Addiction: why can’t you just stop?

Many people believe overcoming an addiction is simply a matter of will power. You can stop using drugs or alcohol if you really want to. Jennifer Johnston, LCSW, a psychotherapist at Aurora Behavioral Health Services helps explain why recovery is not that easy.

This is quite possibly one of the most common questions I’ve come across in treating individuals and families who struggle with addictions. Some ask it of themselves and others ask it of their loved ones out of anger, disappointment, frustration, and so on. What many people don’t realize is that recovering from an addiction is a process which often requires hard work and many other deliberate changes in order to sustain one’s sobriety. Listed below are some factors that, if not addressed, can make it difficult (but not by any means impossible) to “just stop.”

Physical Dependence

Repeated exposure to a substance of abuse can cause the body to adapt to its presence, altering the body’s physiological constructs, eventually causing the body to expect the substance in order to function according to its new “normal.” Chronic use tricks the brain into thinking it is producing a chemical that is artificially being fed to it, thus altering the brain’s natural production and output of mood regulating chemicals.  When use is stopped, especially abruptly, the system can go into somewhat of a shock causing physical withdrawal symptoms (nausea, vomiting, tremors, seizures, etc.), urging the person to use again in order to stop the withdrawal symptoms.

Psychological Dependence

With continued use, people can condition themselves to rely on their substance of choice as a way to cope with mental and emotional discomfort, and each time relief is provided (real or perceived, regardless of how temporary), the use is reinforced. For instance, if one uses each time he or she is anxious in order to relax, anxiety can become a trigger due to the association between the use and relief from anxiety. This also brings up the topic of co-morbidity, or having more than one disorder at the same time, such as alcoholism and depression. Since substances of abuse can both mask and mimic symptoms of other mental health diagnoses it can be difficult to differentiate what came first and can perpetuate a self-destructive cycle of self-medication.

Lifestyle Changes

Once enslaved to physical and/or psychological dependence, many alter their lifestyles in order to make room for and protect the addiction, preventing physical withdrawal and/or mental and emotional discomfort. For example, someone who may have always been an honest and outgoing person may begin deceiving family or friends, and isolating in order to prevent getting caught and having to face judgment or potential ultimatums. In extreme cases, this can alter a person’s belief system as well as his or her way of thinking and behaving. Even if use is stopped, if people struggling with an addiction do not address the altered lifestyle, they run the risk of becoming a “dry drunk.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with an addiction, there IS hope for successful recovery. Aurora Behavioral Health Services offers many forms of treatment to help people safely address physical withdrawal (medically monitored inpatient detoxification) and to rehabilitate the psychological and lifestyle factors that typically perpetuate addictions (residential, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs as well as outpatient therapy).

If you or someone you know is battling addiction, contact Aurora Behavioral Health Services us — online or by phone at 1-877-666-7223 — as soon as possible.


2 thoughts on “Addiction: why can’t you just stop?

    • Hi Annie, sorry to hear you are experiencing a tough time. If you are not involved in a treatment program, you many consider seeking one out. Often treatment programs can provide support that is helpful.

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