Adjusting to Change – Curve-balls in Addiction Recovery

I started to write this article about a week and a half before public safety and public health became part of the global news. The article originally started with “Rigid thinking can be the reason we struggle to move freely through the mundane aspects of life”. Surely, that is even more true today as it was weeks before the pandemic became the only news.


Adjusting to Lifestyle Changes

At Sanford Outpatient Center, much like the rest of the world, we are working to adjust to the lifestyle changes necessary to support a healthy and safe environment for our clients. Amidst the over-saturated news of COVID-19 and the public outcry for social distancing, we are all trying to figure it out. 



The intent of this article was to talk about psychological flexibility vs. rigidity. That is, our tendency as human beings to decide ahead of time how our experiences are going to be. Our brain likes to assign and interpret meaning to our daily itinerary. That way we know what to expect. When we plan to get coffee at Starbucks, we know we might wait in a line. But if we are making it at home, we get very frustrated if it seems the coffee takes too long to brew.


We cast these rigid projections all over the place, unconsciously. We assign rigid expectations to our family, our friends, our food, our therapist, our morning run, our day at work, you name it. To use what seem now like dated examples, if our Uber is late, we might spend minutes fuming about how Uber is responsible for our missed appointment. When we should look for a plan B and call a friend. Or if our family wants us to move into sober living after a relapse in our recovery program, we might have a hard time embracing that change. 


Most brains encourage a train of thought that is linear and straightforward, which can at times inhibit our ability to get creative in our problem-solving. Especially true in our current times when everything seems unexpected…


Bored while adhering to STAY-AT-HOME orders?

A smaller, more common example is finding yourself bored while at home all the time. But you have three novels you have been “meaning to read”, a coloring book, food to cook, and a treadmill in the basement. Sound familiar? We often discount those small-but-meaningful items as non-options due to rigid thinking. Instead, we could consider stepping back and allowing them to be a choice. 


Rigid thinking can be corrosive for those in early recovery. There are so many small adjustments that come at that time. At the Sanford Outpatient Center, clients are asked to step back and make incremental decisions in their daily life that support sobriety.


For example: Embracing virtual addiction treatment. Deleting a phone number. Writing thoughts down. Starting an exercise routine. Attending a support group meeting online. Small shifts in eating habits. Taking more deep breathes. Walking outside. Practicing gratitude. Smiling when you don’t feel like it. The same goes for the family and friends of those entering recovery, we must be open to new approaches.


Psychological Flexibility?

The American Science of Addiction Medicine reports that one must address their thoughts, emotions, and mental health issues before working on their unique propensity to relapse. That means before we can identify barriers to recovery and address them, we must consider the way we think. This means we need to adopt some psychological flexibility. Psychological flexibility is the ability to step back and re-assess a situation without feeling constrained by our own expectations. If I am having a bad day and find a place to meditate, but my family members are making a lot of noise – can I practice flexibility and put in earphones and do yoga instead? 


Psychological flexibility is even more important now …

In the therapeutic world, the practice of psychological flexibility allows us to think in the grey area. Black and white thinking keeps us stuck in places we do not want to be; shame and guilt abound in these places. If we know that attending 7 support group meetings each week is the goal, not the hard-line expectation, we are more apt to practice self-grace and self-forgiveness if we fall short. Actually, falling short is something we all do quite often. We are human beings, not human doings. We cannot expect that we will do everything right all the time.


Psychological flexibility is about leaving the door cracked for ways we can pivot and still achieve a healthy experience while accepting our very human nature. 


Leaving the door cracked to adjust and still find a healthy outcome is going to be the mantra of the Sanford Outpatient team in the coming weeks. Due to COVID-19, we have had to be flexible in the way we provide our services. Moving to a virtual addiction treatment option has tested us all when it comes to our psychological flexibility. We take the health and safety of our clients and our staff very seriously, while wanting to provide the best care possible. And we are committed to practicing our own creativity to continue to ensure quality experiences with positive outcomes. 


Ali Kitchin grew up outside of San Francisco, but most of her extended family lives in Michigan, so she’s glad to call Grand Rapids home these days. Ali has a bachelor’s degree in social work and a master's from Baylor University. She was a clinical manager at Sanford Outpatient Center and worked for Sanford from 2018 to 2023. In her free time, Ali loves to run (when weather permits), read science fiction novels, or be outside with her dog, Pepper!