Thinking Dialectically about Recovering from Addiction

Nov 30, 2022

Staci Jacobs

Whether you struggle with substance abuse or know someone who does, addiction impacts all of us. It’s easy to judge, to assume, or to have strong opinions about what you think someone should do to get better and survive. It likely comes from a place of love or fear, but if there is anything I know about recovery from substance abuse, it’s that recovery comes down to the interplay between the individual’s willingness AND having the right skills. DBT offers us the duality of understanding a person AND the context of their environment: Someone can want sobriety and the environment might not be conducive OR the environment might be designed for sobriety and the person just isn’t ready. For someone to recover from substance abuse effectively, both need to occur simultaneously.


Luckily, there are skills for that–skills that target both the individual’s behavior and their environment in service of their recovery.


DBT categorizes these skills as “when the crisis is addiction” (Distress Tolerance Handouts 16-21), and guess what? Marsha hit us with yet another acronym: DCBA.


D: dialectical abstinence

C: clear mind, community reinforcement

B: burning bridges and building new ones

A: alternate rebellion, adaptive denial


Here is the crash course on skills for when the crisis is addiction that can help either you or a loved one understand the mechanisms that make recovery from substance abuse possible.


D: Dialectical Abstinence


Dialectical abstinence suggests that making a commitment to sobriety AND coping ahead for a potential slip or relapse is what increases the possibility of remaining sober. The commitment influences behavior change which makes recovery possible. You may start to attend 12-step meetings, share with your family and friends, or seek professional help, instead of just contemplating sobriety without making the necessary changes. Additionally, coping ahead for potential slips helps you devise a plan to get back on track with sobriety as soon as possible.


C: Clear Mind + Community Reinforcement


Next, there is clear mind which is the synthesis between addict mind and clean mind. Addict mind is characterized by impulsive behaviors and being willing to do anything to get your desired substance whereas clean mind is naive to possible triggers or environments and convinces you that you’re immune to temptations to use or drink. The synthesis, which is clear mind, allows for you to enjoy your success of staying sober while also acknowledging that thoughts about using may still pop into your head or be cued by the environment, which requires being cautious and coping ahead.


Community reinforcement emphasizes the need to surround yourself with people, places, and things that reinforce your recovery. Surround yourself with people who support this change that you’re making in your life. Find a community going through a similar change. Engage in sober activities that feel enjoyable to you. Avoid places and people you used to use with. Throw away your paraphernalia.


B: Burning Bridges and Building New Ones


Burning bridges and building new ones is exactly what it sounds like. Unfortunately, part of sobriety is giving something up. Sometimes this includes people who you need to take space from, jobs you may need to quit, or places you can no longer go to. Most importantly, do whatever you have to do to create a barrier between you and your drug of choice; whether that’s deleting dealers numbers or avoiding streets with liquor stores or bars you used to frequent.


Building new bridges requires creating different brain associations in your mind when you’re experiencing a craving. Build different images or smells to think about whenever you want a drink or your drug of choice: Smell and eat some chocolate, think about being on your favorite beach, or light a strong candle. This over time will reduce the intensity of your cravings, and it will make it much easier to ride them out without acting on them.


A: Alternate Rebellion and Adaptive Denial


Alternate rebellion is a skill for managing urges to be rebellious. We all have them, and sometimes we need a thrill to feel alive or to cope with intense emotions. Luckily, there are ways we can rebel without using or drinking. For example, try getting a piercing, dying your hair, buying a flight to a foreign country, or going on a date with someone who isn’t your type.


Lastly, adaptive denial is an intentional practice of giving logic a break and denying that you want the drink or drug. You actively convince yourself that you want something different. For example, when your friends are enjoying wine and you are experiencing a craving you might say to yourself, “That looks gross, I’d rather have some delicious dessert.”


If you’re reading this and contemplating whether sobriety could enhance your life or you’re suffering from addictive behavior, these skills are a start AND you may still need professional help. We’re here to help you become ready and shape your environment for success!