What “Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes” Means for Your Recovery

Start recovery by realizing nothing changes if nothing changes.

If you are in the early stages of recovery and have started attending a peer support group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), you’ve likely heard many sayings come up repeatedly in meetings. One of the most commonly repeated AA mantras is “nothing changes if nothing changes.” This saying reminds members that small, consistent changes are the key to moving toward their larger recovery goals.

What Is the Meaning of “Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes”?

“Nothing changes if nothing changes” is an AA mantra that invites you to make the changes in your life necessary for recovery. This phrase reminds you that your life is ultimately shaped by the seemingly small decisions made daily.

Recovery is more than simply sobriety—it involves changing your lifestyle and daily routine.

Making recovery-focused choices day-by-day or moment-by-moment allows you to create a life that helps meet your goals. According to the American Psychological Association, starting small, focusing on one thing at a time, and receiving support from others are proven ways to make changes that will last. Focus on the actions and events that are within your control and break larger goals down into smaller steps.

Steven M. Melemis, MD, Ph.D., writing for the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, states that changing your life is the first rule of recovery. Simply refraining from using drugs or alcohol is not enough to achieve lasting recovery. If you do not change your life and work towards creating a lifestyle that makes it easier to avoid alcohol use in the future, the same factors that led to alcohol use in the past will still be present and make it difficult not to fall back into long-standing patterns.

 

Many people enter into recovery hoping they won’t have to change. They view the need to change as something negative and wish for the familiarity and comfort of their old lives back.  What they don’t realize is that their “old life” was filled with challenges and negative thought patterns that led to their alcohol use and contributed to continued alcohol misuse.

 

People in recovery may view recovery as an all-or-nothing prospect. This is where Alcoholics Anonymous sayings such as “progress not perfection” come into play. Small but significant changes can have a profound impact if implemented deliberately and consistently.

How Are Sayings Like “Nothing Changes if Nothing Changes” Used in Recovery?

The sayings and mantras commonly used in AA are short, easy-to-remember phrases that encapsulate some of the program’s key principles. They make it easy for anyone to understand and practice AA’s concepts and guidelines. They encourage individuals in recovery to stay the course when things get tough.

These quotes have persisted in the AA community for decades because of the deeper meaning they provide to people in recovery. Many AA members find great solace in repeating phrases or mantras that help promote a positive mindset and serve as a reminder of the principles of the program. Some daily quotes are compiled in the book Daily Reflections.

Research indicates that positive thinking can have a tremendous impact on mental health, physical health, coping, and quality of life.

Positive thinking can help you:

  • Identify and choose appropriate coping strategies
  • Seek social support when needed
  • Perceive risks, such as potential relapse triggers
  • Adopt healthy lifestyle behaviors

How Can You Change Negative Thought Patterns?

Alcohol addiction treatment programs typically include cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) because changing negative thought patterns and developing new coping skills are critical to relapse prevention.

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Negative thoughts—such as “I can’t handle life without alcohol” or “lifelong recovery is too hard”—can contribute to relapse. CBT aims to help you break old habits and create thought patterns that lead to new behavior patterns.

The negative thought patterns associated with addiction are often characterized by cognitive distortions—thought patterns that don’t accurately reflect reality. Two common cognitive distortions that can affect addiction and recovery are:Nothing changes if nothing changes includes your thought patterns.

  1. Black-and-white thinking—Another name for an all-or-nothing mentality, individuals who have developed black-and-white thinking may view any mistake as a complete failure or any character defect as a sign of personal worthlessness. Black-and-white thinking may also lead to perfectionism.
  2. Discounting the positive—When discounting the positive, an individual may devalue an achievement as being “minor,” imagine the worst possible outcome, or view themselves in a negative light.

Cognitive distortions related to a negative future outlook and self-image can lead to increased depression, anxiety, stress, and resentment, which in turn increases the risk of relapse.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy has been shown to help restructure the brain by creating new neural pathways, ultimately establishing new thought patterns. CBT often focuses on recognizing one’s own cognitive distortions and biases in order to change the actions that those core beliefs lead to.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy can also help individuals understand that recovery is built on learning and practicing coping skills other than substance use, rather than trying to stop using alcohol out of sheer willpower.

What Other Changes Are Important During Recovery?

In addition to learning how to change your own thought patterns and instinctive behaviors, you may need to make changes to your social network, living situation, and overall environment.

Change “Your Places”

Look for new hangouts where you enjoy spending time and where alcohol is not served, such as coffee shops, cafes, or the gym. If you continue to spend time at the same places, you will be exposed to more environmental cues, such as alcohol advertisements and smells.

In addition to new physical places, you may need to find new activities to replace time you used to spend in locations or at events where alcohol use is normalized. You may ask your friends to join in these activities with you or take up personal hobbies.

Acknowledging nothing changes if nothing changes can start with your environment.

Commit to Honesty

Practicing complete honesty with yourself and others is another vital change to focus on during recovery. “We’re only as sick as our secrets” is another AA adage.

Continuing to downplay or deny your alcohol use puts you at risk of relapse. Individuals in recovery should try to be as honest as possible, when doing so does not involve disclosing others’ personal information or putting yourself at risk.

Being honest often includes letting friends and family members know exactly why you no longer go to certain restaurants, would prefer that they did not serve alcohol at dinner, or will miss an event because you will be at a support group or therapy session.

Ask for Help

Asking for help when necessary is also critical during recovery. Trying to go through recovery on your own may stem from a desire to prove you have control over your alcohol use. However, research indicates that a combination of an addiction treatment program and a support group is the most effective approach for achieving sobriety.

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Practice Self-Care

Learn how to practice effective self-care, which is a significant but often overlooked aspect of recovery. Practicing good self-care can help you find ways to regulate your emotions and take care of the needs that may have previously been met by using substances.

It’s important to remember that self-care and selfishness are not the same things. Taking good care of yourself—physically, mentally, and even spiritually—can help you be your best in every area of your life.

Research quoted by Melemis shows that individuals with substance use disorders are likely to be critical of themselves and may deny their own needs. This can lead to feelings of resentment or anger, which can be triggers for substance misuse. Self-care means taking what you need for yourself, but not more. That could involve taking better care of your physical health, getting adequate sleep, and setting boundaries in your relationships.

Stick to the Rules

Don’t try to bend the rules, including rules you set for yourself with the help of your treatment team. Looking for loopholes can lead to gradually becoming less focused on recovery and more focused on your “old life” and what alcohol “gave you.”

If you do not make the change toward adopting a recovery-focused value set, the patterns of substance use in your life also may not change.

For many people, the first change in recovery is professional addiction treatment. Call 800-839-1686Who Answers? to speak to a specialist about alcohol rehab programs.

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