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A few years ago, a friend of mine decided to quit smoking. She didn’t follow any pre-set plan, like Nicotine Anonymous, or do any research. Instead, she just quit. She also took up running, and around the same time started dating someone new—someone who didn’t smoke. She’s been cigarette-free ever since.
We tend to think that stopping an addictive behavior means joining a group, seeing a therapist, going to a treatment center, or taking a medication that helps with cravings. It may come as a surprise to you—it certainly surprised me—that some people break addictions without any help.
It turns out that my friend instinctively did what these “natural recoverers” often do to break addictions to drugs, alcohol, gambling, and other problems. Many natural recoverers take these two steps:
- They find a new hobby, challenge, or relationship to help fill the void left by the addiction. It may be something they liked doing before the addiction took over, or something new. Whatever it is, it provides new meaning in their lives.
- They start exercising. This is important for two reasons. One, exercise is a natural antidepressant. It relieves stress and helps you think more clearly. Two, exercise prompts the body to release its own psychoactive substances—endorphins—that trigger the brain’s reward pathway and promote a feeling of well-being.
Both of these steps are important on their own, but they also lead to a vital outcome: the person becomes reinvested in himself or herself and in a new community, most likely of people who aren’t involved in the object of addiction.
It isn’t by any means a foolproof approach. Natural recoverers usually try to quit several times; ultimately, one attempt succeeds. Yet each attempt represents a lesson learned and progress toward the ultimate goal of quitting. In fact, research shows that each attempt has its own probability of success, so repeated attempts to quit increase the likelihood of eventual success.
The more severe the addiction, the harder natural recovery becomes. It is also difficult if other psychological disorders are present. Anyone with a severe addiction, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues will have a better chance at success by enlisting the help of a health professional. And here’s a cautionary note: Don’t try to break an addiction to an anti-anxiety medication or tranquilizer on your own, because the withdrawal symptoms can be very serious, and sometimes even fatal.
This information—and more insights on breaking an addiction—can be found in Overcoming Addiction: Paths toward recovery, a new Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School. You can see a description of the report, a;ong with a free excerpt on assessing your readiness to change, at www.health.harvard.edu/ADD.
Have you recovered from an addiction? Tell us what worked for you.