Can You Treat Habits and Addictions Without a Support Group?

Dear Dr. Burns,

Do you believe that addictions can be healed without a support group? And if so, why is there no book by Dr. Burns specifically on addiction recovery?


Dr. David’s Response

Hi Ploni,

Thanks for your question. I have a new workshop on addictions and habits for next year, so I have been thinking about this topic. Also, some of my students and colleagues in my weekly training group at Stanford treat habits and addictions, including eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse, and so forth. So we spend quite a bit of time developing new treatment techniques.

I think that support groups, like AA or Smart Recovery, can be helpful for many people with addictions, and support groups like Recovery International (formerly Recovery, Inc) can be helpful to people with mood or relationship problems. However, some people can conquer habits and addictions without a support group. Partly, it depends on the severity of the problem and the motivation of the individual.

Many people believe that people overeat or use drugs or alcohol to self-medicate their own depression, loneliness, or low self-esteem. While this may be partially true in some cases, I believe that habits and addictions are primarily motivational problems, and not emotional problems. My recent research on approximately 160 patients admitted to the Stanford Hospital’s psychiatric inpatient unit did not seem to support the notion that depression and anxiety trigger addictions. In fact, individuals who were depressed actually tended to binge less, on average, than individuals who were not depressed. I have not published this finding, as the main focus of the research was different–but the negative correlation between overeating and depression was consistent with conventional psychiatric thinking that a loss of appetite can be a symptom of depression and low self-esteem.

In addition, I could not validate the idea that depression and low self-esteem have a causal effect on alcohol or drug abuse, either. But a brief assessment test I developed called the “Urges to Use Scale” was massively correlated with drug and alcohol use. This seems to indicate that positive, seductive temptations are the driving force behind most, if not all, addictions.

In other words, my findings suggested that people drink or overeat or use drugs primarily because it feels darn good to overeat or get high.  So why do we overeat? I believe that we overeat because of the abundance of good food in our society, and because eating is immediately reinforcing. Of course, alcohol and drugs are also widely available in our culture, and TV ads provide powerful temptations to drink.

While distortions are involved in addictions, they are mainly positive distortions, such as “Oh, that beer would taste SO GOOD!” Or “I deserve some dark chocolate right now. I’ve had such a hard day.” I have created a list of ten positive distortions that correspond to the ten negative distortions in my books, such as Feeling Good. They positive distortions are mirror images of the negative distortions, and I will post them soon on my website.

Of course, negative distortions also play a role in addictions, along with positive distortions. After giving in to the temptation to drink or overeat, we may scold ourselves with negative distortions: “I SHOULDN’T have eaten that chocolate. I’m just a fat pig. I’ll NEVER lose weight!” These thoughts can trigger feelings of shame and hopelessness, which can trigger more addictive behavior, such as overeating or compulsive drinking.

Unlike negative distortions, positive distortions create immediate positive consequences if you give in to them. That’s why habits and addictions can be challenging to treat, and why motivational techniques are of tremendous importance. Traditional cognitive therapy techniques can be helpful for the negative distortions, but new and different kinds of techniques are needed to combat the positive distortions, such as Paradoxical Agenda Setting, the Decision-Making Form, and the Devil’s Advocate Technique, to name just a few. Of course, Empathy and respect for the patient are also extremely important.

All the best,

David D. Burns, M.D.