Why Quitting an Addiction Can Be So Challenging

Quitting an addiction

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

You've recognized you have a problem—that your addictive behavior is affecting other parts of your life—and you want to know how to quit an addiction. The chances are that you didn't expect to become addicted when you started. You may have thought you were just having fun and could quit at any time.

Many people who develop addictions are surprised at how difficult they find their first attempt at quitting, and end up wondering, Why can't I quit?

Why Is Quitting So Hard?

The good news is that you can quit, although it is a complicated process. There are many factors, physical, mental, emotional, and biological that make quitting difficult. This is why so many people find treatment helps to guide them through the complex process of quitting–although many people are successful quitting on their own.

Addiction affects the frontal cortex of your brain in such a way as to alter your impulse control and judgment. The brain's reward system is also altered in such a way that the memory of previous rewards can trigger craving or increased “hunger” for drugs or rewarding experiences, in spite of negative consequences.

When you find yourself thinking, feeling, or acting in a particular way that goes against your decision to quit, you can be more compassionate with yourself, and keep trying.

Understanding Tolerance

Tolerance and withdrawal are key factors that contribute to addiction. They are strongly interconnected and significant contributions to why you got addicted in the first place. If people didn't develop tolerance and withdrawal, they would probably find it a lot easier to quit.

Tolerance is both a physical and psychological process. The more times the behavior is repeated, the less sensitivity you have to it, and the more you need to get the same effect. Drugs, such as alcohol and opiates, work on specific parts of the brain, creating physical tolerance.

Behaviors, such as sex and gambling, produce feelings of excitement that get less intense over time. As tolerance develops, you may want to do more of the drug or behavior to get the same effect.

Withdrawal Symptoms

As you become addicted, you may experience withdrawal when you aren't able to do the addictive behavior. Physical withdrawal symptoms may occur, such as shaking, feeling unwell, stomach upsets, and/or psychological withdrawal symptoms, such as feeling cravings, anxious, or depressed. These are easily "fixed" by more of the addictive substance or behavior.

Physical withdrawal from alcohol and drugs although variable, often resolves over a period of several days. However, it tends to be quite unpleasant and it can be dangerous. If you decide to quit, it is best done under medical supervision.

Discuss physical withdrawal with your doctor for the best way to approach this. Once you have been through withdrawal, there are other challenges that make it difficult to stay "on the wagon."

Impediments to Quitting

When your addictive behavior becomes excessive to the point of creating conflict, it is out of balance with other parts of your life. Conflict may occur within yourself—you want to rein in your behavior while, at the same time, have greater urges to do it. Conflicts also occur with other people—whether they want you to quit or want you to join them in the addictive behavior.

Despite making a commitment to quit, and going through the withdrawal phase, conflicts do not simply go away. Expectations are higher than ever before. The one thing you depended on to cope with stress—the addictive behavior—is now off-limits.

This is why it is so important to have other ways of coping firmly established, ideally before quitting. A therapist will help you with this. Without coping strategies in place, you are likely to experience strong urges to go back to the addictive behavior "one more time." Relationship support can help you deal with and avoid conflicts without using your addictive behavior for comfort and escape.

Ambivalence, the mixed feelings of both wanting to continue with the addictive behavior and wanting to quit, is part of the addictive process even in the early stages of experimentation.

Often, this is felt in terms of "right" and "wrong," a moral dilemma, especially in relation to sexual and illegal behaviors. In some cases, guilt feelings are appropriate; in others, they are not.

Guilt and Justification

The discomfort of these feelings of guilt when your behavior doesn't fit with your own standards of right and wrong can be a strong motivator to make changes. Sometimes it can work against you, causing you to justify your behavior to yourself and other people. This can get in the way of the decision to quit.

Some common justifications are:

  • Denial"It's not a problem."
  • Minimization: "I have already cut down."
  • Comparisons: "Pollution is more dangerous." "Uncle Ted drinks far more than I do."
  • Defiance: "I would rather live a shorter life and be happy than quit and be miserable."
  • Rationalization: "I've never stolen to finance my habit," "I am way more sociable when I've had a drink."
  • Lesser of two evils: "Better I do it than I be impossible to live with."
  • Misinformation: "Cancer doesn't run in my family." "It has medicinal uses, so it's OK." "Chocolate is the only cure for PMS."
  • Taking behavior out of context: "In some cultures, polygamy is acceptable."
  • Glorification: "Queen Victoria used to…" "Patriarchs in the Old Testament had many wives." "Jesus drank wine."

How Can You Quit?

Therapy can help you to cope with uncomfortable feelings and help you unravel the irrational thoughts that keep you addicted. Quitting is not easy or straightforward, but a good support group and treatment program will help you achieve it when you are ready.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Understanding Drug Use and Addiction. Updated June 2018.

  2. National Institutes of Health. Drugs, brains, and behavior: the science of addiction. Updated July 2018.

  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse for Teens. Tolerance, Dependence, Addiction: What's the Difference?. 2017.

  4. Alavi SS, Ferdosi M, Jannatifard F, Eslami M, Alaghemandan H, Setare M. Behavioral Addiction versus Substance Addiction: Correspondence of Psychiatric and Psychological Views. Int J Prev Med. 2012;3(4):290-294.

  5. Withdrawal Management. In: Clinical Guidelines for Withdrawal Management and Treatment of Drug Dependence in Closed Settings. Geneva: World Health Organization; 2009.

  6. Feldstein Ewing SW, Apodaca TR, Gaume J. Ambivalence: Prerequisite for success in motivational interviewing with adolescents? Addiction. 2016;111(11):1900-1907. doi:10.1111/add.13286

  7. Iwanicka K, Gerhant A, Olajossy M. Psychopathological symptoms, defense mechanisms and time perspectives among subjects with alcohol dependence (AD) presenting different patterns of coping with stressPeerJ. 2017;5:e3576. doi:10.7717/peerj.3576

Additional Reading
  • American Psychiatric Association. Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th Ed.) Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. 2013.

  • Canning M. Lust, Anger, Love: Understanding Sexual Addiction and the Road to Healthy Intimacy. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks. 2008.