Cognitive Models of Addiction Recovery

Relapse Prevention
An influential cognitive-behavioral approach to addiction recovery and therapy has been Alan Marlatt’s (1985) Relapse Prevention approach. Marlatt describes four psychosocial processes relevant to the addiction and relapse processes: self-efficacy, outcome expectancies, attributions of causality, and decision-making processes. Self-efficacy refers to one’s ability to deal competently and effectively with high-risk, relapse-provoking situations. Outcome expectancies refer to an individual’s expectations about the psychoactive effects of an addictive substance. Attributions of causality refer to an individual’s pattern of beliefs relapse to drug use is a result of internal, or rather external, transient causes. Finally, decision-making processes are implicated in the relapse process as well. Substance use is the result of multiple decisions whose collective effects result in consumption of the intoxicant. Furthermore, Marlatt stresses some decisions—referred to as apparently irrelevant decisions—may seem inconsequential to relapse, but may actually have downstream implications that place the user in a high-risk situation.

Consider Figure 1 as an example. As a result of heavy traffic, a recovering alcoholic may decide one afternoon to exit the highway and travel on side roads. This will result in the creation of a high-risk situation when he realizes he is inadvertently driving by his old favorite bar. If this individual is able to employ successful coping strategies, such as distracting himself from his cravings by turning on his favorite music, then he will avoid the relapse risk (PATH 1) and heighten his efficacy for future abstinence. If, however, he lacks coping mechanisms—for instance, he may begin ruminating on his cravings (PATH 2)—then his efficacy for abstinence will decrease, his expectations of positive outcomes will increase, and he may experience a lapse—an isolated return to substance intoxication. So doing results in what Marlatt refers to as the Abstinence Violation Effect, characterized by guilt for having gotten intoxicated and low efficacy for future abstinence in similar tempting situations. This is a dangerous pathway, Marlatt proposes, to full-blown relapse. Figure 1 presents a schematic diagram, adapted from Marlatt & Gordon, which has been modified to present examples of the cognitive and behavioral processes that may occur at each juncture of the model.

Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse
An additional cognitively-based model of substance abuse recovery has been offered by Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive therapy and championed in his 1993 book, Cognitive Therapy of Substance Abuse. This therapy rests upon the assumption addicted individuals possess core beliefs, often not accessible to immediate consciousness (unless the patient is also depressed). These core beliefs, such as “I am undesirable,” activate a system of addictive beliefs that result in imagined anticipatory benefits of substance use and, consequentially, craving. Once craving has been activated, permissive beliefs (“I can handle getting high just this one more time”) are facilitated. Once a permissive set of beliefs have been activated, then the individual will activate drug-seeking and drug-ingesting behaviors. The cognitive therapist’s job is to uncover this underlying system of beliefs, analyze it with the patient, and thereby demonstrate its dysfunctionality. As with any cognitive-behavioral therapy, homework assignments and behavioral exercises serve to solidify what is learned and discussed during treatment.

Emotion Regulation, Mindfulness, and Substance Abuse
A growing literature is demonstrating the importance of emotion regulation in the treatment of substance abuse. For the sake of conceptual uniformity, this section uses the tobacco cessation as the chief example; however, since nicotine and other psychoactive substances such as cocaine activate similar psychopharmacological pathways, an emotion regulation approach may be similarly applicable to a wider array of substances of abuse. Proposed models of affect-driven tobacco use have focused on negative reinforcement as the primary driving force for addiction; according to such theories, tobacco is used because it helps one escape from the undesirable effects of nicotine withdrawal or other negative moods. Currently, research is being conducted to determine the efficacy of mindfulness based approaches to smoking cessation, in which patients are encouraged to identify and recognize their negative emotional states and prevent the maladaptive, impulsive/compulsive responses they have developed to deal with them (such as cigarette smoking or other substance use).