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What Is Cognitive Flexibility and How Does It Help With Sobriety?

two men smiling cognitive flexibility

When a person first gets sober, they change their lifestyle. Some of these changes may be challenging, especially in early recovery. Cognitive flexibility refers to your ability to adapt and adjust to changing situations and tasks, which involves modifying your thoughts and behaviors to meet the demands of new or changing circumstances.

In addiction recovery, cognitive flexibility enables you to adapt to a life free from drugs or alcohol. Recovery, after all, involves a significant change in a person's thinking and behavior. You can learn to make these changes, a day at a time, by boosting your cognitive flexibility. Progress in recovery means continually working toward being a better person - to yourself and others.

Cognitive Flexibility: Changing Thoughts and Actions

One way cognitive flexibility is essential in addiction recovery is in enabling people to overcome the rigid thinking patterns that often contribute to addiction. When a person gets sober, they're told that being open-minded and willing can help them begin to heal. Addiction is often associated with black-and-white thinking. If this sounds familiar, it's because people who struggle with substance use often see things as "all or nothing."

This thinking can be fatalistic and set a person up for relapse. After all, life is full of shades of gray. Having a bad day or feeling frustrated doesn't have to lead to a relapse. In early recovery, it may be difficult for somebody to consider alternative options or realize instinctively that there may be more than one perspective in any situation. In treatment or therapy, however, cognitive flexibility allows individuals to consider a range of possibilities and weigh the pros and cons of different options. Tools that help you begin to think differently, and react in more productive and positive ways, are important to helping you stay sober.

Another way cognitive flexibility is essential in addiction recovery is in enabling individuals to cope with stress and negative emotions. Addiction often develops as a way of dealing with difficult feelings or stress, so individuals in recovery must learn alternative coping strategies. Cognitive flexibility can help individuals develop various techniques for dealing with difficult emotions rather than relying solely on drugs or alcohol.

What Does The Research Say About Cognitive Flexibility?

Studies have shown that cognitive flexibility is associated with better outcomes in addiction recovery. For example, one study showed that individuals with higher cognitive flexibility levels were likelier to abstain from drugs and alcohol over a 6-month follow-up period. Other studies show it can also be a valuable skill for coping with anxiety disorders.

Learning new things is critical in addiction recovery. Openmindedness can help you begin to adapt to a lifestyle of sobriety and overcome negative and toxic thinking patterns.

Research has consistently found that higher levels of cognitive flexibility are associated with better treatment outcomes. The great news is that cognitive flexibility can be both practiced and taught.

Achieving Cognitive Flexibility in Recovery

Various ways exist to teach and improve cognitive flexibility in individuals. Therapy and peer support groups can help you change your thinking. Your therapist can work with you to help you counter negative thinking patterns that lead to old, counterproductive behavior.

  1. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is a psychotherapeutic approach that aims to change negative thoughts and behaviors by teaching individuals to identify and modify the underlying thought patterns that contribute to them. In addiction recovery, CBT can help individuals to develop more adaptive thought patterns and behaviors, including cognitive flexibility.
  2. Mindfulness meditation involves paying attention to the present moment without judgment. It can help people develop cognitive flexibility. Mindfulness does this by training people to observe their thoughts and emotions without reacting to them automatically, allowing them to react more positively when ready.
  3. Problem-solving training can teach people a step-by-step approach to solving problems. The process involves identifying the problem, generating possible solutions, evaluating the solutions, and choosing the best one. This can help you to develop cognitive flexibility through critical thinking.
  4. Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing you to situations that normally trigger anxiety or distress. This can help individuals develop cognitive flexibility by teaching them to approach challenging problems more openly.
  5. Video games as therapy! Some studies have suggested that playing video games that require cognitive flexibility, such as strategy games, can improve a person's responses. While more research is needed in this area, research suggests that activities that challenge your thinking and cause brainstorming can also help you change your thoughts.

Learning new thinking and perspectives can help you stay open-minded and focused throughout recovery. Learning new tools to cope, think more critically, and react healthily will help you stay sober in the long term.

If you're having trouble adapting to life as a sober person. some of these activities can help you change your thoughts, actions, and life! You CAN overcome the rigid thinking patterns that can contribute to relapse behaviors, giving yourself a chance for long-term sobriety. Ask others in recovery how they learned to change their thoughts and actions. You'll find there are a lot of healthier coping strategies to try.

Consider Sober Living

Sober living homes are a great place for people new in recovery to begin to get their bearings and put new coping skills to the test. Learn more about our sober living homes, our amenities, and how we help keep you on track in recovery.

Everyone in recovery has heard about the importance of willingness. When you first get clean and sober, you have to trust others and be willing to do whatever it takes. At first, it’s usually difficult to follow the suggestions of others, but as you stayed sober, you probably noticed that your recovery program was stronger.

Being willing to go to 12-step meetings, trust other people in recovery, and take suggestions are the bread and butter of your recovery program. Staying sober only happens one day at a time. Once the fog clears, however, living a life of willingness may become more difficult.

Becoming More Willing

There are probably things you’re told you should do, but you don’t want to do them. In life, everyone pretty much has to go to the DMV. We all have bills to pay and jobs that we do. There are things that we perceive as downright unpleasant, such as having surgery or facing a fear. Being willing doesn’t always mean “doing things joyfully.” It means that you’re ready to do what you have to do.

The first thing you do in recovery is to to stop using and start listening to others. Just staying sober shows that you’re capable of working toward willingness. When a person first begins their recovery journey, they’re told to stay away from old friends and old situations. It can be difficult, but it’s not impossible. When you think you can’t become willing to do something, try to remember all of the other changes you’ve made to get to where you are today.

You may not be willing today, but keep acting as if you are. Take the steps you need to take. The feeling of willingness might follow, or you may have to trudge every step of the way. Either way, you'll get stronger and willingness will come more naturally to you.

If you have a higher power, many people find that praying for willingness makes them feel more willing on a day to day business.

One Day at a Time

Growth only happens one day at a time. No one is perfect. Few people enter into a recovery program eager to delve into their emotions, the things they’ve done wrong, and the problems that they face. But thousands of people stick around anyway, knowing that they want to change and need help doing it.

If you’re going through something and struggling with willingness, remember to take it a day at a time. Do what you need to do. The feelings will follow, and you’ll have a stronger recovery program by sticking it out.

Interested in Sober Living or Aftercare?

Many people decide that after treatment, they want to continue to live with additional supports in place. Whether you’re interested in living in a structured, supportive setting or attending aftercare as you adjust to everyday life, we’re here to help. Call us at 760-216-2077 for more information on our programs.

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