Playing the Tape Through

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playing the tape through

Getting sober is not easy. In fact, it might be one of the most significant challenges you ever tackle — if not the most significant. Getting sober is about much more than staying away from mood and mind-altering substances. In order to achieve and maintain sobriety, you must essentially reconstruct your entire life. You must be willing to completely change the people you surround yourself with, the places you frequent, and the things you do for fun. You must be willing to change the way you approach certain situations. Above all else, you must be willing to change the way you think.

As far as our thoughts and patterns of thinking go, we only have control over a tiny fraction of our conscious minds. That is to say, we certainly can’t control whether or not a thought pops into our head at any given moment. It is often said that we cannot control our thoughts or our emotions, but we can always control our behaviors. This is an important concept when it comes to 12 Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). If you have been engaged in AA for any period of time, you have likely heard a slew of adages and idioms. “It works if you work it.” “Let go and let God.”

“First thought wrong.”

This last one, “First thought wrong,” suggests that the first thought that pops into our head usually should not be taken as gospel. As recovering alcoholics, we tend to have pretty flawed patterns of thinking. While we can’t necessarily control which thoughts surface, we can work on changing the way we think about certain things. This is the theory behind “playing the tape through” — an extremely useful and trusted relapse prevention technique. To learn more about relapse prevention or to learn about treatment options in your area, contact us today.

Addiction — A Chronic, Relapsing Medical Condition

When it comes to successfully avoiding relapse, it is important to understand the Disease Model of Addiction. The American Society Addiction Medicine (ASAM) defines addiction as, “A primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. Dysfunction in these circuits leads to characteristic biological, psychological, social and spiritual manifestations.” As the brain is repeatedly introduced to a chemical substance the physical makeup of neural pathways begin to change. Over time, substance use becomes completely compulsive — the person in question no longer has a choice in the matter.

Recognizing addiction as a brain disease helps put the whole “flawed thoughts” thing into perspective. Of course, someone whose brain is wired to think, “Get drunk or high at all costs,” will often experience thoughts that support this. It is not uncommon for someone who is early on in their recovery to have a slew of unwelcome and self-defeating thoughts related to drinking and drug use. The trick is learning to acknowledge these thoughts as just that — thoughts — and intentionally replace them with a healthier and more self-serving way of thinking.

What Does it Mean to “Play the Tape Through?”

“Playing the tape through” refers to carefully considering the outcome of a situation. For example, say you are doing a little grocery shopping after a long day at work. You walk down the wine aisle, and think to yourself, “Hm, a nice bottle of cabernet sounds good. Maybe I can get a bottle and have a glass with dinner. Just one glass; I’ll dump the rest of the wine down the drain and never mention it to anyone.” Playing the tape through might be following this delusional thought up with a more realistic one. What will really happen once you get home with the bottle of wine? Honestly?

You will have one glass, then convince yourself that one more isn’t going to hurt. Two glasses of wine with dinner. Everyone does it. Who cares?

You will realize that the bottle of wine only contains three glasses in its entirety, and you certainly don’t want the last little bit to go to waste. You’ll polish off the bottle.

The craving/mental obsession will be fully kicked into high gear. You will head to the local gas station to grab one more bottle, because the buzz is wearing off and you might as well get a little bit more intoxicated. You’ll quit again tomorrow.

You wake up after a week-long bender with a totaled car, tanked career, and drained bank account. Your loved ones are furious with you, and you are pretty furious with yourself.

Boom — you played the tape through. You have considered the consequences, allowing you to successfully avoid them. You finish your grocery shopping and hightail it home.

Other Relapse Prevention Techniques

“Playing the tape through” is one of many important relapse prevention techniques designed to make living a sober lifestyle easier. Additional methods of relapse prevention include:

  • H.A.L.T. — This relapse prevention technique encourages you to check in with yourself regularly and ask, “Am I hungry, angry, lonely, or tired?” It has been found that when these basic needs are being met, a person is less inclined to move towards a drink or a drug. Have you had enough to eat? Are you in a bad mood, and if so, are there steps you can take to pull yourself out of it? Are you lonely, and if so, can you call up a friend or grab coffee with someone in your sober network? Are you feeling sleepy; are you able to take a nap? Sometimes we can overlook our basic needs, which can put us in a precarious situation.
  • Mindfulness Meditation & Other Grounding Techniques — One of the most useful relapse prevention tools is learning how to stay grounded in the present moment. It can be easy to think about the future, worrying about what is to come, or to get stuck in the past, reliving things that have already happened and cannot be changed. Learning how to stay grounded in the present and focus on how you are feeling without judgment can help you move through periods of anxiety or depression more easily.
  • Developing an Exit Strategy — If you are still fairly new to sobriety you might not have a firm grasp on your personal limits. For example, you might go to an event at a local brewery, assuming beer will play a small role in a night that is meant to revolve around something else entirely. You might quickly find that beer is in fact the star of the show, regretting your decision to show up at all, and wondering how you can make a quick and stealthy escape. It is a good idea to have an exit strategy in place if you are doing something that could be risky to your recovery. Let a sober friend know where you are going and to expect a call from you in the case of an emergency.


If you or someone close to you has been struggling with a substance use issue of any type or severity, engaging in a 12 Step program might be a beneficial solution. 12 Step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous can serve as a standalone treatment option in some instances, though we recommend a step-down treatment program for those who have been using chemical substances continuously for an extended period of time. A higher level of care might also be beneficial to those who have underlying, co-occurring issues, like unresolved trauma, anxiety, or depression. If you would like to learn more about the treatment options available to you, or if you would like help determining which course of action makes the most sense for your unique case, contact us today. At 12 Step Illinois we are dedicated to helping people of all ages and walks of life move in the direction of recovery. We understand how difficult it can be to take the initial step and reach out for help. However, once you take this step, you are well on your way to living a beautiful and fulfilling life free from the devastation of addiction. We look forward to speaking with you soon and answering any additional questions you might have.

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