The Myth of Willpower

The Myth of Willpower

The family and friends of addicts very often believe that the addict’s problem is one of willpower. The family believes that if the addict wanted to recover enough, s/he would simply do so. If only that were the case, many millions more people would overcome addiction and tens of thousands would not die each year from overdose.

The American Psychological Association defines willpower as the ability to forego short-term gains or pleasures to meet long term goals. Don’t eat the chocolate cake today and you may not suffer complications of diabetes tomorrow. Willpower is also a form of conscious self-regulation. I am going to live a healthy lifestyle, so I will exercise five days a week – and follow through on that plan. Exercising willpower is part of acting like an adult: saving money for house repairs, doing the dishes before you go to bed, or eating a healthy diet. Willpower is something we all have and use.

However, in those who suffer from addiction, the ability to use willpower to refrain from substance abuse is compromised. This is because the brain is changed by the addictive process. As a person abuses a substance, the brain’s structure and function change; the brain reinforces drug seeking behavior. Before long, a person gets high because the brain propels him/her toward that choice. The individual doesn’t so much choose to show up to work drunk or not show up at all, as the brain pushes the individual to get drug and work – whether it happens or not – becomes a secondary concern, a sort of afterthought once the need to get high has been met. Willpower is no match against this kind of neurological demand.

Unfortunately, things and activities that are not healthy for us are much more powerful brain drivers on the whole than that which is healthy. Would you rather have chocolate cake or brussel sprouts? Most people choose the chocolate cake. This is because chocolate has a much greater impact on the reward centers of the brain than vegetables do. Drugs and alcohol are no different. The activities and substances that delight the brain are those that are subject to becoming abused. Even healthy activities, like sex or exercise, can become problematic if indulged in too often. These too can become compulsive behaviors.

The hope for those seeking recovery is that while the changes to the brain cannot be undone, new neurological patterns can be laid. It takes time and concerted effort, but it is possible. Some of the best tools for developing the brain in healthy ways are meditation and yoga. Those in addiction treatment who begin an active, daily practice of meditation or yoga will find many positive outcomes, not the least of which is that the brain will develop healthier neurological pathways that support positive decision making.

No, you can’t “Om” your way to overcoming addiction, but it is proven that while willpower will have little or no impact on addiction recovery, meditation, yoga, and other contemplative practices change the brain in positive ways that will improve and support substance abuse recovery.


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