last time I stopped after one drink. The likelihood of that is extremely low.”

So is it true for you? Can you really stop after one drink or after one night? So response that you say to yourself, “OK, for me, one drink is a big deal. In the past this way of thinking has led me straight to a blown relapse. There’s plenty of evidence that I practically never stop after one drink and I’m not able to control myself once I start drinking.”

So we’ll try another one.

So you’re triggering situation is feeling depressed or feeling very low in energy and your red flag thought is “cocaine is the only thing that makes me feel better. It will help me get stuff done.”

Your thoughts on trial? Will the cocaine make you feel better? Is cocaine the only thing that will make you feel better? And will cocaine actually help me get things done?

So the facts are, “At first, yes it will make me feel better. But when it wears off, I’ll be even more depressed and I’ll feel bad about having caved in and used. And is it the only thing that can make me feel better? Probably not. There are healthier things that could make me feel better. I can talk to someone. I can exercise. I can go do something fun. And will it help me get things done? Well, at first, yes it will give me a lot of energy to get things done. But there are only so many things that I can do well if I’m high. And then when I crash afterwards, I won’t be able to get anything done for days.”

So the response to yourself is, “yes, cocaine makes my depression worse. It doesn’t make it better. Even though I might feel good for a short time, using always makes me feel more depressed when it’s over. And there’s plenty of evidence that when I use cocaine, I’m less productive. I get depressed and I barely do anything for days afterwards. And just because I get more energy for a short time doesn’t mean using is to lead me to get all that stuff done.”

Hopefully, you see how this works. We will try another example.

Triggering situation. You go to a party alone and you’re feeling some social anxiety about it and your red flag thoughts says, “Hey, if I’m high, I won’t feel so self-conscious and it won’t be so hard to talk to people.” So the questions to ask is, “will marijuana help take the edge off and make me feel better? Will being high help me handle myself better at a party. And is it worth it to use marijuana in this situation? “

So the first time, will it help me move? “Yes. At first it will. But when it wears off, my mood will be down and I won’t feel too great for a day or two.”

And will it help me get through this situation?

“Not entirely. I won’t feel as self-conscious. So it’ll be easier to be there. But usually when I’m high, I’m a little distant and I don’t really connect. And it will help me feel better in the moment. But I probably won’t socialize much at the party and because of the effect it has on my mood and energy. It’s not really worth it.”

So the way to respond to yourself, your way of adjusting the way that you’re thinking or you tell yourself about this scenario is, “Getting high makes me feel a little awkward and distant in social situations. And even though I might feel less self-conscious, I won’t really connect with anyone at the party. In that case, there’s not much point in going if I have to get high to get myself there. There’s plenty of evidence that when I use it affects my mood negatively and I won’t function so well for a day or two. And just because I won’t feel self-conscious doesn’t mean musing is worth it.”

So you want to watch out for superficial truths. They are things that are a little bit true on the surface and they can really convince us that using is an OK thing to do. So certain thoughts can be defined as superficial traits. There may be some short term benefit of drinking or using that gives the just decision to slip or relapse a major appeal. This can be confusing because it’s a rational element of your thought process about drinking or using. And it does feel good at first. That’s true. You can relieve anxiety in the short term. That is true. If you think about it, you’ll find that it makes sense that there are some positive effects to drinking or using drugs. That’s why we use it. So otherwise you wouldn’t have found yourself doing it more often in the first place.

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