The basis of cognitive therapy is to become fully aware of how your alcoholism works – what might be maintaining the problem and what is the train of thought that often happens to initiate it? Once you have a better understanding of these processes, you will have a better idea about how to make the changes you need.
Think about the details of the usual sequence of your own drinking
There are many stages along the way, from when you first experience a ‘trigger’ that gives you an urge to drink, to when you finally end up drinking. The initial trigger might be anything – maybe you’ve just had an argument with someone close to you, or you’re bored, or lonely, or anxious.
Once you have experienced that trigger, you will probably have a few ‘automatic thoughts‘ about it. These are habitual ways of thinking, many of which you may not be fully aware of, yet which have an immense power over your actions. A crucial part of beating alcoholism is being able to recognise what your automatic thoughts are. Some examples might be – “I can’t cope with this relationship”, or “I’ve got no real friends, I’m useless”, or “I can’t tolerate this anxiety”. Thoughts like this tend to push you in the direction of having a drink. Recognising your own automatic thoughts will take some practice.
These automatic thoughts will produce feelings. Many of the feelings that people drink because of are negative, but not all of them. So it could be anxiety, frustration, sadness, or alternatively excitement. As a result of these feelings, you might experience an urge to drink (sometimes called a craving), of varying strength, sometimes only briefly, sometimes lasting all day. Cravings are a sense of needing to escape from an uncomfortable feeling, or enhance a positive one, by drinking something alcoholic.
From this craving, you will probably be in a state of indecision.
While part of you wants to cut down or stop completely, another part is desperate to just forget about all that and have a drink.
Now you will start to come up with ‘permission thoughts‘. These are similar to the ‘automatic thoughts’ that we just mentioned, except that with these, you tend to find an excuse to make it OK to drink, to justify it. They can come in all shapes and sizes, from the basic “just this time”, or “I’ll only have a couple of drinks”, to “I’ve been under such stress lately, I deserve it”, or “I can’t stand this craving any more, I’ll go crazy if I don’t have some soon”.
Once you’ve had that ‘permission thought’, it’s incredibly difficult to stop yourself from actually drinking. But it’s not impossible. There are things you do in order to get your drink of choice, and even those actions can be diverted into something else, or you can perhaps distract yourself with another activity for a while.
With sufficient support and the opportunity to explore the alternatives, changes can be made to any of these processes. It’s just a case of looking at each aspect and seeing how it could be altered to be more helpful for you.
This will probably sound quite complicated first time around. That’s because addiction is a very complicated process – we are all very complicated people. But it will get easier as you work through it.
This process becomes easier if you write down your own experience:
Try to remember a chain of events that caused you to drink recently. Now fill in the first column of the form, and try to be as specific as you can. Then fill out the second column to explore how you could do things differently. You can email yourself a copy at the bottom.