Can You Think Your Way Out of a Drink?

Posted on November 6, 2012

How “decision fatigue” can affect your recovery

Julie Myers, Psy.D., MSCP


Slip Or RelapseRecent research on the topic of willpower shows that we, as human beings, have limited decision making capacity. That is, in any given day, we may simply run-out of the mental energy that is required to make decisions. Researcher Roy Baumeister, PhD calls this depletion of mental energy “decision fatigue.”

Every day, we make hundreds of decisions, from large to small. Even something as simple as eating breakfast may entail many decisions, such as what, where, and how much to eat. We need to make decisions about our personal selves, our work, our relationships, how we move about and relate in the world, and how to resist a temptation. The more decisions we must make, the more mental energy we use up. Making decisions, particularly making good decisions, becomes harder over the course of a day as our mental energy wanes.

So why is this important for recovery from substance abuse? Because the choice to not use is a decision. Much of drinking/using is automatic, that is, we use simply because it is our habit to do so. We step into the house after a long day, we have a drink or we get together with friends, we smoke a joint. It may cross our minds not to use, but to not use requires a decision. To say no, we must think about the consequences. When our mental energy is low, we tend to act impulsively or do nothing different than usual.

We need to give ourselves the best chance at making good decisions, particularly when we are trying to change our relationship with drugs or alcohol. Baumeister has shown that people with the best self-control set themselves up for success by conserving their mental energy. For example, they may arise at the same time daily, eat the same breakfast, eliminate temptations, and delegate authority. They don’t expend their mental energy on trivial decisions, instead preserving their mental energy for making important decisions.

If you want to give yourself the best chance of saying no to addictive substances or behaviors, here are eight simple tips to conserve mental energy for decision making success:

1. Turn-on your brain.
Become more aware of when and where you are most vulnerable to automatic use or when decisions are needed.

2. Restore your mental energy with good sleep.
Make your important decision in the morning, when your mental energy is at its peak.

3. Fuel your brain.
Your brain requires energy from food to make decisions. When blood glucose drops, our decision making capacity decreases. Keep your body fueled to increase your mental energy.

4. Employ relaxation strategies.
A calm state increases our decision making capacity. Relaxation techniques, such as slow breathing or meditation, will help to decrease the stress response.

5. Conserve your mental energy.
Decrease the number of decisions you must make in a day by creating healthy habits. Delegate some decision to trusted others. Reduce situations where you need to make decisions, such as shopping.

6. Reduce temptations.
Move temptations out of your reach, when you have the mental energy to do so.

7. Recharge your mental energy throughout the day.
Exercise has been shown to increase mental energy. Exercise regularly, on a set schedule. Even 5 minutes of daily exercise will help recharge your mental energy.

8. Reduce the number of times that you need to say no.
By planning ahead, you can avoid those situations in which your habit to use requires mental energy to say no. If you know when you are most vulnerable and plan ahead, you will need to make fewer decisions about whether or not to use.

By employing the strategies above, you will give yourself a better chance for recovery success by reducing your decisions fatigue.

If you would like to read more about this topic here are two books you might enjoy

Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by Roy F. Baumeister and John Tierney (2012).

The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal (2011)

Reprinted with permission from SMART Recovery San Diego
Copyright ( 2012) Julie Myers, PysD: Psychologist in San Diego. All Rights Reserved.

6 thoughts on “Can You Think Your Way Out of a Drink?

  1. Kristin

    I am a recovering heroin addict. Every time I used it was a choice. Sure there is alot of science behind cravings and malfunction in the stop and go system of the addicts brain. but i feel that there is definately room for proper decision making. I know this because i have not taken a drink or used a drug in 15 months 🙂 the choice to stay clean is mine.

  2. Kevin

    I think everybody agrees that addiction on some level is born from poor choices and propagated by bad decision making. Thus recovery from addiction can only be enhanced by better decision making. The knowledge that we can set ourselves up for good decision making when confronted with our addiction is something 12 step has focused on for decades.

    The science based research that we can improve our baseline decision making abilities is great news no-matter what side of the “disease” debate you are on. One thing to consider is funding for a lot of this type of research and recovery is available because AMA endorses disease.

  3. Reid K Hester, Ph.D.

    While I would agree with most of what Dr. Meyers says here, there is an important caveat to Dr. Baumeister’s research on self-control or will power. And it’s good news. You can improve your self-control by exercising it.

    Here is an excerpt of an interview with him on APA’s web site at
    http://www.apa.org/monitor/2012/01/self-control.aspx

    “Quite a few studies in multiple labs have now shown that people can improve their self-control even as adults. As with a muscle, it gets stronger from regular exercise. So engaging in some extra self-control activities for a couple weeks produces improvement in self-control, even on tasks that have no relation to the exercise activities. The exercises can be arbitrary, such as using your left hand instead of your right hand to open doors and brush your teeth. Or they can be meaningful, such as working to manage money better and save more. The important thing is to practice overriding habitual ways of doing things and exerting deliberate control over your actions. Over time, that practice improves self-control.”

    1. Julie Myers, PsyD

      Thanks, Dr. Hester, for adding this comment. Yes, the practice of exercising self-control does help to strengthen this decision making ability. One interesting suggestion by these authors is to practice meditation. In this exercise, it is actually the practice of bringing the mind back to the here-and-now that is important, rather than the meditative state itself.

  4. Melissa

    I do think substance use is a choice, as I work for St Jude Retreats and this is the basis of our program. In my opinion I do think that when we are tired the mind still thinks about those consequences, but the person just doesn’t care at that point, at the point your decision is to drink to feel better or whatever the reason may be. You still have to make the decision to go get the bottle, to open the fridge door etc. My question is if this article is agreeing that drinking is a choice (which it is), why are 12 step treatments still convincing people they have a disease?

    1. Pistol-Pete

      12 step programs are still convincing people that they have a disease because that is what they want to hear. You can’t help it if you have a disease and for some people that makes it easier for them to contend with their addictive behavior. I am not a big fan of AA for this reason. I find that it makes the whole AA experience very very depressing and that is why I am with Smart! Real people dealing with real problems (addiction) in a positive and helpful manner.

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