How to Stop Addiction and Why It's So Difficult
You never decided to develop an addiction but you can decide to stop.
It was never your choice to become physically, mentally, and emotionally dependent on a substance that is destroying you from the inside out, but perhaps once gave you such relief. You're here now because you've witnessed the devastating effects of addiction on yourself, your life, and the people you love. Maybe you've tried to quit an addiction, and you're now truly realizing that willpower is only one piece of the puzzle.
In this article, we'll delve into why stopping an addiction is so hard. We'll look at why your brain tells you to use drugs and alcohol even when you don't want to. Finally, we’ll explore how to truly stop your pattern of addiction so you can experience the emotional and mental freedom you deserve.
What is addiction?
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, addiction is “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment, and an individual’s life experiences. People with addiction use substances or engage in behaviours that become compulsive and often continue despite harmful consequences.”
In the US last year, 20.4 million people were diagnosed with a substance use disorder, while only 10% received treatment. The percentage of people who actually managed to stop an addiction will be even lower.
Although addiction is incredibly widespread and pervasive, it’s important to know that recovery is possible.
Why stopping an addiction is so difficult
As you know by now, stopping an addiction is hard. So many people have a false idea that all it takes to quit an addiction is to stop using. However, this is so much easier said than done, as addiction itself is incredibly complex. It extends far beyond just physically engaging in drug or alcohol use.
Why your brain tells you to use alcohol and drugs even when you don't want to
Drugs impact multiple areas of the brain, including the prefrontal cortex, the basal ganglia, and the amygdala. This means that ongoing use impacts areas of the brain that control your impulse control, judgment and decision-making. Your ability to feel pleasure and even how sensitive you are to anxiety and feelings of uneasiness also get impacted by substance use.
Further, when you begin to use substances, the neural pathways in your brain actually become rewired after ongoing use. This essentially means that the programming of your brain after continuous drug and alcohol use has wired you to constantly seek substances.
This is why even when in your heart, you want to stop an addiction, it feels like something greater than you is driving you to repeat the same behaviours that have caused so much destruction. Your brain has become rewired and is seeking the source of your addiction.
Tolerance and withdrawal in addiction
Another physical reason why stopping an addiction is so hard is because your body has become dependent on the substance. When you don't give your body the number of drugs or alcohol that it has become accustomed to receiving, you feel sick. Your body experiences what is known as withdrawal symptoms.
These withdrawal symptoms can be incredibly uncomfortable depending on what substance you were using and how long you were using them for. Withdrawal from certain substances, such as alcohol and benzodiazepines, can be life-threatening. This is why it is recommended to go on a medically assisted detox rather than attempting to stop addiction by yourself.
Aside from the biological dependence on drugs and alcohol that your body develops, substances have also provided something for you emotionally, whether you realise it or not.
The emotional and mental elements that make it difficult to stop an addiction
There is a saying that goes, “not everyone with trauma develops an addiction, but everyone with an addiction has trauma.”
When you started using drugs and alcohol, it's likely that they were providing a source of relief and perceived healing for you.
Maybe substances helped you…
- Forget about painful memories
- Numb your difficult emotions
- Help with difficult emotions
- Ease your anxiety
- Feel something after empty
Of course, the substances were a band-aid. They didn't actually help heal anything within you, even though it felt like a temporary reprieve.
When you try to stop an addiction, the emotions you were running away from all come right back to you. It can be incredibly difficult to face these emotions and memories when you aren't equipped. This can lead to relapse for so many.
In conjunction with this, you may have never learned how to sit with difficult emotions. You may have never learned how to experience anger, pain, sadness, and grief in a healthy way.
You may have never learned how to cool yourself down after getting heated, or how to help yourself truly feel better when you're feeling down.
When you don't have ways of coping that work for you, and all you know is turning to substances, it can be easy to see why it’s so hard to stop an addiction. Facing difficult emotions is a normal part of being human. When you don’t take the time to develop emotional regulation, it can be very easy to turn to substances when getting faced with mental or emotional triggers.
How to stop an addiction
With this in mind, it’s important to know that addiction can be treated and recovery can be maintained. This is not out of the realm of possibility for you, at all.
Stopping your own addiction involves making a series of decisions and commitments to yourself. You’re going to have to decide to get help and decide to make changes in your environment. You’re going to have to decide to lean on others for support.
Furthermore, you’re going to have to make a commitment to yourself that you’ll always be honest with yourself. Commit to yourself that you’ll seek help whenever things feel hard. To stop addiction and experience true recovery, you’ll have to make a conscious effort every day to be mindful of how you’re doing. You’ll have to allow yourself to explore your inner world, and seek the help and support of others.
Below are 5 tips to help you quit an addiction:
1. Develop awareness
The first and perhaps most powerful step you can take to stop an addiction is admitting that you have an addiction. Just having that level of awareness will be the anchor in propelling you forward. It is impossible to change a behaviour if you aren't first aware of it, and if you're here, it likely means that you've been able to accept the reality of your addiction.
2. Get help
After developing awareness of your addiction, you have to then make the choice to end your substance use. You'll have to decide how you're going to do so, as there are many options. When it comes to addiction, it's incredibly important to remember that there is not one set path to recovery. Different forms of treatment and support work for different people.
Some addiction treatment options are:
- A medical detox followed by inpatient or outpatient treatment
- An inpatient rehab centre
- Online addiction recovery
- Outpatient treatment
- Group therapy
- Individual therapy
- Peer recovery groups such as SMART Recovery or AA
If you've tried to stop addiction before and you've experienced a relapse, it does not mean that you are hopeless. You can absolutely experience recovery, but you have to find the form of treatment that works for you.
3. Assess your current environment
When working on achieving sobriety and stopping an addiction, your environment is important. When you've decided to get help, you can give yourself a head start by making any changes in your environment that are within your control. For instance, if there are any triggers in your environment, remove them. This can be something as obvious as actual substances and paraphernalia, or something more subtle like an old photo of someone that affects how you feel.
Additionally, adjusting your environment can also involve adjusting the places you go and even the route to take when you're on the road. If you pass by a certain location that triggers you every day on your way to work, begin taking an alternate route that will eliminate this trigger.
Another component of your environment that is a massive role in your sobriety is the people you spend your time with. Observe whether the people in your life are a contributor to your well-being or a detriment to it. If it's the latter, mentally prepare yourself when seeing these people, or avoid them altogether.
4. Anticipate triggers
Avoiding relapse is a major part of stopping an addiction. You’ll have to make a plan to avoid relapse that feels authentic and doable for you. An important element of avoiding relapse is anticipating triggers. Of course, this will involve you knowing what your triggers are not just in the external world but also your mental and emotional triggers. For instance, do you experience the urge to use when you're feeling anxious, feeling empty, or when difficult memories start resurfacing?
Knowing what triggers you, will help you better prepare for when these emotions inevitably arise. It's important to know that experiencing these difficult emotions will happen and that that is a normal part of life. Rather than being surprised when a difficult emotion that comes up, know that this will happen, and better prepare yourself for it. Develop a plan for what you will do when you experience the things that act as a trigger so that you don't revert back to substance use.
5. Lean on others
Social connection is a huge part of recovery that simply cannot be emphasised enough. If you want to stop an addiction, be honest with your loved ones about your desires. Share your plan with them, and let them know you’d like their support as you navigate this journey. Knowing that you have people you love who are in your corner can be deeply helpful when times get hard. It’s important to have people around you with who you can confide, who you feel safe with, and who you can be vulnerable with.
Social connection through groups and peer support is also incredibly helpful and can be a truly life-changing aspect of the recovery process. When you're struggling with an addiction, it often feels like no one understands what you're going through. You may go through times when you feel an immense amount of guilt, shame, or even hopelessness about the prospect of your recovery. When you're around other people in recovery, it helps you gain so much perspective. You're able to see that the feelings you're experiencing are not unique. This helps you feel far less alone and more connected and can provide you with the hope you need to keep going.
Additionally, placing yourself around others in recovery helps you learn through their experiences. You can observe how other people have navigated their triggers and made it to the other side without using.
You can witness how those who have gone through such awful trauma heal and experience profound levels of growth, all of which are available to you too. Making connections like this lays a strong foundation for long-lasting recovery from addiction.
Finally, it’s important you remember to always be gracious with yourself. As discussed in this article, it is difficult to stop an addiction. There’s no way around it. It’s a complex, unique process that looks different for everyone, and takes time and patience. When things feel hard, remember that nothing is wrong. Things will feel hard, but you’re capable of experiencing recovery and remaining sober anyway. Be honest with yourself and your loved ones, engage in treatment, always check in with yourself, and rely on others. Recovery is available to everyone, and that doesn’t exclude you.