Dealing with Reward-Motivated Behavior: Relapse Prevention

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Many bad habits are maintained because people find that engaging in them is rewarding. They are bad habits not because they are pleasurable (there is nothing wrong with pleasure in and of itself!), but because the pleasure or rewarding consequences that come from these habits are strictly short term outcomes only. Over the longer term, the same habits lead to health problems or other negative consequences. Smoking, overeating, drug and alcohol abuse, pornography and a variety of other "consumption" habits have this form. These habits are difficult to control because even though you may want very much to stop doing them (or do them less), there is also a big part of you that very much wants to do them. You have to make peace within yourself and get all the various parts of yourself aligned and committed to positive change if you are to make headway against the allure of these habits.

Relapse Prevention. Relapse prevention is a collection of coordinated methods for coping with and breaking down your desire to engage in a habit that feels good in the short term, but which is harmful over the longer term. These methods were developed in the context of drug and alcohol treatment, and are based firmly on the foundation provided by learning theory. The term "relapse" comes out of addictions; it refers to a situation where you go back to using your drug after a period of abstinence


Relapse Prevention methods are based around the assumption that you are not entirely in control over your desire to engage in a problem behavior; that there is a part of you that wants to continue to engage in that behavior. It does not judge this complicit part of you as "bad", but rather just sees it as a natural part of your situation in need of management. Relapse prevention techniques help the part of you that wants to change keep the part of you that doesn't want to change in better control. This help takes the form of increased awareness and planning.

Awareness of Negative Consequences. You already know the pleasurable experiences you can expect from your habit. Relapse prevention methods ask you to raise your awareness of the negative aspects of your habit. Do this by reading about these negative effects in books, magazines and on the internet, by talking to doctors and health professionals, and by opening your eyes and looking at how other people you know with similar problems are messing up their lives.

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Awareness of the Behavioral Nature of your Habit. Remember all that stuff we discussed above about behavior chains and triggers? Relapse prevention methods push you to understand your problem at this level. Your bad habit doesn't just occur out of nowhere. Instead, a complex chain of events precedes it. Something triggers you to get the chain started, and thereafter each link in that chain goes off in sequence until it ends with you acting out your habit. You need to identify what triggers your habit chain, and what the different links in that chain are so that you can recognize them when you see them.

Triggers might be people, places or things that remind you of the pleasure you had engaging in your bad habit. A sudden desire or craving could be a trigger, as could seeing a store where you purchased things for your habit. Even thinking about a person you used to share your habit with might end up triggering you.

Habit chain links might take the form of:

  • Thoughts you have about your habit ("I sure could use a beer about now")
  • Behaviors and actions you take that get you closer to drinking (like walking towards the convenience store)
  • Coping strategies or defense mechanisms you might use to hide knowledge of your true intent from yourself (such as saying to yourself, "I need to get some flowers for my wife", when you know full well that the florist you intend to walk by is located next to the convenience store)

If you are a recovering alcoholic, your habit chain might have some of the following components:

  • "I sure could use a beer about now" (a thought)
  • Walking towards the convenience store (a behavior)
  • Saying to yourself, "I need to get some flowers for my wife", when you know full well that the florist you intend to walk by is located next to the convenience store (a coping strategy for hiding the truth from yourself)

You can become more aware of your triggers and the chain of behaviors and events that leads to your relapse by using self-monitoring techniques as described above, and by talking about your relapses and temptation moments with another person who doesn't share your problem shortly after they occur

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