Researchers explore whether future thinking can help with addiction recovery

ROANOKE, Va. – People battling substance use disorder too often end up sacrificing their jobs, health, and relationships to feed their addiction. However, there’s some fascinating new research happening that might help them find a way out.

Warren Bickel, who heads the Addiction Recovery Research Center at Virginia Tech’s Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, has been studying this. He discovered something interesting—most of us can imagine ourselves four years into the future, but for people with addiction, it’s hard for them to see beyond a week.

Previous research has also shown that people who struggle with substance use disorder tend to prioritize short-term rewards over long-term gains. However, this thinking can cause those with substance use disorder to struggle even more.

“We found that among individuals in recovery from addiction that if they have a short-term perspective, they’re more likely to relapse,” Warren Bickel, who directs the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute’s Addiction Recovery Research Center, said to Virginia Tech’s radio station.

Bickel and his team are conducting two studies to see if a technique called episodic future thinking (EFT) can make a difference. EFT encourages those struggling with drugs and alcohol to imagine future events in their lives, whether it’s a week, a month, or even years ahead.

Bickel said even thinking of something as simple as a nephew’s birthday could have profound results. “It actually whisks people into the future, and they can see beyond the immediacy of the moment. The effect that we see on their thinking about the future increases, just like you’ve exercised a muscle,” Bickel said.

Bickel said this research could pave the way for other studies about how our perceptions change our behavior, even teaching skills to kids to reduce risky decisions.