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Why Overcoming Addiction Is So Difficult

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 continue to engage in harmful behaviors despite negative consequences because addiction changes the brain's reward system, which increases the desire for substances or experiences. These changes in the brain also affect impulse control and judgment, making quitting much more challenging.

Though addiction recovery is challenging, addiction is treatable. With supportive resources and the proper treatment approach, you can overcome the physical and mental challenges you face to recover.

Addiction leads to changes in the brain that make quitting more difficult. Fortunately, addiction is treatable, and there are things that you can do to improve your success in overcoming your addiction.

How to Overcome an Addiction

According to one model of behavior change known as the transtheoretical model, making any change involves a process that starts with pre-contemplation and moves into contemplation.

During these early stages of the process, you might be in denial about the effects of your addiction. As you become more aware of the problems you are facing, you might then struggle with feelings of ambivalence even as you become more aware of your need to overcome your addiction.

Once you make that decision to change, however, you can begin the process of preparing to take action.

The Different Stages of How to Overcome Addiction

Decide to Change

The decision to change is one of the most critical steps in overcoming an addiction. By acknowledging that a change is needed, it means that you recognize that there is a problem and have a desire to address it.

Making the decision to change and deciding what that will look like is a process that often takes time. This is known as the contemplation stage because it involves thinking about whether to change.

Ambitious goals are not always the best, however. It is better to set a goal that you will achieve than to plan to quit "cold turkey" and end up relapsing, which can be more dangerous than simply continuing without any changes.

Consulting a doctor, addiction counselor, or psychologist is particularly helpful at this stage as they can help you understand the risks and what can help alleviate them.

Harm Reduction Strategies

A harm reduction approach may be helpful during the pre-contemplation and contemplation stages of change. Harm reduction recognizes that while total abstinence is the goal, it is a process that takes time. Although quitting entirely is the best path to wellness, reducing or eliminating the most harmful substance use or behavior is a vast improvement and will significantly reduce the harm caused.

Prepare to Change

Once you are clear on your goal, you may still need to prepare to change. Preparations include removing addictive substances from your home and eliminating triggers in your life that may make you more likely to use those substances again.

This often means removing paraphernalia or other items that might trigger your desire to use a substance or engage in harmful behavior. You may also need to change your routine to have less contact with people or settings that trigger cravings.

Other ways to prepare include deciding what approach you plan to use to overcome your addiction and getting the resources that you need to be successful.

For example, a person trying to quit smoking would start by deciding whether they will stop smoking cold turkey or gradually reduce their nicotine use. Next, they would get the tools they need to quit successfully, such as finding a support group, buying nicotine replacement therapy (NRT) products, or talking to a healthcare provider about prescription smoking cessation medications.

Seek Social Support

Perhaps the hardest preparations to make concern social relationships. Some of their relationships may revolve around addictive behaviors for people living with addictions. In such cases, setting boundaries within those relationships and joining a self-help group such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can help provide a group of people who understand what they are going through.

Loneliness can be a challenge when you are quitting. You may have lost touch with old friends and loved ones, and changing your behavior may make it challenging to spend time around people who are still using substances or engaging in certain behaviors. But finding people who support your recovery can be very helpful and may improve your outcomes.

Take time to contact friends and family who will support you in your goals. You might also want to let those friends who drink, use drugs, or engage in addictive behaviors know that you are planning to change.

They may not understand—or you may be pleasantly surprised. Either way, it's a good idea to let them know of your goal and what they can do to support it (even if that means taking a break from the friendship for a time).

Reach Out to Healthcare Providers

For alcohol and drug addictions, it is a good idea to talk to a doctor or local drug clinic about whether you need medical help in quitting. There are options for medications to help alleviate withdrawal symptoms. In some cases, you may need medical supervision during the detox process.

An underlying mental health problem, such as anxiety or depression, could worsen during the withdrawal phase. Healthcare providers can be very supportive and helpful while navigating these challenges.

Get Treatment to Overcome an Addiction

Many different treatments can help you during the process of overcoming an addiction, including medical and psychological approaches. There is no "right" type of addiction treatment, although some strategies are better supported by research than others.


Behavioral therapies and other types of psychotherapy can help people improve their coping skills, develop new behavioral patterns, and change the underlying thoughts that often contribute to addiction. Different types of therapy that may help include:

  • Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): CBT is an approach that focuses on identifying and changing the thoughts and behaviors that play a part in addictions. It has been shown to be very effective in helping people overcome all kinds of addictions. But CBT is not for everyone. Other approaches may be better suited for those who do not relate well to analyzing their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

  • Mindfulness therapy: Mindfulness-based approaches like mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be easier to relate to for many people. As with CBT, mindfulness is helpful for people with underlying mental health problems, such as anxiety or depression.

  • Motivational enhancement therapy (MET): MET is an approach that helps increase people's readiness to change. It can help improve the commitment and motivation to initiate and remain in treatment.

  • Family therapy: Family therapy approaches can be helpful, particularly with teens and young adults. This type of therapy can help families learn more about how to support their loved one's recovery and can be effective in improving overall family functioning.


Medications can treat withdrawal symptoms, help people remain in treatment, and prevent relapse. The type of medication a doctor prescribes depends on the type of addiction being treated. For example, different drugs are available to treat opioid, nicotine, and alcohol addiction.

Medications can sometimes be helpful in the short and long term. Talk to a doctor about the available and appropriate options for you.

Manage Withdrawal Symptoms

Withdrawal symptoms can be difficult to overcome addiction to both substance and behavioral addictions. With substance addictions, the physiological aspects of withdrawal can be highly uncomfortable, like bad flu, or even life-threatening. For this reason, it is a good idea to talk to a doctor about the best way and the best place to quit a substance.

You can also talk to a doctor about medications to help you cope with withdrawal symptoms.

Fortunately, most of the acute symptoms of withdrawal pass within a week or two of quitting. However, some people who quit an addiction find that certain withdrawal symptoms seem to go on and on. This is known as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS), and it can sometimes continue for weeks, months, or even years.

In addition, addictions can sometimes mask underlying mental health problems, such as anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and even psychosis. Talk with a doctor if you are feeling blue, agitated, or concerned that the world or other people seem strange or upsetting since you quit. There are effective treatments that can help.

Avoid Relapse

While it can be disheartening and frustrating, relapse is quite common. However, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) explains, relapse does not mean treatment has failed. The chronic nature of addiction means that relapsing is often part of the quitting process.

Around 40% to 60% of people working to overcome a substance use disorder will relapse. However, it is essential to recognize that this rate is comparable to relapse rates for other chronic health conditions such as hypertension and asthma.

Common reasons for relapse include:

  • Cravings are strong urges to use or engage in addictive behavior, and they are common during withdrawal. They can also creep up suddenly and unexpectedly weeks, months, or years after quitting. Although they can feel intense, you can learn to cope with cravings.

  • Thinking you can have "just one" Another common cause of relapse is thinking you have control now and one drink, high, or binge, for example, won't matter. It might and it might not. You might find you don't even enjoy it anymore, or it could be a slippery slope to using it regularly or excessively again. But it could even mean overdose or death.

Dangers of Relapse

Relapse is common, but it can also be dangerous and even fatal in the case of some substances. The risk of dying from an overdose is extremely high if you have been through withdrawal because your drug tolerance will be much lower than before you quit. Make sure you have someone with you if you decide to use it again.

Remember that relapse is not a sign that you have failed. The first thing to do when you realize you have relapsed is to understand what happened. Understanding why you relapsed is often one of the most critical parts of overcoming a substance use disorder.

Once you understand your triggers, you can put things in place to reduce the chance of relapsing. You can then apply what you learned the first time you quit or cut down to be more successful next time.

Tips for Overcoming an Addiction

Quitting is a different experience for everyone. Some people find it empowering, and others find it painful, challenging, and frustrating, sometimes needing many attempts before achieving their goal. Still, others discover new sides to themselves during the quitting process (a greater capacity for compassion, for example).

There is no "right" way to feel while you are quitting. However, you should seek support and treatment if you are feeling depressed or constantly wanting to return to the addictive behavior.

Anticipate Changes in Relationships

Your relationships and friendships will likely change as you overcome your addiction, and it may take time to appreciate a new normal. However, it can also take time and effort for trust to be re-established if you hurt friends or family while actively involved in your addiction. Strengthening positive relationships with the supportive people in your life can play an essential part in your recovery and continued abstinence.

Avoid Replacement Addictive Behaviors

Addictive behaviors have similar neurological and psychological processes and create rewarding feelings and sensations, so replacement addictive behaviors are common among those trying to overcome an addiction and focusing on finding rewarding, healthy strategies that support your long-term recovery.

Find Distractions

Look for things that will help occupy your time and keep your mind off drug cravings. Even simple things like talking to a friend, watching a television show, reading a book, or going for a walk can provide a sufficient distraction while you wait for a craving to pass.

Treat Co-Occurring Mental Health Conditions

The other important aspect of avoiding replacement addictions is to address any underlying mental health problems, and substance use commonly occurs alongside other mental health conditions.

Research has found that of the 20.3 million adults in the US with a substance use disorder, 37.9% also have another type of mental illness.

Addictions can cover up past trauma or underlying feelings of emptiness, sadness, or fear. Psychological therapies and medications can provide long-term relief for these problems, which addictions tend to worsen over time.


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Courtesy of: Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, Ph.D. is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.

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