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What Does “Play the Tape” Mean?

In the olden days, video and sound were recorded on magnetic tape. If you wanted to see what happened in a video, you had to play the tape. In the context of addiction, “play the tape” means before you drink or use drugs, think through what will happen. “Playing the tape” to the end in your head reminds you why you wanted to stop drinking or using in the first place and it can help you ride out a craving.

When you crave a drug, there is no long-term planning involved. You just know you want the drug. You feel bad for whatever reason–you’re stressed, you’re depressed, you’re lonely, you’re bored–and the drug represents an easy escape. Once you take it, you know you’ll instantly feel better and that’s as far as you get. That moment of feeling better is enough to make you relapse.

Once you take that first step, the whole scenario plays out as usual and the next thing you know you’re worse off than when you started. The worst part is, this was totally predictable. You have probably gone through the whole thing hundreds of times–the first drink, then why not another, then you feel good, then you don’t remember anything except waking up somewhere and you can’t find your phone. Now you have to start over in recovery and whatever problem made you drink in the first place is still there but now you’re hungover and you can’t call anyone.

“Playing the tape” means thinking beyond that first drink and following it to its inevitable conclusion. Don’t pretend you don’t know what’s going to happen, because you do. The more clearly you can picture the disaster that’s sure to follow, the better you will be able to resist going down that road.

The reason this works is simple. The part of your brain responsible for cravings is not that smart. It just screams “Want!” at you and you go along with it. “Playing the tape” involves the rest of your brain, and especially your prefrontal cortex, which is central in making decisions. Ordinarily, cravings shove that voice of reason right out of the way. When you “play the tape” though, your prefrontal cortex recruits help from your other senses, which are more closely tied to your emotions. When you can vividly imagine the consequences of a relapse, including all the inevitable pain, guilt, and disappointment, you have a more effective counterbalance to the impulsive craving.

“Playing the tape” takes a bit of practice. It might be hard to even remember to do it. Once you get the hang of it though, it can be a powerful tool. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, Gardens Wellness Center can help you detox and decide on a treatment strategy. Call us today at 844-828-1050 or email us at to learn more.