Proactivity vs Reactivity in Recovery

Proactive thinking is characterized by planning ahead and working toward a goal in a coherent way. Reactive thinking is more like being caught by surprise and scrambling to deal with a novel situation. Both are necessary in daily life, but if you rely too much on reactive thinking in recovery, you’re making things harder than they need to be.

If you are proactive in recovery, you are aware of all or most of your possible triggers and you have a plan to deal with each of them. You know what time of day is best for certain tasks and you manage your schedule to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed. You also have a plan for emergencies, even if it’s something as basic as calling your sponsor or a reliable friend.

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If you are reactive, you make it up as you go. You probably know some of your triggers, but you don’t structure your life to avoid them or have a plan for what to do if you encounter them. You have frequent temptations and emergencies. Tasks often seem overwhelming and you often have a lot to do at the last minute.

Obviously, it’s better to be proactive than reactive. You experience less stress and find yourself in fewer dangerous situations. It’s also much easier said than done. Not only does being proactive require self-awareness, foresight, and discipline–qualities most of us could use more of–but studies have also shown that addiction can actually impair your ability to notice patterns and think ahead, which makes proactive behavior difficult.

A recent study* has shown that proactivity and reactivity reflect different organization in the brain’s white matter–essentially the wiring that connects different regions of the brain. Reactive behavior is characterized by poorer connectivity, therefore many of your actions lack input from important areas of your brain. It’s like trying to organize a birthday party when half your friends only communicate by carrier pigeon. One important implication of this study is that, to the poorly wired brain, every situation is a surprise, and therefore these people feel much higher anxiety.

The good news is that this situation can be improved. You can work with a therapist or addiction counselor to figure out your triggers, how to avoid them, and how to deal with them. You can also improve your brain’s wiring by eating healthier, especially more omega-3 fats, like from salmon and tuna. Probably the best thing you can do is exercise. Studies have shown that exercise improves the kind of top-down thinking that characterized proactivity.

Smarmore Castle Private Clinic in County Louth, near Dublin was founded in 1988 as a residential rehabilitation hospital treating people suffering from drug and alcohol purposes. Smarmore Castle believes in helping patients lead a life of abstinence through 12 Step programs, detox and medical treatment, psychotherapy, and complementary therapies. For more information, please call 041-214-5111. For those who live out of the country, the international number is 00353-41-214-5111.

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