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Willing Away Addiction: Can Pure Willpower End Substance Abuse?

Person Standing on a Rock - Addiction

Our beliefs are powerful. They dictate how we see ourselves, how we see others, and how we understand substance use disorders. Some people believe that substance abuse recovery depends on willpower. Others believe that addiction is a disease and that recovery requires professional treatment.

A group of scientists in 2017 conducted a study and found that people tend to believe that drug use deteriorates free will. Essentially, people believe that addiction takes away our ability to make decisions and have any control over our lives. The scientists concluded that the real factor in recovery and addiction was not the absence or presence of willpower, or a drug’s ability to diminish it–but rather that a person’s beliefs about free will determined their successes and failures.

In this article, we’ll explore how the belief in free will–and willpower–factors into the substance dependence equation.

First off, what is willpower?

One might describe willpower as our ability to resist temptation, to say no to things that aren’t particularly good for us even when we desire them. When we choose exercise over a nap, for example, or water over soda, we exercise willpower.

American talk show icon Oprah Winfrey, when asked about willpower in relation to dieting and exercise, mentions that physical health demands a willingness to be honest with ourselves about the work, dedication, and perseverance involved.

In this view, willingness–an aspect of willpower–is an attitude, a mindset, and a mental resource.

If willingness or willpower is a resource, can it run out?

The answer is yes. Let’s take as an example of people with ADHD, depression, or anxiety. For people dealing with those conditions, getting through each day requires much willpower. To keep on task, control impulses, and fulfill responsibilities when the brain constantly craves the contrary can be exhausting.

The psychology community calls this exhaustion ego fatigue or ego depletion. Our ego, or our willpower, allows us to say no. However, after hours, days, months, or years of saying “no,” we become fatigued and less likely to remain steadfast in tempting circumstances.

Imagine a typical day spent working, running errands, and taking care of the house and family. We spend most of our time completing duties and ignoring our desires and urges to play on our phones, watch TV, chill out, snack, etc. Once 10:00 PM rolls around, we may have used up all our “no” power, all of our control.

We end the night tucked into the couch, watching reality TV with a bowl of ice cream. Of course, this is a benign example. Many people live under excruciatingly stressful conditions, and their end of the night may involve succumbing to more harmful urges: drinking, drug use, smoking–whatever it may be.

The point is that we all have willpower but, like energy, we can use it all up. When we move along the addiction continuum, from a mild addiction to a severe one, our willpower becomes scarcer as our brains start to require the substance to feel normal.

So, is addiction a matter of will?

Yes and no. For starters, addiction is a disease that requires a detox phase and a maintenance phase. Physically, drugs and alcohol change the brain chemistry to such a degree that the brain demands more of the addictive substance in order to feel “normal.” Cravings are intense, and withdrawal can be life-threatening as the body tries to adjust to not having the drug. While a person addicted to a substance needs to be willing to undergo treatment, professional treatment is often necessary to help someone rid their body of harmful substances and stabilize.

Willpower comes more into play once the body has detoxed and the person has entered recovery. During recovery, willpower is more easily preserved and replenished when we have the following in abundance:

  • Regular sleep
  • Regular exercise
  • A healthy, balanced diet
  • Healthy coping mechanisms
  • Emotional support from friends, family, and coworkers

Above all, it’s important to remember a failure of willpower is simply an exhaustion of an inner resource. Rather than blaming ourselves or a loved one for giving into cravings or relapsing, we can take relapse as an opportunity to learn more about what we need and to replenish our inner resources.

We Are Here to Help

Here at Great Oaks Recovery Center, we view willpower as a precious resource and addiction as a brain disease. In our Residential Treatment Program, we take into account the whole person. We safely structure the healing environment to build inner resources by prioritizing regular sleep, exercise, solid nutrition, and emotional development. Get in touch with us today to begin replenishing your will to start fresh.

If you or someone you love is in need of alcohol or drug treatment, contact our Texas addiction recovery treatment center anytime at (713) 769-0102. We are here to help.