Warning Signals

It is the enemy whom you do not recognize who is the most dangerous

Fernando Rojas

Rather than a defeat of the will by overpowering temptation, relapses often unfold without any struggle at all. Perhaps the lapser did not think the lapse would be a mistake, or at least not a big mistake. In hindsight, it becomes all too obvious that a first lapse is disastrous. Sadly, that realization will not protect you in the future.

During high-risk situations your perception will be biased differently than it is now. You are likely to be as inattentive to future dangers as you were to the warning signals you encountered in the past. Local conditions can elicit unintentional trance formation so rapidly and subtly that you will probably fail to recognize the danger in time to do anything about it.

The solution to this problem is early warning. To inoculate yourself against future relapses study past relapses. Personal research of the cause-and-effect principles that operate during the critical moments when you are vulnerable to relapse provides the knowledge that enables you to exercise your will when the path of least resistance leads to relapse. Please click here for the Reserach Tool that will enhance your understanding of yourself and how you react during relapse crises.

There is much to be learned from reviewing the sequence of events that led to previous relapses. The payoff for investing some time in this personal research is the acquiring the capability to identify external and internal cues that you can awaken you to act during high-risk situations.

Generic Warning Signals

  • Goal Oriented Excuses: Permitting a lapse will help me achieve some goal.
    • Example: “A few drinks will help me relax and perform well in this social situation.”
  • Minimization: Underrating the negative consequences of a lapse; ignoring the painful lessons of past lapses.
    • Example: “I’ll just surf the web for a few minutes, it won’t cause a problem.”
  • Selective Anticipation: Attention to the immediate pleasurable aspects of the lapse, while ignoring its delayed painful consequences (often accompanied by minimization).
    • Example: “Doing a line of coke would feel so good."
  • Why questions: Posing a “why” or “why not” question with the tacit understanding that if you can’t answer it at the moment you have license to lapse.
    • Example: “Life sucks anyway, so why shouldn’t I have a little fun?”
  • Reactance: Motivational reaction to restriction of a freedom.
    • Example: “Other people can make a bet now and then so why can’t I? I’ll do what I want!”

There is a river in Egypt . . .

Denial is the stealthiest and yet the most straightforward cognitive distortion mechanism. The chain of events that leads to relapse often unfolds autonomously without rationalization or justification. Coping tactics are not deployed because the person does not perceive the need for them. You are in danger of drowning in denial whenever your cognitive resources are compromised. The mnemonic HALT (Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired) stands for some of the situations that tax cognitive resources, rendering you vulnerable to denial and the autonomous paths to relapse.

The Event Horizon

If you you are following the path of least resistance to relapse, your last opportunity to exert will may be the realization that you are thinking about the incentive. If your attention is captured by the incentive, you must recapture it without delay. Any thought or image of the incentive—or people, places, and things associated with it—reduces the psychological distance and exponentially increases the influence of the PIG. Thinking about the incentive is always a warning signal, often your last chance to act intentionally. Other cues that you may be able to use as warning signals.

  • Apparently Irrelevant Decisions – Attraction to activities that are seemingly unrelated to the addictive behavior, but decrease the distance between you and the incentive.
  • Thinking about circumstances in which it might be OK to use the incentive.
  • Debating with yourself about lapsing.
  • Imagining how it would feel to re-experience some aspect of the incentive. [Note: Dreams about the incentive are not warning signals, and may in fact be part of what the Psyche goes through on the path to recovery.]

Cracks Undermine the Watercourse Way

Homeowners discover that if there is a crack in the plumbing system the water will find it. Once a leak occurs, something effortful must be done to repair it, because it is more likely to get worse and cause expensive damage than it is to get better by itself. Likewise, any crack in your approach will tend to grow with time and can undermine your entire effort. As soon as you notice any crack, you must address it immediately.

The most common cracks have to do with waning motivation to stay abstinent as the costs of incentive use fade in memory. Contemplation and Dickensian exercises are useful here.

Probably the next most common set of cracks involve failure to execute the intended coping response during the high risk situation. The Hardening Exercise, in the next chapter, is recommended in such circumstances.

Preventing relapse requires that you are able to repair the idiosyncratic cracks that develop in your system. The Stages of Change Model is useful to guide your approach to repairing the cracks that show up.

As is often the case with complex systems, initial design is one thing and long-term maintenance is quite another. Once the system is in place, it is important to recognize and repair cracks or leaks before they cause extensive damage.  The following is a common report:

 “At first there was no question about adhering to my commitment to abstinence, but at some point the door to the first lapse was open, and using became possible. I am not aware of the moment when I made a conscious decision to violate my vow. Nevertheless, something had changed even before the lapse had occurred.”

Once incentive use becomes possible, it becomes inevitable

As soon as you become aware of even a small crack in your resolve you must repair it immediately—this may be your last chance to rescue victory from the jaws of defeat.

Interrupting the flow of the ordinary experience in order to wake up and respond intentionally will seem forced, weird, or un-spontaneous. It is! The default path—the one that flows effortlessly—follows the path of least resistance to incentive use. To move in the direction of greatest advantage, you must react non-automatically to the situations that would put you at risk of relapse. The payoff for responding as intended each time is that these intentional reactions eventually become your default.

Thought Experiment: Efficacy Enhancing Imagery.

Consider an area of your life in which you are usually successful—athletic, artistic, occupational, social, etc—and imagine what it feels like to be you when you take on a challenge in this domain. Elaborate this imagery until you experience the confident state associated with high self-efficacy. Now, imagine that you are presented with an impressive new challenge in this domain: What is your attitude toward it? How would you expect to react to the discomforts and frustrations you encounter?

History Review

The best predictor of what you will do in the future is what you did the last time you faced a similar circumstance. Previous lapses provide a treasury of warning signals. That fact that you lapsed means that you did not recognize them as warning signs. Now you know more than you did then and can learn from this expensive education in cause-and-effect. It is strongly recommended that you invest some time with the History Review to discover your own idiosyncratic warning signals, so you can use them to awaken yourself at the critical moments.


Personal Research: Your History >>
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