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Harm Reduction Vs Abstinence: How to Recover From Substance Use

Harm reduction and abstinence are two approaches to addressing substance use disorders, and each has its own set of goals and principles. Abstinence focuses on completely refraining from any drug use. Harm reduction approaches focus on reducing the negative consequences associated with substance use, including mitigating the risk of overdose or disease transmission.

Both have their benefits and risks, and it's important to be aware of each philosophy when evaluating your own recovery process.

Understanding Harm Reduction Programs

Harm reduction strategies offer numerous benefits to individuals, social services, and communities. On a macro level, harm reduction methods may include decriminalizing substance use, offering safer injection practices, providing drug consumption rooms, and emphasizing harm reduction policies in mainstream legislation.

On a micro level, harm reduction focuses on providing immediate safety. For example, having access to naloxone kits or clean needles can literally save lives. Overdose prevention is possible, and harm reduction interventions can help keep communities safer. Finally, for many people, medication-assisted treatment via naltrexone or buprenorphine also provides the opportunity to function well without needing to be fully abstinent.

But harm reduction can be a slippery slope. It may be challenging to set parameters for yourself if you're practicing moderation. Likewise, if you have a history of moderate or severe addiction, using any mood-altering substance may trigger old addictive behaviors.

With that, drug use is inherently risky, and the rising epidemic of fentanyl continues to ravage people of all ages and demographics. Even if you think you're using safely, if you buy drugs illicitly, you absorb this inherent risk.

Understanding Abstinence for Substance Use Disorders

For a long time, conventional addiction treatment philosophy has focused on the merits of abstinence. Abstinence-based approaches focus on complete abstinence from drug use. Those who believe in this philosophy warn against the pitfalls of moderation, suggesting that moderation is often a fallacy.

There can be some truth behind this thought process. For instance, moderation is not feasible for everyone, and some people must quit taking drugs or drinking alcohol if they wish to improve the quality of their life. Furthermore, abstinence may be necessary for individuals experiencing significant medical problems, including cirrhosis, certain blood disorders, and heart failure. Similarly, it's known that substance use can aggravate mental health issues, and abstinence may be a catalyst in promoting a more meaningful recovery.

Some people find that the black-and-white nature of abstinence makes it easier to stay the course. Unlike harm reduction, which inherently leaves some room for subjectivity, abstinence is clear-cut.

One of the main downsides of abstinence is the perfectionism that can sometimes come with it. People may think they're a "failure" if they slip. Or, they might use one slip as an excuse to continue relapsing. Since they have to "restart" their start date, the ups and downs of recovery can feel incredibly discouraging.

Which Method Is Right For You?

Substance abuse treatment is complex, and no one model works effectively for everyone. With that said, some people move from a harm reduction model to an abstinence approach. Others might stay abstinent from alcohol or drug use for an extended amount of time- after feeling more stable, they may feel comfortable broaching a harm reduction approach.

Regardless of which method you choose, the following resources are critical for your recovery:

Having the right support: It's important to have a trusted team of people who believe and care about your wellness. These individuals should have your back and also be willing to hold you accountable to your goals. Your support may include loved ones, a therapist, sponsor, life coach, sober coach, and more.

Positive coping skills: Drug use comes with many negative consequences, and everyone in recovery needs practical skills they can use during stressful moments. No matter what your life looks like, start building a working list of skills that promote a sense of feeling grounded, confident, and settled.

Having a relapse prevention plan in place: Whether you're implementing harm reduction or abstinence, it's essential to be aware of the early warning signs of relapse. It's equally important to look after yourself if you're struggling. While reaching out for help can be scary, dealing with addiction in isolation can be far more detrimental.

Considering your past history: It's important to discern what hasn't been helpful for you in the past. For instance, maybe you've tried cutting down on substance use or have attempted to moderate, but it hasn't worked. That doesn't mean it can't work now, but it may be beneficial to evaluate what you need for your circumstances to change.

Dynamic Mental Health Services at Resurface Group

At Resurface Group, we adamantly believe in meeting individuals where they're at in their recovery processes. It can be deeply empowering to explore various approaches to support your overall wellness.

People who use drugs are never broken, bad, or beyond help. Instead, people experiencing addiction need compassionate, empathic guidance as they piece their life back together.

At Resurface Group, we understand the complex interplay between substance use disorders, mental health issues, distressing family dynamics, and more. We are dedicated to providing evidence-based care in everything we do, and we are equally dedicated to helping people build authentic and meaningful lives.

Contact us today to learn more about our approach, including our new program, Resurface Connect, a fully-virtual intensive outpatient track. If you'd like to see what your insurance covers, verify your insurance benefits to learn more.

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