Opioid abuse is becoming an increasingly common crisis among families and communities across the country. As with most addictive substances, every user turns to opioids for different reasons, some to manage pain, others to cope with difficult life circumstances, still others for recreation. Regardless of their reasons, the impact of opioids on their lives can be severe and long-lasting and recovery can be an ongoing process.
One question we hear frequently from our clients in recovery for opioid abuse is how to find personal happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of purpose during and after recovery. While everyone in recovery struggles with this question, this is a particular concern among opioid users because of the way that the drugs themselves interact with the brain.
How opioids affect the brain
Opioids include prescription painkillers like OxyContin, hospital-grade painkillers such as morphine, and street drugs including heroin. The reason opioids are such effective painkillers is that they actually affect the way the body feels pain by impacting receptors in the brain. As a result, opioid users often feel not only pain relief but also feelings of euphoria, contentment, or a sense of release, especially when they use a higher-than-prescribed dosage.
In habitual users, the body quickly adapts to the presence of the opioid chemicals in the brain and actually lowers the production of endorphins in the body, which naturally produce feelings of pleasure (these are the chemicals the body releases after exercise, for example).
As a result, users become dependent on opioids to reduce uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that occur when the body no longer has the substance in its system.
Because opioids impact the brain’s ability to perceive both pain and pleasure, many people struggling with opioid dependence have difficulty finding a similar level of happiness, pain relief, and contentment in a drug-free world. For many, it becomes easier to simply continue a harmful addiction rather than manage the regular moods of everyday life. This inability to cope without continual opioid use is a major factor behind the swath of opioid overdoses that killed more than 30,000 Americans in 2015.
Why happiness and a sense of purpose matter in recovery
In a 2011 article, addiction specialist Stanton Peele noted that, regardless of the strategies used to recover, “people overcome addiction out of purpose-based motivation”.
In other words, while recovery models vary, the fundamental principle that motivates many people to seek out recovery is a sense of purpose, positivity, and meaning in their lives. Peele noted that this may take the form of a life goal but it could also be a realization that they could be happier, more contented, and more successful without their addiction.
To help our own clients achieve these breakthroughs, we work hard to guide them towards a genuine sense of meaningfulness and happiness that is independent of their drug use. Rather than depending upon opioids to dull pain and increase pleasure, we help clients control their pain while finding intrinsically rewarding activities that don’t require drugs to enjoy.
Below are four steps we recommend for anyone in recovery for an opioid addiction and trying to find a sense of purpose and happiness in their new sober lives. Many of these are best managed with the help of addiction professionals or doctors but some can be implemented in everyday life with support from family and friends.
- Managing your pain. For many people struggling with opioid dependence, the drugs were initially prescribed as a way to manage chronic or temporary pain, such as continual back pain or discomfort after a surgery or injury. If you or a loved one are abusing prescription drugs that were prescribed for a particular ailment, your doctor should be able to review your prescriptions, adjust your dosage, and help you find other treatments that can effectively manage pain without the high risk of addiction. Doctors are becoming increasingly aware of the risks of over-prescribing powerful painkillers to their patients and will be able to find alternate remedies with less risk.
- Using a 12-step recovery system One of the advantages of using a 12-step recovery system is that the process itself powerfully guides you through a series of realizations that ultimately lead toward self-acceptance and a sense of contentment. For example, one of the first realizations gained through a 12-step program is that your addiction is, in fact, a problem that is harming your life and the lives of those who care about you. From that breakthrough, you can progress further down the steps toward recovery, gaining skills, knowledge, and support that ultimately helps you regain self-confidence and a sense of contentment. Because 12-step recovery is dependent on your own participation, it also gives you a built-in sense of purpose as you complete each step.
- Enjoying small treats. Many of us think of happiness as enjoying “indulgent” experiences like vacations or special meals. But happiness doesn’t always have to be grand gestures. If you enjoy treating yourself to a piece of chocolate after going for a run, you’re experiencing the same dose of endorphins as when you relax on the beach during a vacation, just for a shorter duration. The same holds true for social interactions, doing something good for your family or community, or enjoying a rewarding hobby. By rewarding yourself periodically throughout the day with small treats, you’re building up a baseline of happiness in your own life that will make it much easier to avoid addictive substances and chemically-induced contentment.
- Achieving goals. Another major driver of happiness is accomplishing life goals, from small (calling a family member everyday) to large (succeeding in your career or relationship, for example). Goal setting can be tremendously powerful as a motivator, especially if you establish goals and then ask another person to hold you accountable. Accountability during recovery can be particularly important as positive life goals can also reinforce your ability to overcome your addiction. With a proper accountability partner and motivation, goals can act as a sort of compass, helping you develop a sense of direction and forward momentum as you recover.
If you or a loved one are struggling with opioid addiction, it’s important to understand the power of happiness and a sense of purpose in recovery. If you’d like to learn more about how these principles can be incorporated into your lasting rehabilitation, speak to a member of our team confidentially at 1-855-243-2529.