How to Stop an Addiction

Why Quitting an Addiction Can Be So Challenging

Quitting an addiction

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

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

Many people who experience addiction are surprised at how difficult quitting can be. You may even end up wondering, Why can't I quit?

This article discusses some of the reasons why quitting an addiction is so difficult. It also covers the challenges you might face and strategies that can help you succeed.

Why Is Quitting So Hard?

Addiction affects the frontal cortex of your brain and alters your impulse control and judgment. The brain's reward system is also altered so that the memory of previous rewards can trigger craving or increased "hunger" for drugs or rewarding experiences, in spite of negative consequences.

These changes in your brain can make quitting difficult, but it is important to remember that addictions are treatable. With the right plan and resources, recovery is possible.

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

Recap

Because addiction causes changes in the brain, you might experience symptoms such as impulsivity and cravings. These symptoms can make quitting more difficult, but choosing effective treatment options can improve your ability to succeed.

Understanding Tolerance

Tolerance and withdrawal are key factors that contribute to addiction. If people didn't develop tolerance or experience 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 or need to do more of the drug or behavior to get the same effect.

Withdrawal Symptoms

When you're addicted to a substance or behavior, you may experience symptoms of withdrawal when you stop. These symptoms are relieved temporarily when you start using the substance or doing the behavior again. But they go away over time and often permanently after you quit.

Physical Symptoms

It's common to experience some unpleasant physical withdrawal symptoms when you quit. These symptoms can make quitting more difficult. Your experience with physical withdrawal will depend on the nature of your addiction, but symptoms may include:

  • Appetite changes
  • Feeling unwell
  • Muscle aches
  • Nausea
  • Shaking
  • Stomach upset

Physical withdrawal from alcohol and drugs often resolves over a period of several days. However, the process tends to be quite unpleasant, and it can be dangerous. If you decide to quit, it's best to have support from a healthcare provider. There are also medications that can help with the experience of physical withdrawal.

Psychological Symptoms

In addition to the unpleasant physical symptoms of withdrawal, you may also experience psychological symptoms. These may include:

Just as you should discuss any physical withdrawal symptoms with your doctor, be sure to also discuss mental and emotional ones.

Once you have been through withdrawal, there are still other challenges that make it difficult to stay "on the wagon." The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) suggests that while the physical symptoms often only last for around a week, the psychological symptoms of withdrawal can last longer.

Challenges When Quitting

When your addictive behavior comes to the point of creating conflict, it is out of balance with other parts of your life. Even after making a commitment to quit and going through the withdrawal phase, these conflicts don't simply go away.

It's common for people with addictions to depend on their addiction to cope with stress. When you quit, you lose that coping mechanism. This is why it is so important to have other ways of coping firmly established, ideally before quitting.

A therapist can help you with these daily challenges. Without healthy 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 challenge is felt in terms of "right" and "wrong," especially in relation to sexual and illegal behaviors. In some cases, feelings of guilt are appropriate; in others, they are not.

Guilt and Justification

The discomfort you experience when your behavior doesn't fit with your own standards of right and wrong can be a strong motivator to make changes. Sometimes, though, those feelings can work against you, causing you to justify your behavior to yourself and other people. This process 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."

"A major misstep with sobriety is the all or nothing approach," explains Margaret Seide, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist.

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.

How to Overcome Addiction

Overcoming an addiction is a process that requires making the decision to quit, planning how you will quit, dealing with the effects of withdrawal, and avoiding relapse.

Margaret Seide, MD

With addiction, you want to make sure that you set yourself for success. That means if you are trying to avoid alcohol, in the beginning of your recovery journey, avoid places where you know there will be alcohol.

— Margaret Seide, MD

"This might mean turning down invitations to barbeques or dinner parties but try to remember that there will be more gatherings in your future when you have more time in sobriety under your belt and are likely to be more comfortable making choices that are in alignment with your goals," she also adds.

Some other strategies for quitting an addiction include:

  • Prepare to quit: Before you quit, think about what you will need to do in order to give up your addiction. This might include eliminating triggers in your environment and finding social support 
  • Consider medications to treat addiction: If you have an alcohol or drug addiction, there are medications that can help you quit safely and successfully. Talk to your doctor about these options when you are planning to quit.
  • Consider your environment: Get rid of anything that might remind you of your addiction or trigger a craving. In some cases, you may find that you need to change your routines (like avoiding bars or restaurants where you used to drink) or social patterns (such as not hanging out with people you used to drink or use drugs with).
  • Find distractions: Staying busy can be a helpful way to distract yourself from cravings and temptations to relapse. Plan what you can do when a craving hits. For example, you might go for a walk, read a book, watch a television show, or call a friend.
  • Get support: Talk to the people who are close to you about your plan and ask them for support. Knowing that there are people in your corner who are willing to help you cope with the challenges of quitting can help you feel more encouraged when you are facing difficulties.

In addition to medications, psychotherapy can also be effective in helping overcome addiction. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is one approach that can help people change their thinking patterns and learn healthy skills.

It's important to remember that there isn't a single treatment that is right for everyone, so working with a therapist to find the right approach for you can improve your chances of success. Other approaches that can also be effective include contingency management, rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT), 12-step programs, SMART recovery, and mindfulness-based approaches. 

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.

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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.
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