The Dangers Of Ritualised Behaviours In Addiction And Recovery And How To Overcome Them

What Are Habits & Rituals?


A habit is defined as a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up.


A ritual is defined as a ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a set order with the same outcome being sought or achieved each time.

Ritualised Behaviours

A ritualised behaviour is defined as activities that we perform so frequently that they require little conscious thought. You might say they’re things we do on “autopilot.”

“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”

John Dryden, English poet & playwright

Consider This…

Have you ever driven or travelled home at the end of the day and then realised that you don’t remember anything about the drive or the journey? Or maybe you’ve left the house and then wondered if you forgot to lock the door?

Making a familiar trip and locking the front door are examples of ritualised behaviours. These are activities we perform so frequently that they require little conscious thought. You might say they’re things we do “on autopilot.”

When someone has a drug or alcohol addiction, substance use often becomes a ritual of its own. There might be a time of day or location where they typically use or drink, or they might always perform a certain routine before using or drinking. These behavioural patterns then become strongly ingrained over the course of a person’s life in active addiction.

For Example…

You use heroin and crack cocaine daily. You withdraw money from the same cash machine each time you see the dealer, you then meet the dealer at the same location each time, call them when you get to a set location and then once you’ve collected your drugs, you then travel the same way home each time.


You drink daily at your local pub or bar. You wait at home until a set time when you then leave home and travel on the same bus or walk the same route each time. Once you arrive there, you sit or stand at the same place inside and you order the same drink each time. Often the same member of staff is working and they already have your drink waiting for you when you arrive. You then go home after drinking the same drinks and the same amount before travelling home the same way.

Unfortunately, even once a person has stopped using substances, the rituals they developed can be very difficult to break.

These ritualised substance use behaviors can lead to significant relapse risks unless we understand how to gain an active awareness of them, along with how to counteract them.

The Power Of Substance Use Rituals

It’s human nature to develop rituals around things that we do consistently. But individuals in recovery from substance addiction may find their old rituals working against them.

Jennifer Parker, Clinical Supervisor at Tara Treatment Center

In a lecture film about addiction from 1994, Louise Mark, RN, compares substance use rituals to wheel tracks in a dirt road. Back in the days of horse-drawn wagons, the wheels of many passing carts and carriages would create deep grooves in the road. These grooves would harden over time, creating ruts that guided the wheels of future wagons.

This is a bit like what happens in the neural pathways of the brain when a behaviour becomes strongly ritualised. Certain people, places or situations can trigger ingrained behaviours that we perform without conscious awareness.

For Example…

Suppose your drug use ritual was to withdraw money from the ATM and then take a specific road to your dealer’s house. Once you’re in recovery, you obviously know that you shouldn’t go to your dealer’s house anymore. But now, say that you’re intending to go to the grocery store, and you stop at that same ATM and drive down that same road you used to take to your dealer’s house.

Automatic pilot can tend to kick in, and before you know it, you could be sitting in front of your dealer’s house with a bag of your drug of choice instead of at the grocery store, even though that’s not what you were intending to do, because that behaviour is ingrained in you, without actively thinking about it your actions ran on “autopilot”.

Climbing Out Of The Behavioural Rut

What can someone do to avoid falling back into their ritualised substance use behaviours?

The most effective remedy is to avoid the triggers for these behaviours whilst creating and actively using safer alternatives to avoid falling back into autopilot or confronting overwhelming cravings or temptations to use or drink. This idea goes hand-in-hand with the Alcoholics Anonymous motto about changing “people, places and things.”

The point is to recognise all of the behaviours that ultimately lead to your substance use and look at where you can make safer, reliable changes. For example, if you always drank out of a favorite glass, then you should throw that glass away. If you typically used with a certain friend or scored at a certain location, then you should stop spending time with them if they’re still using or avoid going to that location.

Sometimes however, it’s not possible to completely avoid a trigger. When this is the case, try to make changes to the situation or environment that grab your attention and interrupt the “autopilot” process.

For example, if you always used in your bedroom and the environment is now triggering cravings, you could rearrange the furniture or add some sobriety-related decorations to the room. You could also swap rooms in the house if possible. If you are still struggling with this, you may also want to possibly consider moving homes completely.

At the end of the day, becoming and maintaining your sobriety and abstinence should be your highest priority and should be treated as seriously as you would with a life or death situation, as many thousands of addicts each year loose their battle with addictions and it should be your highest priority to ensure that you don’t join the ever increasing number of fatalities.

Old & New Morning Rituals/Routines

How To Build Your Own Self-Care Ritual With Healthy Habits

Your rituals will be as unique as you are, and they can be as simple or as elaborate as you’d like them to be. Do whatever helps you feel good in a way that supports your physical and mental health.

If your new habits or rituals allow you to gain another day healthy, clean and sober, then it’s worth doing.

Drink ‘n’ Drugs

Here are some key things to keep in mind when building your new ritual:

  • Start Small – The key to developing new habits (and having them stick) is by starting small and repeating them until they become ingrained until they become just another action you can perform on “autopilot”. So at first, just try one new thing. If that’s just trying a new, quick, simple mindfulness exercise in the morning, that is an excellent start!
  • Your Existing Ritual Might Just Need A Slight Tweak – You don’t always have to completely overhaul your routine, it may just be a matter of making a few small change to your current habits and daily routine. For example, you can try taking a new route home that doesn’t pass by the liquor store or bar, or take a short break to stretch and relax in a local park, beach or forest after a work meeting.
  • Your New Nighttime Ritual Should Include Things That Make You Feel Better Without Using Drugs Or Alcohol – This will be different for everyone, so try and experiment with different things that help you to let go of the daily stresses you have experienced. Incorporate pleasant sensory experiences when trying out new healthy habits before bed: nice scents like lavender and chamomile, herbal teas, soothing sounds, hot baths or showers, doing something creative, speak to others about your stresses or worries, or try journaling, blogging or writing in a diary etc.
  • Your Rituals Will Grow & Change With You – Our rituals in early recovery will look different as time goes on, as you gain more experience or coping strategies and as your needs change the longer you are abstinent. We can’t realistically expect to shed all of our bad habits at once. So instead of trying to ditch sugar, caffeine, nicotine, Netflix and social media etc, all at the same time as quitting drinking or using drugs, remember that you’ll be able to gradually swap out unhealthy habits for new, constructive healing practices as you work through them one at a time. But it’s important to remember it is a process that takes time. You didn’t become an addict overnight and you won’t be able to fix everything overnight either.

Do You Need A Bigger, More Comprehensive Overhaul?

Sometimes, especially in very early recovery when you are new to no longer using drugs or alcohol, you may need a bigger boost to your recovery efforts. In a previous article, we looked at creating and implementing a daily recovery Plan which will help you to structure your day, ensuring that you are making the most of your day, filling it with healthy things including:

  1. Healthy eating & drinking (not alcohol)
  2. Exercise
  3. Maintaining simple things like showering, changing your clothes and brushing your teeth among others which we often neglect in active addiction
  4. Attending and getting the most from daily recovery activities like fellowship meetings, courses, groups, appointments and others
  5. Ensuring that you socialise with others who don’t drink or use anymore either
  6. Time for creative activities, hobbies, interests and fun!
  7. And others

You can also find free downloadable templates or you can have fun and be creative by making your own. You can read our ultimate guide and access our templates by clicking here.

7 Morning Rituals to Supercharge Your Recovery

What you do first thing in the morning can set the tone for the rest of the day, and this is why it is so important to have some positive morning rituals to get things off to a good start.

If you are recovering from an addiction, it is even more important that you take control of your day with positive habits because this is going to strengthen your sobriety/abstinence and make long lasting changes.

Picture This…

You wake up late and you are rushing around to get ready for work. You leave your home feeling stressed and in a bad mood before you’ve even properly started your day, and this is only made worse by the fact you then get stuck in traffic.

When you get to work, one of your colleagues makes a funny comment about you being late and you snap back with an angry response. You then don’t talk to each other for the rest of the day. Your bad mood means you are less productive than normal, and your boss tells you off for a careless mistake. It ends up being a bad day all-round and all because you started off on the wrong foot.

If you perform some morning rituals, it means you are better prepared for the day ahead. The fact that you are starting with a positive mind-set means you are more easily able to deal with stuff like traffic jams, irritating remarks and criticism from the boss.

These rituals also tend to make you more productive, and they can even boost your creativity as well as your physical health, mental health and general, overall well-being.

Here Are 7 Morning Rituals To Supercharge Your Recovery:

1. Morning Recovery Readings

The mornings can be a good time to read inspirational and motivational recovery material. If you don’t have much time, you could choose something like the Alcoholics Anonymous 24-hour book or other publications or the Narcotics Anonymous Just For Today readings.

These publications contain short readings, thoughts for the day for every day of the year, along with more comprehensive reading should you want to.

These days you also have the option of recovery audiobooks and podcasts that you can play in the background while you get prepared for facing the day ahead. Developing this morning ritual is going to strengthen your sobriety by helping you ensure that staying clean and sober remains one of the highest priorities in your life.

2. Positive Visualisations In Bed

You can start your morning preparations even before you get out of bed, and one way to do this is using positive visualisations. This is where you try to imagine as vividly as possible, your behaviour during the rest of the day – e.g. you can see yourself being super-productive and focused on your work, laughing with friends or colleagues and successfully completing difficult tasks that you may be facing that day.

Positive visualisations have been used by athletes for decades, and it is also a popular tool with entrepreneurs. It works because to a certain extent, the brain responds in the same way to imagined behaviour as to behaviour in the real world.

By imagining yourself acting in a positive way throughout the day, it tricks the brain into realising feel-good chemicals that can then give you the energy and motivation to do what you were imagining in bed.

It’s not magic, it’s science!

3. Morning Meditation Or Mindfulness Exercises

Meditation or mindfulness is a superb morning ritual that can improve your mental and physical health. It also improves your ability to deal with stress and negative situations.

There is no real need to learn any fancy meditation or mindfulness techniques or sit in an exotic posture with your legs wrapped behind your head! Simply putting your attention on the movement of the inward and outward breathe for a few minutes can be all you need if you are new to this.

Mindfulness and meditation is a particularly good practice for those of us who are recovering from addiction. This is because it involves learning to feel comfortable with the present moment, whether it be positive or negative and developing the ability to see thoughts and feelings in a more objective way and accepting what’s happening around you simply for what it is. Nothing more, nothing less.

Seeing your thoughts, cravings and temptations like clouds passing through the sky, will help you better manage them. They will come, go and change as you experience them. However overwhelming they may feel, they will subside and go away.

You can learn more about this and how to use the coping strategy of urge surfing to manage cravings and temptations by clicking here.

If you don’t feel like you have enough focus to be able to sit down and meditate – you can choose moving meditation or mindfulness techniques such as yoga, tai-chi, or even chi-running. You can learn more about these by searching for them online in your favourite search engine.

4. Morning Exercise

Morning exercise gets blood and oxygen pumping into your brain, so you feel more alert. There is some evidence to suggest that a workout boosts your brain power for about ten hours afterwards, however the exact number is still being disputed.

Getting a bit of exercise also releases some feel-good hormones such as serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins that boost your mood and make you better able to handle the challenges and stresses of the day ahead. It’ll also give you more energy, more productive, more creative, improves your physical and mental health along with many, many other benefits besides.

You don’t have to push your body too hard to enjoy most of the benefits of morning exercise – a brisk walk, a small bicycle ride around your block or a short, 10 minute mild, beginners exercise video which can be found online or on YouTube would be a manageable commitment for most of us.

Likewise, if you want to enter recovery and abstinence, yet are still using or drinking, exercise helps to speed up the excretion process to get the drugs or alcohol out of your body more quickly.

5. Morning Yoga Workout

Yoga can be the perfect choice for the mornings because it can combine meditation with exercise – two positive habits for the price of one. Lots of animals have a stretching routine for when they wake up, so it is easy to understand why it can be an important task to include in your new daily routine. Morning yoga can get the oxygen pumping in your brain and it will wake you up faster than even the strongest coffee without needing stimulants from things such as coffee or tea.

You can learn a few, simple positions by watching videos online or by attending a group yoga session which will also provide the added benefit of being able to socialise with others, whilst learning positions and experience from an expert instructor too.

6. Gratitude Lists

When we first become clean or sober, it is easy to feel grateful for our new life because everything is so new, and the scars of drinking or drug use are still fresh in our mind. So long as we remain grateful, our sobriety or abstinence is secure, but the problem is that we humans have a habit of taking things for granted once we become used to them on a longer term basis.

Your level of happiness is not determined by the how much stuff you can accumulate or how many new experiences you can have, but by your ability to appreciate what you already have. There are plenty of people who can afford almost every luxury, yet they feel bored and dissatisfied. There is almost certainly enough in your life now for you to be happy, but you just need to become more aware of these blessings.

A gratitude list is where you write down all the good things in your life, and it is a powerful technique to increase your current level of happiness. It only takes a few minutes to do this work, but the benefits can be extraordinary. Make this one of your regular 7 Morning Rituals to Supercharge Your Recovery and you will find that each day there are new things to feel grateful for.

We have looked at creating your own gratitude lists with some examples to get you going in a previous article of ours which you can read here.

7. Listen To Some Uplifting Or Motivational Tunes Or Podcasts

Music can have a powerful impact on our mood and listening to some uplifting or motivational tunes first thing in the morning can be energising. It’s a nice idea to create your own playlist for the mornings, and you can listen to this while getting ready, or travelling into work. If you are doing a morning workout, this music can be perfect for getting you in the mood for exercise.

Not only that but once you’ve got this built in to your daily routine, your mind will associate music with feeling good and prepare you better for the coming day ahead.

Podcasts with other people’s motivational stories can be a really helpful tool in motivating you in those tough moments. You may also learn new skills or knowledge, along with learning from other people’s mistakes without you needing to experience them yourself!

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