The 5 Rules of Recovery

There are five simple rules that cover most of what you need to do in recovery. If you are ever in doubt of what to do, or if you are on the right track, ask yourself if you are following these five simple rules.

The beauty of these five rules is that they are also indicators of relapse. When people relapse, it is usually because they have broken one of these five rules.[1]

RULE 1: Create a New Life Where it is Easier to Not Use

You don't recover from an addiction by simply stopping using. You recover by creating a new life where it is easier to not use. If you don't create a new life, then all the factors that brought you to your addiction will eventually catch up with you again.

You don't have to change everything in your life. But there are a few unhealthy behaviors or negative thinking patterns that have been getting you into trouble, and they will continue to get you into trouble until you let them go. The more you try to hold onto your old life, the less well you will do in recovery.

Here are some common things that people need to change in recovery.

Avoid High-Risk Situations

People, Places, Things

  • People. (People who you used with, or people who encouraged you to use are common triggers for relapse.)
  • Places. (Places where you used, or places where you went to get drugs or alcohol are common triggers.)
  • Things. (Things that you used with, such as drug or alcohol paraphernalia are powerful triggers.)
  •  
  • Avoid your drinking friends, your favorite bar, and having alcohol in the house. Avoid people who you used with, driving by your dealer's neighborhood, and remove all paraphernalia from your house. Don’t keep something around, “just in case.”

Of course, you can't avoid all high-risk situations. But if you're aware of them, you won't get caught off guard, and you will have a chance to prepare yourself. If you’re not prepared, small triggers can quickly turn into strong cravings.

The more you can avoid high-risk situations, and the more you can anticipate them and prepare for them, the greater your chance of success.

HALT

The acronym, HALT contains some important and common high-risk situations:

  • Hungry
  • Angry
  • Lonely
  • Tired

Your strongest cravings usually occur at the end of the day. How do you feel at the end of the day? You're probably hungry because you haven't eaten well. You're probably angry because you've had a tough day at work or a tough commute. You may feel lonely because you're isolated. And, you're tired. That's why your strongest cravings usually occur at the end of the day.

Recovery isn't about one big change. It's about a few little changes that can change the path of your life.

Make a list of your high-risk situations. Addiction is sneaky. Sometimes you won't see a high-risk situation until you're right in the middle of it. That's why it's important to make a list of them and go over it with someone in recovery. Make the list and keep it with you. Some day that list may save your life.

Change Negative Thinking

Negative thinking is a risk factor both for developing an addiction and for relapse. Common types of negative thinking are negative self-labelling and all-or-nothing thinking.

  • If people new the real me they wouldn’t like me.
  • I don’t think I’m likeable.
  • Life is hard, and I can’t handle it without using sometimes.
  • Life won’t be fun without using, and I won’t be fun.
  • Recovery is more work than it’s worth.
  • My cravings will be overwhelming, and I won’t be able to resist. So why bother.
  • If I stop using, I’ll only start up again; I have never finished anything.
  • I worry that I am too damaged to recover or be happy.

 

Negative thinking leads to anxiety, depression, and addiction. If you think you are not likeable, you will be anxious because you’re worried that you will be found out. If you think you will fail therefore why bother trying, you will feel trapped by life, which leads to depression. If you feel anxious or depressed, you may turn to drugs or alcohol to escape.

A common fear of recovery is that you are not capable of recovery. The fear is that recovery requires some special strength or willpower that you don’t possess. But people just like you, with strengths and weaknesses, with determination and self-doubt, have recovered from addiction.

Cognitive behavioral therapy has been proven to change negative thinking and treat anxiety, depression, and addiction. The basic idea of cognitive therapy is that negative thinking is learned thinking and therefore it can be unlearned and replaced with healthier thinking. If you can change your thinking, you will improve your life.[2, 3]

Learn more about negative thinking and cognitive therapy in the companion website www.IWantToChangeMyLife.org.

RULE 2: Ask for Help and Develop a Recovery Circle

Most people start recovery by trying to do it on their own. They want to prove that they have control over their addiction, and that they are not as unhealthy as people think. But trying to do recovery on your own is the hardest way to go. It is what you have already tried - unsuccessfully.

Addiction is isolating. Your world gets smaller as you give up more of your life to make more room for your addiction. Recovery involves learning to reach out and ask for help.

Show common sense when asking for help. Not everybody is your best friend. Some people might not be understanding that you have an addiction, and some people might not be supportive that you want to recover. Don’t let that stop you. There are many people who do want to help.

Develop a recovery circle. The stronger your circle, the stronger your recovery. A recovery circle should include, at least the following:

  • Close family members
  • Close friends
  • Health professionals
  • Counselors
  • Self-help recovery groups

Everyone finds asking for help difficult. This is one of the reasons that self-help groups are important. They make it easy to find help because they provide a non-judgmental and understanding environment.

Self-Help Groups

Joining a self-help group has been shown to significantly increase your chances of recovery. The combination of a substance abuse program and self-help group is the most effective strategy.[4, 5]

There are many self-help groups to choose from. Twelve-step groups include Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), Narcotics Anonymous (NA), Marijuana Anonymous (MA), Cocaine Anonymous (CA), Gamblers Anonymous (GA), and Adult Children Anonymous (ACA). There are also self-help groups that are not based on the twelve steps, including Women for Sobriety, Secular Organizations for Sobriety, and Smart Recovery.

Benefits of Belonging to a Self-Help Group

  • You feel that you’re not alone.
  • You learn what addiction and denial sound like by hearing them in others.
  • You learn what strategies have been successful in recovery.
  • You have a safe place to go where you will not be judged.

Guilt and shame are common emotions in addiction.[6] This is one benefit of self-help groups that deserves special attention. Guilt and shame are obstacles to recovery, because they make you feel like you have been damaged and that you don’t deserve recovery or happiness. Self-help groups help you overcome guilt and shame, by seeing that you are not alone. You feel that recovery is within your reach.

How to get the most out of a self-help group. It has been shown that the way to get the most out of a twelve-step group is to attend meetings regularly, have a sponsor, read twelve-step materials, and have the conscious goal of abstinence.[7, 8]

Reasons for Not Joining a Self-Help Group

These are some of the reasons people give for not joining self-help groups.

  • If I join a group, I will be admitting that I am an addict or an alcoholic.
  • I want to do it on my own.
  • I don’t like groups. I’m not a joiner.
  • I don’t like speaking in front of people.
  • I don’t want to quit one addiction and become addicted to AA.
  • I’m afraid someone will recognize me.
  • I’m not comfortable with the idea of a higher power.

I can assure you that most people who have joined a self-help recovery group have had the same objections. You may discover that these objections are really just your addiction talking, and that there are solutions to all of them. Before deciding if self-help groups are for you, give them a try and ask the people there how they overcome their objections. (Learn more about self-help groups...)

RULE 3: Be Completely Honest with Yourself and Everyone in Your Recovery Circle

An addiction requires lying. You have to lie about getting your drug, using it, hiding its consequences, and planning your next relapse. An addiction is full of lying. By the time you've developed an addiction, lying comes easily to you. After a while, you are so good at lying that you end up lying to yourself. That's why addicts often feel that they don't know who they are.

The result of all that lying is that you don't like yourself. You can't look yourself in the mirror. Lying creates a vicious cycle. The more you lie, the less you like yourself, which makes you want to escape your feelings, which leads to more using and more lying.

Nothing changes, if nothing changes. Ask yourself, will more lying, more isolating, and more of the same make you feel better? The expression in AA is – nothing changes if nothing changes. If you don't change your life, then why would this time be any different? You need to create a new life where it's easier to not use.

Recovery requires complete honesty. You must be one-hundred percent honest with the people in your recovery circle. If you can't be completely honest with them, you won't do well in recovery.

When you're completely honest you don't give your addiction room to hide. When you lie you leave the door open to relapse.

One mistake people make in the early stages of recovery is they think that honesty means being honest about other people. They think they should share what's “wrong” with other people. But recovery isn't about fixing other people. It's about fixing yourself. Stick with your own recovery. Focusing on what you don't like about others is easy because it deflects attention from yourself.

Honesty won't come naturally in the beginning. You've spent so much time learning how to lie that telling the truth, no matter how good it is for you, won't feel natural. You'll have to practice telling the truth a few hundred times before it becomes a little easier. In the beginning, you'll have to stop yourself as you're telling a story, and say, "now that I think of it, it was more like this..."

RULE 4 Practice Self-Care

There are only a few reasons why people use drugs and alcohol. They use to escape, relax, and reward themselves. In other words, people use drugs and alcohol as a form of self-care and self-medication.

Recovery doesn’t mean denying yourself ways to escape, relax, or reward yourself. It means finding better ways to do those things. If you don't find better ways to take care of yourself, you will eventually feel irritable, exhausted, and discontent. If you have those feelings for too long, you will begin to think about using just to escape.

Self-care may sound selfish. After all who has time to escape, relax, and reward themselves. But that is exactly what people do when they turn to their addiction.

Self-care is essential for mental well-being. If you don’t consciously make time for self-care, you will unconsciously make time for it by using.

Self-care doesn’t have to be fancy trips or frivolous shopping. It begins with healthy eating and sleeping habits. Develop better sleep habits so that you're less tired. Eat a healthier lunch so you're not as hungry at the end of the day. Learn how to relax so that you’re not filled with fears and resentments. These are some of the components of HALT, mentioned earlier.

Mind-Body Relaxation

When you're tense you tend to do what's familiar and wrong instead of what's new and right. When you're tense, you're not open to change.

The evidence is overwhelming that various forms of mind-body relaxation (yoga, mindfulness, meditation) are effective in reducing the use of drugs and alcohol.[9, 10] Mind-body relaxation has also been shown to prevent relapse.[11]

The first rule of recovery is that you must change your life. But what do you need to change? If people use drugs and alcohol to relieve tension, then learning to relax is one of the most important skills if you want to change your life.

If you manage to stop using, but don't learn how to relax, your tension will build and build until you'll have to relapse just to escape. Tension is the most common cause of relapse.

There is only one reason why people don't relax – because they think they're too busy to relax. It goes something like this, "I know, it makes sense, but I've got so many other things I have to do."

Ask yourself how much time did you spend on your addiction? If you add up all the time it took to get your drug, use it, deal with its consequences, and plan your next relapse, you'll realize that relaxing for twenty to forty minutes a day is a bargain.

Relaxation is not an optional part of recovery. It's essential to recovery. There are many ways to relax. They range from simple techniques like going for a walk to more structured techniques like mindfulness and meditation.

RULE 5: Don’t Try to Negotiate Your Recovery

Your addiction has given you the opportunity to change your life. Changing your life is what makes recovery both difficult and rewarding.

Recovery is difficult because you have to change your life, and all change is difficult, even good change. Recovery is rewarding because you get the chance to change your life. Most people sleepwalk through life. They don't think about who they are or what they want to be, and then one day they wake up and wonder why they aren't happy.

Your addiction has given you an opportunity, and if you use this opportunity correctly, you'll look back on your addiction as one of the best things that ever happened to you. People in recovery often describe themselves as grateful addicts. Why would someone be grateful to have an addiction? Because their addiction helped them find an inner peace and tranquility that most people crave. Recovery can help you change your life.

Relapse is rare after 5 years of abstinence. A study followed young adolescent men with and alcohol addiction who were in recovery. Some were Harvard University undergraduates, and some were non-delinquent inner-city adolescents. The men were followed, every two years by questionnaire, and every 5 years by physical examination until the age of 60. The study concluded that after 5 years of abstinence relapse is rare.[12] Recovery is possible.

Use this opportunity. Don’t resent your addiction. Don’t try to negotiate your recovery. Embrace your recovery, and you will be happier in life.

Recovery and Relapse Prevention Inventory – 25 Questions

This is a 25-question checklist based on the five rules of recovery that will show you how well you are doing in recovery and what areas you might need to strengthen.

There is a printable version of the test in html and pdf. Find your recovery score.

1. Create a new life where it is easier to not use

How often do you avoid high-risk situations, such as HALT (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) and high-risk people and places?
How often do you “play the tape through” when you have cravings?
How often do you do something to distract yourself when you have cravings?
How often do you challenge your negative thinking and look for healthier ways of thinking?
How often are you able to set healthy boundaries and say “no” to unreasonable requests?
How often are you able to resolve uncomfortable feelings instead of bottling them up?
Have you gotten rid of all the people and things that you used with?
Do you have at least 3 strategies for dealing with social settings where drinking or using is involved?

2. Ask for help and develop a recovery circle

How many times in the last month, have you gone to a self-help recovery group at least twice a week?
How many days a week do you communicate with a recovery sponsor?
How many days a week do you do step work?
How often do you reach out and ask for help when you have cravings?
When a situation arises that can affect your recovery, how often do you ask for advice before you take action?
Have you made any new recovery friends?

3. Be completely honest with yourself and everyone in your recovery circle

How much of the time do you feel you are capable of handling any challenge to your recovery?
How often are you completely honest with everyone in your recovery circle?
During the last month, were you ever so honest, when you were sharing, that you felt a little uncomfortable?
These questions apply to the last month or the time since the last counseling session.

4. Practice self-care

How often do you practice healthy eating and sleeping habits?
How many days a week do you practice some form of mind-body relaxation?
How often do you celebrate your small victories?
How many days a week do you have some fun in a clean and sober environment?
How many days a week do you write a gratitude list about your recovery, your life, and the people in it?
How much of the time do you feel that you are a good person and feel that you like yourself?

5. Don’t try to negotiate your recovery

How much of the time do you fully accept that you can’t always control your substance use?
How much of the time are you free of “using fantasies” and “using dreams?”

References

1.     Melemis, S. M., Relapse Prevention and the Five Rules of Recovery. Yale J Biol Med, 2015. 88(3): p. 325-32. PMC4553654.
2.     Beck, Aaron T., Wright, F. D., Newman, C. F., Liese, B. S., Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse: Guilford Press, 1993. p. 25.
3.     Hendershot, C. S., Witkiewitz, K., George, W. H., & Marlatt, G. A., Relapse prevention for addictive behaviors. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy, 2011. 6: p. 17. 3163190.
4.     Kelly, J. F., Stout, R., Zywiak, W., & Schneider, R., A 3-year study of addiction mutual-help group participation following intensive outpatient treatment. Alcohol Clin Exp Res, 2006. 30(8): p. 1381-92.
5.     Pagano, M.E., White, W.L., Kelly, J.F., Stout, R.L., et al., The 10-year course of Alcoholics Anonymous participation and long-term outcomes: a follow-up study of outpatient subjects in Project MATCH. Subst Abus, 2013. 34(1): p. 51-9. 3558837.
6.     Bradshaw, John, Healing the Shame That Binds You: Health Communications, 1988.
7.     Johnson, J. E., Finney, J. W., & Moos, R. H., End-of-treatment outcomes in cognitive-behavioral treatment and 12-step substance use treatment programs: do they differ and do they predict 1-year outcomes? J Subst Abuse Treat, 2006. 31(1): p. 41-50.
8.     Zemore, S. E., Subbaraman, M., & Tonigan, J. S., Involvement in 12-step activities and treatment outcomes. Subst Abus, 2013. 34(1): p. 60-9. 3558929.
9.     Benson, H., & Wallace, R.K., Decreased Drug Abuse with Transcendental Meditation: A Study of 1862 Subjects: Congressional Record, 92nd Congress, 1st session, Serial #92-1, June 1971.
10.    Shafil, M., Lavely, R., & Jaffe, R., Meditation and the prevention of alcohol abuse. Am J Psychiatry, 1975. 132(9): p. 942-5.
11.    Priddy, S. E., Howard, M. O., Hanley, A. W., Riquino, M. R., et al., Mindfulness meditation in the treatment of substance use disorders and preventing future relapse: neurocognitive mechanisms and clinical implications. Subst Abuse Rehabil, 2018. 9: p. 103-14. PMC6247953.
12.    Vaillant, G. E., A long-term follow-up of male alcohol abuse. Arch Gen Psychiatry, 1996. 53(3): p. 243-9.

Last Modified:March 31, 2020