There’s a phenomenon sometimes used to discuss the positive memories and associations that linger within a person who has overcome Substance Use Disorder. While their experience throughout their active using could have been terrible, leading them to experience dire consequences, they might still remember it in a positive light because of this physiological symptom. It’s called “Euphoric Recall.”
How one remembers the past can have a profound effect on their future behavior. If they are traversing sobriety for the first time, they will remember the ease and comfort felt from their substance of choice in a positive light and be tempted to go back to it.
When does Euphoric Recall Occur?
While we know euphoric recall is the tendency people recovering from addiction have to remember experiences positively, the other part of it is that they will ignore and selectively forget the negative. This is where the AA phrase “play the tape” comes from. Though it’s difficult to remember painful memories, and something one doesn’t want to dwell on all the time, it’s imperative to remember why you are where you are.
As we try to make it a good habit to remain positive, especially after having gone through something as difficult as addiction, we cannot totally negate the past. Within addiction treatment, we make sure to pay mind to our past mistakes so moving forward, we will be better people and not make them again. Using drugs and alcohol makes us reckless of others, and turns us into selfish beings. These reasons are just a few of the many perils that addiction brings, and the reasons why we choose to get sober and aim to stay sober.
A person in recovery experiencing euphoric recall, for example, may be thinking back on their time of using. They may think of the laughs and good times they had with other friends, or perhaps the blissful feeling they experienced when using drugs. This is especially dangerous, as they are remembering the exceptions, not the rule. They won’t choose to remember the hangovers experienced after a night of drinking, or the feeling of being handcuffed after getting arrested. They won’t remember the shame and angst they felt when they stole money from their spouse’s wallet. These are just some examples of the difficulties one can experience throughout active addiction, and they are memories no one would truly wish to remember and think of very often. But they are lessons, and they are reminders for how those substances can bring us down to be people we would never want to be again.
To that end, any good effects associated with a substance that caused your life so much harm will pale in comparison to the detriments. By giving into this euphoric recall, selectivity in thinking makes you gravitate towards the pleasant memories, while blocking out all the bad events and episodes that transpired, which can cause an inflated sense of safety from addiction, or surge in confidence. It may make you question your sobriety, and wonder if life wasn’t better when you were using. This can even be so dangerous as to convince a person that picking up will lead to more happiness, or, on a lesser degree, that relapsing won’t cause damage.
Effects of Euphoric Recall on Addiction
Addiction affects the hippocampus, which is a large structure that holds the responsibility of forming memories within the brain. Here, it stores them and retrieves them when needed. It is an essential part of the brain, vital for processing spatial and environmental cues.
During addiction, there are changes made to the brain that massively affect the hippocampus, disrupting the natural balance of brain chemistry. After these changes occur, the way a person processes events or stores memory is changed. In the event of a euphoric recall, the context of memories is significantly changed.
The hippocampus is responsible for:
- Resisting impulse
- Managing anxiety
- Dealing with stress
- Forming and recalling memories
- Creating emotional responses
- Forming habits
The hippocampus, which is found in the brain, has plenty of connections with areas like the nucleus accumbens. The hippocampus is a significant part of the addiction circuit. These connections and dopamine’s effect on the connections affect the memory. Misremembering content leads someone to be susceptible to addiction behaviors, opening up the floodgates for triggered impulses, letting down defenses, and rethinking reasons for sobriety in the first place.
Drugs and alcohol provide emotional relief, but the brain uses all available tools to gain the chemicals when it wears off. Someone will only remember the highlights of his or her drug use and the fun times they brought. They might even remember that the fun was had simply because of the drug or alcohol use—it will play almost like a highlight reel. Through this thought process, they will forget the pain, destruction, sickness, and trapped feelings of addiction. They will forget all the negative consequences it led to.
Recovering from addiction can be hugely affected by euphoric recall. A single episode of the recall can destroy months of efforts at attempting a recovery. The patient will crave the drug use experience, and he or she will be more likely to relapse. This is particularly true in early recovery when one is especially susceptible to cravings; their inclination toward picking up will be even stronger because their body still desires the drink or drug. If they do give into the temptation to use and pick up a drink or a drug, their effect on the brain may even cause the user to take in more drugs to lengthen the memory.
The Effect of Euphoric Recall on Relapsing
Euphoric recall has been found to be a leading cause of relapse, mostly because of the incorrect remembering of what using was like. In order to tap in more to the positive memories they believe are there, people might seek out places, people, or things that remind them of their use, because they yearn for more familiarity and context to what they are remembering. It’s almost as if they wish to prove it to themselves. For instance, they will visit the neighborhoods where they used to purchase drugs, or go to a restaurant where they used to drink at the bar. It might even be less direct—they might go to a grocery store they don’t normally go to simply because it’s in closer proximity to where they used to use. This trick of the mind can have power over them completely subliminally, and they won’t even be aware of what they’re doing at first.
This coincides with the danger of one’s environment’s potentially causing a relapse. The temptation is because of your mind fighting to recall past experiences and occasions more vividly, thus making you more vulnerable and unable to fight the temptation. Environments are massive factors for the euphoric recalls and triggers. It does not matter how small the trigger is; it can bring the memories flooding back.
We cannot stop euphoric recall, and it is one of the main challenges for early drug recovery stages. The best defense we have is to be prepared, and to shore up means of accountability for yourself. What this looks like is having a friend or family member who can make you accountable for your time, actions, words, and money. This will empower you to handle triggering situations and use methods you’ve learned in addiction treatment to avoid relapse. While it’s normal to be nostalgic about the past, being able to differentiate a memory from a desire is of utmost importance.
Relapses are a massive setback for drug and alcohol recovery, and can have such damaging effects when they happen in the very early days of the process. Avoiding anything that can reignite bad habits is crucial. Psychological support, therapy, and practicing mindfulness have all proven to be helpful in strengthening your defense against relapsing.
Recognizing the Risk of Euphoric Recall
Recognizing the signs of a euphoric recall is be one of the main ways to prevent relapse. As soon as the euphoric recall signs appear, taking early measures to prevent their effects can help minimize the risk of picking up. As mentioned above, having a trusted person in your life to be accountable to is huge. This could be a sponsor, therapist, doctor, family member, peer, and so on. As long as their intentions are for you to stay sober so you can continue on the path of recovery, they will be a good confidant and be able to help you during the process.
You can also use triggers and cues to recognize that you need to reach out for help. This can give you enough time to get in touch with your support system, whomever that might be. By taking measures before effects from euphoric recall hinder your recovery efforts, you can avoid a relapse. While this may seem like you are choosing to dwell on the negative effects and consequences, and may make you feel as if you are living in the past, know that there’s a big difference between that and choosing not to remember things selectively, thus endangering yourself. You are making a concerted effort to realize that drugs and alcohol brought you down for a reason, and try as they might to have you remember things differently, you can recognize the harm in them now.
The most positive way you can move forward is to commit to making new memories, and living in your newfound happiness that is supported with clarity and balance. Your mind will recover from the past, and those memories that are pulling you backwards will fade as you get stronger. You will no longer feel nostalgic about the past environment, and you will be mentally safer and unburdened by the substance that caused your life such havoc. It’s onward, upward, and onto big and better things.