How to Break an Addiction: A Guide to Overcoming Addiction
If you are struggling with addiction, it’s crucial to remember that addiction to drugs or alcohol is not a character flaw, a weakness, or a moral failing; substance use disorders (SUDs) are chronic mental health conditions characterized by an inability to control your drug or alcohol use. While the decision to first use drugs or alcohol is often voluntary, repeated problematic use may be accompanied by brain changes that ultimately make it very difficult for some people to quit using the substance. Fighting addiction is not a matter of willpower or desire – it’s a matter of recognizing a problem and seeking help.1
Just as every person is unique, the manner in which you go about recovering from addiction must be unique and tailored to your specific needs to be optimally effective. If you want to know how to heal from substance abuse issues, and co-occurring mental health conditions such as depression or anxiety, you should understand that it may take time and persistence to recover, but recovery is well worth the effort. Taking back control of your life and starting the path to recovery is one of the best things you can do for your overall health and wellbeing. If you’ve chosen to recover from substance abuse issues, we’ve prepared various methods and tips to assist you in your decision.
Why Are Drugs Difficult to Quit?
Certain drugs are highly addictive because of the way they change certain types of brain functioning. For example, many drugs can result in changes to the way your brain relays messages through a process known as neurotransmission. The activity of one neurotransmitter in particular, known as dopamine, increases in association with several types of substance use. A drug-related surge in dopamine activity can have reinforcing effects, making compulsive use of that drug more likely.2
Many of the most common drugs of abuse have an impact on dopamine activity throughout the brain’s reward centers. Dopamine neurotransmission is thought to underlie feelings of motivation, pleasure, and reward, and is believed to play a key role in the development of addiction.2,3
Typically, people release dopamine in response to performing pleasurable activities, such as eating or having sex. However, many drugs cause a surge in dopamine activity, which can result in a rewarding euphoria, and ultimately encourages the drug-using individual to repeat the experience. This is why many drugs are referred to as “reinforcing” and one of the reasons why drug addiction can be so challenging to recover from.2
Dopamine isn’t the only component that plays a role in addiction, however; the manner in which drugs affect the brain represent a complex phenomenon that is dependent upon several factors. Imaging studies have shown that certain types of addiction may be associated with reduced activity in the frontal cortex, which is the part of your brain that helps you make decisions. This essentially means that quitting some drugs might not just be a matter of making the decision to stop, even when you are familiar with the consequences of drug abuse and experience its negative effects.4
Even though it can be a challenge, the benefits of overcoming addiction far outweigh any perceived benefits of continuing substance use. Quitting drugs or alcohol can help improve your mental and physical health, reduce your risk of chronic diseases, enable you to repair your relationships and family life, help you prevent further negative consequences at work or in school, increase your energy levels, improve your appearance, and help you save money.5 Quitting drugs and receiving professional help for substance abuse, in total, can help you reclaim your life and embody your full potential. And American Addiction Centers is here to help you do this.
Which Drugs are Hardest to Quit?
Some substances are notoriously addictive; and, some drugs may be harder to quit than others. The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) says that some of the most commonly used addictive substances include marijuana, synthetic marijuana (K2 or spice), prescription opioids, prescription stimulants (like Adderall), sedatives, tranquilizers, and hypnotics.6
Overcoming addiction is possible but it often requires a combination of approaches to achieve the best outcome. Treatment may include:10,11
- Medication and Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT), which can vary depending on the substance (or substances) you used. For example, opioid addiction may be treated with methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone, while alcohol addiction may be treated with naltrexone, disulfiram, or acamprosate. Medication is often used as a part of a medication-assisted treatment approach. This approach involves a combination of medication and behavioral therapy to promote recovery.
- Varying forms of evidence-based therapy. You may undergo various research-supported behavioral interventions to help you develop insight, learn to change unhelpful behaviors, stay motivated in treatment, and help you achieve your goals. These therapies can include:12
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, or CBT. This is widely used form of therapy designed to help people identify irrational or unhelpful thoughts and make positive behavioral changes.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy, or DBT. This is used to help you change destructive behaviors, manage intense emotions, and improve relationships. It involves components of mindfulness and acceptance.
- Contingency Management. This is a rewards-based form of treatment that provides incentives (such as vouchers you can exchange for tangible goods) for positive behavioral change.
Remember that, if you are suffering from a drug overdose, be sure to call 911 immediately or make your way to the nearest physician.
Is it Possible to Stop an Addiction?
Yes, addiction and substance use disorders are treatable. Like other chronic, relapsing diseases, such as asthma or heart disease, addiction isn’t curable but it can be successfully managed through proper treatment. Addiction has a relapse rate similar to other chronic diseases; for example, the relapse rate for asthma or high blood pressure is 50-70%, while addiction has a relapse rate of around 40-60%. Addiction relapse is considered to be a normal part of the recovery process; relapse does not mean that treatment has failed, but can mean that your treatment plan or treatment methods need to be re- evaluated.10
Effective treatment plans benefit from being individualized and constantly adjusted to your changing needs—taking into account all of your biological, psychological, and social considerations. Your plan may involve a continuum of care, starting from the moment you enter detox, which focuses on treating withdrawal and helping you become medically stable. Once you’ve completed detox, you’ll be ready to transition to additional rehabilitation. Though treatment lengths vary, research supports relatively longer (e.g., at least three months) periods of treatment for optimal treatment outcomes. As a formal treatment program comes to an end, you’ll then move on to aftercare, which is designed to promote lifelong sobriety.5,8,13,14
The pillars of addiction treatment developed by the NIDA include many factors that should be taken into account in order for treatment to be optimally effective. These factors include entering treatment as early as possible, matching treatment settings to your needs, using medication and behavioral therapies as needed, addressing other co-occurring mental disorders, and undergoing continuous monitoring to see whether treatment needs to be adjusted.1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9,14
How Can I Tell if I Need Substance Abuse Help?
If you’re asking yourself whether you need help, there’s a chance you might be ready to admit to the presence of a problem. If you’re not sure, you might consider whether you meet the criteria for a substance use disorder, or SUD, which is the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic term for addiction. These criteria include:15,16
- Using drugs or alcohol in higher or more frequent amounts than you originally intended.
- Wanting to stop using drugs or alcohol but being unable to do so.
- Spending a lot of time trying to get, use, and recover from the effects of the substance.
- Experiencing cravings, which are strong feelings and urges to use.
- Being unable to meet your responsibilities at work, home, or school because of your substance use.
- Continuing to use drugs or alcohol even though it’s causing social or relationship problems.
- Giving up or stopping activities you once enjoyed so you can use drugs or alcohol.
- Using substances in situations where it is dangerous to do so (such as while driving or operating machinery).
- Continuing to drink or use drugs even though you have a psychological or physical problem that you know is probably due to your substance use.
- Experiencing tolerance, or needing to use more of the substance to achieve the desired effect.
- Developing withdrawal symptoms, such as irritability or shakiness, when you stop using the substance.
Take Our “Do I Have a Substance Use Disorder?” Self-Assessment
Take our free, 5-minute “Do I Have a Substance Misuse Disorder?” self-assessment below if you think you or someone you love might be struggling with a substance use disorder (SUD). The evaluation consists of 11 yes or no questions that are intended to be used as an informational tool to assess the severity and probability of an SUD. The test is free, confidential, and no personal information is needed to receive the result.
What Are My Addiction Treatment Options?
To understand which level of treatment is most appropriate for your needs, you should consult with a physician, a therapist, or other treatment professional, who can assess your situation and make treatment recommendations. Often, people begin their recovery efforts with a period of supervised medical detox and then, depending on their needs, progress through additional rehabilitation. Treatment is sometimes initiated at a relatively intensive level of care but, as recovery progress is made, becomes gradually less intensive as individuals move through their continuum of care. The broad levels of care as outlined by the American Society for Addiction Medicine include:17,18
- Medically-managed inpatient care. This is designed for those who require a high level of monitoring and supervision, as it offers 24/7 medical care. It is advisable for people who also have a severe risk of developing medical or psychiatric complications during withdrawal and provides highly structured treatment programs.
- Medically monitored inpatient care. This is a relatively less intensive but still highly supportive level of care designed for those who have a moderate risk of developing medical and psychiatric complications. It offers 24/7 support and medical monitoring.
- Intensive outpatient care. This is designed for people who are able to live at home but still require a relatively high level of care. Partial hospitalization programs are included as the most time-intensive subtype within this level of care—requiring 20 hours of treatment per week, while intensive outpatient requires 9 hours of treatment per week. People with a lower risk of medical and psychiatric complications and have stable living environments may be more suited to benefit from this form of care.
- Standard outpatient care. This is a broad term that encompasses a range of recovery efforts such as regularly scheduled office visits, counseling, and therapy sessions, any of which allow you to continue living at home during the treatment period. This level of care is supportive and can mean attending treatment between one and several times per week.
Learn more about the levels of care offered at American Addiction Centers’ nationwide treatment centers.
Curious about whether your insurance will cover the entirety of your addiction care? Fill out the form on the page below and an American Addiction Centers admissions navigator will inquire with your insurance company to discover your benefits.
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- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Media Guide: The Science of Drug Use and Addiction: The Basics.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction Drugs and the Brain.
- Volkow, N. D., Fowler, J. S., Wang, G. J., Swanson, J. M., & Telang, F. (2007). Dopamine in drug abuse and addiction: results of imaging studies and treatment implications. Archives of Neurology, 64(11), 1575–1579.
- NIH News in Health. (2015). Biology of Addiction: Drugs and Alcohol Can Hijack Your Brain.
- Australian Government Department of Health. (2020). How to reduce or quit drugs.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Media Guide: Most Commonly Used Addictive Drugs.
- Nutt, D., King, L. A., Saulsbury, W., & Blakemore, C. (2007). Development of a rational scale to assess the harm of drugs of potential misuse. Lancet, 369 (9566), 1047–1053.
- Shah, M. & Huecker, M. (2021). Opioid Withdrawal. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island, FL: StatPearls Publishing.
- S. National Library of Medicine. (2021). MedlinePlus: Drug Use and Addiction.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2020). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction Treatment and Recovery.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2021). Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT).
- National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Substance Use and Co-Occurring Mental Disorders.
- Center for Substance Abuse Treatment. (2005). Substance Abuse Treatment for Adults in the Criminal Justice System. (Treatment Improvement Protocol (TIP) Series, No. 44.) 4. Substance Abuse Treatment Planning. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition): Principles of Effective Treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2019). Step by Step Guides to Finding Treatment for Drug Use Disorders: How to Recognize a Substance Use Disorder.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2020). What Is a Substance Use Disorder?
- Gastfriend, D. The ASAM CRITERIA and Addiction Treatment Matching.
- American Society of Addiction Medicine. (2015). About the ASAM Criteria