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Thoughtful Words: How Language Plays a Role in Recovery

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  • Thoughtful Words: How Language Plays a Role in Recovery

In all aspects of life, language is important. The words we say and how we say them carry a weight, and the wrong word choice can be particularly damaging in ways we do not often realize until much later. For someone who is going through recovery, language can be especially powerful and rules for its use should be followed carefully.

The Use of Labels
positive self talkPositive language enhances and promotes recovery.

Labels, though often necessary in the world of medicine, are not necessarily helpful in recovery. Downplaying labels can be much healthier for those in recovery. For example, the DSHS states, "Whenever possible, use the person's name." This is a particularly easy distinction to make and shows how both medical health professionals and other patients can help individuals in recovery feel more at ease.

The DSHS gives helpful hints of how to either not use or downplay labels in recovery when making reference to patients.

  • "The people in our program"
  • "Cathy has a mental illness"
  • "Alice lives with bipolar disorder"

These key phrases are much more positive than something like "the bipolar person" or "the sufferer of drug addiction." Using them helps patients have more confidence in themselves and "avoid[s] equating the person's identity with a diagnosis."


According to the BBS, "the use of negative or fatalistic language such as 'poor prognosis' can serve to demoralize persons." This is true for recovery as well. Those who are attending this type of treatment will do better with positive words rather than negative ones. If at all possible, the use of positivity in the way medical professionals deliver their news gives a person a higher chance of positivity in their own outlook.

In group therapy, there is the possibility for sharing problems and the negative aspects of one's life. However, most patients and counselors alike are instructed to try and be positive when discussing another patient's situation. It can be difficult to attend group and hear negative opinions; some patients can even feel attacked. Attending one-on-one counseling sessions may be the time for a deeper, less positive analysis if necessary.

Avoiding Trigger Words

Most people in rehabilitation, from those recovering from drug addiction to eating disorders, will have some sort of trigger word. Different patients will have different words, and other patients as well as the medical staff should be aware of them. It should be encouraged that patients recognize them and possibly switch to the use of another word or to just avoid them entirely.

Every patient will experience different triggers, and they should all be treated with real concern as patients are encouraged to change their diction and expand their vocabularies away from it.

The NIDA states, "Effective treatment attends to the multiple needs of the individual." It can be surprising but the need for consistent and thoughtful language plays a huge role in recovery, no matter what disorder the person is living with. Making sure that language is beneficial is a large part of counselors', doctors', and nurses' jobs in recovery centers. Also, how often and precisely you use the right words can help you toward a better long-term recovery, as it may change the way you look at yourself in a very big way.

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