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Why Can’t Alcoholics Stop Drinking on Their Own?

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For the average person, the idea that an alcoholic can’t simply stop drinking on their own may not make much sense. After all, most people who drink alcohol can do so responsibly. The truth is that alcoholism is deeply misunderstood. Anyone who has struggled with alcoholism has been met with misunderstandings from friends and family who wonder, “why can’t they just stop drinking?” Stopping drinking is easy for someone who doesn’t have an alcohol problem, but nearly impossible for someone who does. When someone you love refuses to stop drinking, you probably wonder what steps you can take to get them to go to rehab. However, the first step is to understand alcoholism, how it affects the brain, and why recovery isn’t as simple as putting the drink down.

Why Can’t Alcoholics Just Stop Drinking?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a complex disease that affects 14.5 million people ages 12 and older. Recovering from alcohol isn’t as simple as just quitting drinking because quitting drinking can be extremely difficult to do. The main reasons why alcoholics can’t stop drinking on their own include:

Physical Dependence and Withdrawal

Excessive drinking causes the brain to become used to alcohol. The body will then compensate for alcohol’s depressive effects by increasing the activity of certain neurotransmitters in an attempt to restore equilibrium. If a heavy drinker suddenly stops drinking, the brain will take time to adjust, and the body will continue acting the same way it would if the person were drinking. This results in symptoms of withdrawal. Many drinkers will continue drinking alcohol to avoid going into withdrawal. Common alcohol withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Anxiety
  • Cravings
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Restlessness
  • Tremors
  • Agitation
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Not only do many alcoholics continue drinking to keep their withdrawal symptoms at bay, but detoxing at home can actually be dangerous. Stopping alcohol abruptly after chronic, long-term use can result in severe and potentially life-threatening symptoms. The safest way to detox is to do so under close medical supervision, so alcoholics should find a trusted medical detox center rather than try to stop drinking on their own.

Mental Obsession and Lack of Control

Alcoholism is a disease characterized by a mental obsession and lack of control. People who are alcoholics may have difficulty thinking about anything else unless they’ve had a drink. They may even convince themselves that the only way they can function is with alcohol. At the same time, these individuals are unable to control the amount and frequency they drink. Someone may begin drinking with the intent of only having one beer, only to lose control and end up having six or seven. They may promise themselves they won’t drink, but end up being unable to follow through with that promise.

Intense Alcohol Cravings

Regular alcohol abuse changes the body and brain chemistry. One of the reasons alcohol develops is because alcohol makes people feel good which the brain interprets as a reward. This reinforcement causes drinking behaviors to increase to the point where people will experience intense cravings if they do not drink. Even people who want to stop drinking may not be able to stop drinking in the face of alcohol cravings. Cravings can be so intense that the desire for a drink drowns out the desire to be sober, resulting in continued alcohol abuse.

Denial

Some people refuse to even try to stop drinking because they are in denial. Coming to terms with the fact that you’re suffering from alcoholism is not an easy thing to do, and sometimes the psyche puts up a mental block that makes people think they don’t really have a problem. Addiction denial is extremely common, but it often prevents people from getting the help they need.

Temptation

Alcohol is the most widely abused substance for a reason. Alcohol is everywhere and widely accepted in American culture. Celebrations, parties, nights out with friends, and even networking events are ripe with alcohol. Unlike other drugs, it is almost impossible to avoid alcohol completely, which makes it even more difficult for people who have a problem with alcohol to abstain.

How to Help a Loved One Stop Drinking

First, it’s important to have compassion for people who are having trouble stopping drinking because many of them aren’t able to stop on their own–they need professional help. So how do you convince someone to get the help they need?

  • Tell your loved one how much you care and ask them if they’re willing to get help
  • Set healthy boundaries and avoid enabling your loved one’s drinking habits
  • Stage an intervention with a group of trusted loved ones
  • Lead by example by stopping drinking yourself or eliminating alcohol from the home

Finally, reassure your loved one that you support their decision to get sober. Be willing to participate in family or group counseling with them if it is offered during treatment to demonstrate your support.

reasons alcoholics can't stop drinking on their own

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Quitting drinking isn’t easy, but with the help of a licensed alcohol rehab center, recovery is possible for everyone. At Woburn Wellness, we offer patients access to safe medical detox programs in Massachusetts before transferring them to one of our evidence-based alcoholism treatment programs. If you or a loved one are interested in seeking treatment or learning more, please reach out to our dedicated admissions coordinators today.

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Medically Reviewed By

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC Clinical Director
Learn about Inessa Maloney

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC has been dedicated to the mental health and substance abuse field for a decade, providing her expertise to guarantee quality and accuracy.

  • Specializes in outpatient services with a focus on substance abuse
  • Expertise in reality-based therapy, CBT/DBT, and motivational interviewing
  • Holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling
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