Harm Reduction and Improving Life in Recovery

Recovery from addiction or other harmful behaviors can be challenging to approach. We might want to see significant changes quickly or hear someone promise to stop the behavior altogether before they begin recovery. This is especially true of potentially dangerous or hazardous behaviors, such as drug abuse, alcohol addiction, or self-injurious behaviors. Due to the severity of these behaviors and the consequences, we want the person to end them immediately. However, we might need to look for ways to compromise. We might feel that there is no room for compromise with certain behaviors. Unfortunately, we might be unintentionally pushing a person away from the recovery process by making our support conditional. When utilizing harm reduction approaches, we can gradually work toward success and recovery and celebrate small wins along the way.

What Is “Harm Reduction?”

Harm reduction means that we are seeking to reduce harm. For recovery, this means that we are not starting with abstinence-only approaches. We are looking for ways to reduce the amount of harm by changing our expectations. For example, if a person drinks 12 beers every night, rather than telling them they need to “quit right now or else,” we find a way to reduce the behavior. Perhaps, we suggest they drink only seven beers every night to reduce the bodily damage of excessive drinking. While drinking seven beers per night might not be our desired end goal, we are making some progress in reducing the behavior. Fire Mountain’s Aaron Huey and Dr. Debbie Patz discuss harm reduction in the podcast “Harm Reduction When It Hurts.” While harm reduction may seem somewhat controversial, Dr. Patz discusses her approaches and thought process in greater detail during the episode.

Process Behaviors and Unhealthy Habits

Some behaviors that can be harmful to a person are still partially necessary for them to live a full and happy life. Addictive process behaviors, like sexual addictions, “screen” or cell phone addiction, or over-eating, cannot be “ceased” entirely. We cannot cure sexual addictions with an abstinence-only approach, leaving the person unable to maintain romantic relationships successfully. Cell phones, the internet, and other “screens” are a part of our everyday lives. Food can be misused like a drug to cope with stress by overeating, but we obviously cannot stop this behavior entirely!

Harm reduction can be an appropriate means of tackling process addictions for our teenagers. We might need to set limits or find replacement coping strategies to deal with underlying issues causing excessive behaviors. When behaviors like sex, eating, or screen time become harmful or hurtful, we can see that a problem is emerging in otherwise natural and healthy behavior. Harm reduction would approach these processes by finding ways to engage in the behavior less or decrease the intensity over time. While our teens may have other “bigger” behaviors, like drug use or cutting, they may also have other harmful behaviors. Reducing some of these other behaviors and replacing them with healthy ones can open the door for recovery from other maladaptive behaviors.

Acceptance and Unconditional Positive Regard

Harm reduction exists on a spectrum. We cannot find an absolute way to reduce the harm of every behavior. We might need to work with what we can to get a small win. Depending upon what underlying issues are influencing the harmful actions, our teens may not have the coping skills to deal with life, and abstinence does not necessarily “fix” these other issues. We need to understand why they are suffering in the first place. We can start to introduce helpful behaviors as they reduce the harmful ones. When we place conditions on recovery, such as, “you can only get into treatment if you are clean and sober,” or “you need to stop drinking first, then focus on other things,” we might be unintentionally pushing our teens away. 

The first step we are asking them to take with abstinence-only treatment may seem insurmountable. They might feel like a failure if they are unable to get sober right away. The recovery process might require us to help them build momentum as we lower our initial expectations. We can build momentum by helping them find manageable goals to progress forward. As they gain confidence in making positive changes, even small ones, they can develop a healthy mindset they need to tackle the bigger issues in their lives. Start by encouraging them to make a change that they can do successfully. As you set them up for success, they will gain momentum and move in a growth-minded direction!

Harm reduction can be an approach to addictions that we might need to consider instead of hard and fast conditions like the immediate cessation of a behavior. Sometimes, taking a hard and fast approach can lead to resistance. We might need to rethink how we tackle our teenager’s addiction and help them build momentum. We can look for things that they can do to get them started on their pathway to success. By looking for compromise and accepting our teens no matter what, we can help to understand and resolve the underlying issues driving the problematic behaviors. Harm reduction can also be used to manage “process” or behavioral addictions. Some of these addictions, like overeating or sexual addiction, cannot be treated with an abstinence-only approach. If your teenager is struggling with an addiction and you are unsure what to do, reach out to us at Fire Mountain Residential Treatment Centers. Give us a call today at (303) 443-3343. We’re here to help your family’s fire burn brightest.

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