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Why Is It So Hard to Quit Drinking?

3 min read · 5 sections
How hard is it to quit drinking, what makes quitting difficult, and what can you do to achieve abstinence? Explore the answers to these questions and learn more about alcohol addiction and treatment options.
What you will learn:
Factors used to diagnose alcohol addiction.
Benefits of sobriety.
Tips to limit consumption, find treatment, and maintain sobriety.

How Hard Is It to Quit Drinking Alcohol?

According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, among those 12 and older, 29.5 million people (10.6% of this age group) had an alcohol use disorder in the past year. The same survey also revealed that 47.5% (133.1 million individuals in the 12 and older category) consumed alcohol in the last month.1 Given these stats, it’s clear that quitting alcohol isn’t as easy as swearing off sweets or cutting back on coffee.

So if you’re asking yourself “Why can’t I stop drinking?” you’re not alone—and the data proves it. But why is it so hard to quit?

Quitting can be challenging for a number of reasons. Alcohol affects the brain in multiple ways, one of which involves both producing pleasurable feelings and dulling negative ones. Not surprisingly then, people may continue to drink despite its various risks. Additionally, long-term alcohol consumption can change the structure and function of the brain and compromise brain function, making it more difficult to quit drinking and maintain abstinence.2

Plus, alcohol withdrawal—whose symptoms can range from mild effects (e.g., anxiety, headache, stomach upset, palpitations, etc.) to hallucinations, seizures, delirium tremens, and more—can be unpleasant and intense.3 In fact, given the potential severity of withdrawal symptoms, experts recommend some form of medical supervision during alcohol withdrawal.4 The point is that some people are so fearful of withdrawal symptoms that they may choose to continue drinking simply to avoid them.5

Despite the challenges and potential withdrawal symptoms, however, detox and treatment are available to help people quit drinking. If you’re ready to take that first step toward recovery, contact American Addiction Centers at . To learn more about the alcohol misuse and tips to establish and maintain abstinence, read on.

What is Alcohol Addiction?

According to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), alcohol use disorder (AUD) is characterized as a pattern of use that causes significant distress or impairment in daily functioning, including at least two of the following symptoms occurring within a one-year period:6

  • Use of alcohol in larger doses or for a longer period than had been intended.
  • A persistent desire to use or repeated unsuccessful attempts to decrease or cease use.
  • Spending an inordinate amount of time attempting to procure alcohol, use it, or get over its effects.
  • Cravings, urges, or a desire to use.
  • Recurrent use resulting in failure to fulfill obligations at school, home, or work.
  • Continued use despite negative effects on social life and interpersonal relationships.
  • Reduced recreational, work, or social activities because of continued alcohol use.
  • Repeated use in environments or situations where it could cause physical harm.
  • Ongoing use even with the knowledge that physical and/or psychological problems are likely to have either been caused or worsened by use.
  • Tolerance, which is defined as a need for markedly increased amounts of a substance to achieve intoxication or desired effect or a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms or consuming alcohol to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

If you suspect that you or someone you care about might have issues with alcohol, understanding the aforementioned symptoms can help you identify misuse. However, only a healthcare professional can provide a true AUD diagnosis.

What Can Increase the Risk of Developing an AUD?

The risk of developing an AUD is reliant on how much, how quickly, and how often an individual consumes alcohol. Binge drinking and heavy alcohol use over time increase AUD risk along with these other risk factors:7

  • Genetics and a family history of alcohol misuse. The risk of developing an AUD is influenced by both a person’s genes and their environment. So while genetics account for roughly 60% of the risk, parental drinking within the home can further increase risk.
  • Trauma and mental health conditions. Those with a history of childhood trauma as well as those who have mental health conditions (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], etc.) are associated with an increased risk of an AUD.
  • Initiating alcohol use early. According to insights from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), people 26 years of age and older who began drinking before the age of 15 were 3 times more like to have an AUD than those who waited until 21 to start drinking.

What are the Benefits of Quitting Drinking?

Addiction can impact almost all aspects of a person’s life, particularly including social, family, and working relationships. However, excessive and chronic alcohol use can have myriad adverse effects on physical health, including damage to the heart, brain, liver, and pancreas among other organs. Additionally, alcohol consumption is linked to several types of cancer, including cancers of the head and neck, esophagus, liver, breast, and colon.8 Thus, it stands to reason that alcohol cessation can limit or reduce the alcohol-related risk of at least some of these adverse physical effects.

Additionally, alcohol use disorders and mental health issues often go hand in hand.  In fact, there’s a term to describe when someone has a substance use disorder and a mental health condition, namely co-occurring disorder. Although an AUD doesn’t always cause a mental health disorder and vice versa, one condition can lead to the other. Information from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) indicates that substance misuse is twice as prevalent among adults with mental illness. Plus, substance use can worsen mental health issues, and ongoing substance use can increase the risk of developing mental illness.9 So abstinence has the potential to improve mental health and possibly prevent the development of some mental health conditions.

Tips to Stop or Limit Drinking

If you’ve decided it’s time to quit drinking for good, one of the best ways to support this decision is to attend treatment.  Although alcohol use disorder treatment is tailored to the unique needs of each individual, the various levels of care include:10

The NIAAA provides several supplementary tips to help you build your drink-refusal tools. If you’d merely like to cut down on your drinking or quit altogether, the organization also offers the following advice:11

  • Establish objectives. Set a goal for how many days a week you intend to drink and how many drinks you’ll have on those days. Try to work in at least a few alcohol-free days as well.
  • Monitor your consumption. To cut back on consumption and track progress toward your goals, it’s important to first fully understand just how much you’re drinking. Employ a tracking tool that suits you, such as a using a  drink-tracking card in your wallet, employing a digital or print calendar, jotting notes in your smartphone, or simply making notes on paper.
  • Quantify and gauge. Familiarize yourself with the standard drink sizes so you can accurately count your beverages. Measure your drinks at home, and when you’re out (where it’s a bit more difficult to gauge the amount of alcohol in various cocktails), consider using drink or cocktail calculators to determine the actual alcohol content of your beverages.
  • Seek alternatives. If alcohol is a considerable part of your daily life, try to find new, wholesome activities, hobbies, and friendships to occupy your free time. If you’ve relied on alcohol to boost your confidence in social situations, manage your emotions, or cope with issues, seek healthier approaches to address these aspects of your life. If necessary, enlist professional help or counselors to help you identify and employ alternatives.
  • Sidestep triggers. First, identify some of the triggers that may lead you to drink. These can be people, places, events, smells, foods, and more. If certain individuals or places prompt you to drink, make a plan to avoid them or limit your time with them. If activities, times of day, or emotions trigger your cravings, create a plan for how you’ll deal with them. Failure to plan is a plan to fail. So it’s important to first identify your triggers and then think through ways to eliminate or deal with them.

To support your sobriety, also consider leveraging various self-care and wellness practices, including:

If you’re ready to seek treatment—be it alcohol detox, inpatient rehab, or outpatient care—American Addiction Centers can help. With rehab facilities scattered across the country, AAC provides the entire spectrum of care, and its rehab centers are in-network with myriad insurance providers. To explore AAC treatment options, contact an AAC admissions navigator at or complete the insurance verification form. Staff is available 24/7 to answer confidential treatment questions, discuss payment options, and help you or a loved one take the first steps toward recovery today.


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