Why You Can’t “Just Stop” an Addiction

Written by Steve Rose

Steve Rose, PhD, is an addiction counsellor and former academic researcher, committed to conveying complex topics in simple language.

As an addiction counsellor, sometimes people ask me, “How do you help people? Do you just tell them to stop?”

This reflects a common misunderstanding about addiction and the recovery process. The reality is that telling someone with an addiction to “just stop” is akin to telling someone with a broken leg to “just walk.”

Addiction is a complex and multifaceted condition, often deeply rooted in psychological, social, and biological factors. Simply stopping the substance or behavior without addressing the underlying causes is rarely effective and often leads to relapse.

Why People Can’t “Just Stop”

  1. Brain Chemistry: Addiction alters the brain’s reward system, leading to intense cravings and compulsive behavior despite harmful consequences. These changes make it extremely difficult for someone to “just stop” using the substance or engaging in the behavior.
  2. Underlying Issues: Many individuals turn to substances or addictive behaviors as a way to cope with stress, trauma, anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues. Without addressing these underlying problems, simply stopping the behavior doesn’t address the root cause of the addiction.
  3. Physical Dependence: In many cases, especially with substance use disorders, the body becomes dependent on the substance to function normally. Abruptly stopping can lead to painful and sometimes life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

The Role of In-Depth Support in Recovery

Effective addiction counseling goes beyond advising someone to stop. It involves a comprehensive approach that includes:

  • Identifying Triggers: Counseling helps individuals recognize both external triggers (people, places, things) and internal triggers (thoughts, emotions) that lead to addictive behavior. Understanding these triggers is crucial for managing cravings and avoiding relapse.
  • Developing Coping Skills: Counselors work with individuals to develop healthy coping mechanisms for stress, anxiety, and other triggers. This might include mindfulness, exercise, hobbies, or social support.
  • Addressing Underlying Issues: Through various therapeutic approaches, counselors help individuals confront and heal from underlying issues that contribute to their addiction, such as trauma, mental health disorders, or unresolved personal problems.
  • Building a Support System: Recovery is often supported by a strong network of support. Counselors may facilitate group therapy, family counseling, or connections to support groups to provide a community of understanding and encouragement.
  • Creating a Personalized Recovery Plan: Effective counseling tailors the recovery plan to the individual’s specific needs, goals, and circumstances, acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to addiction.

Understanding the Role of Pain

Starting with the question often posed by Gabor Maté, “Don’t ask why the addiction, ask why the pain,” represents a significant shift in how we approach addiction treatment and recovery. This perspective invites us to look beyond the surface behavior (the addiction itself) and delve into the underlying causes and conditions that lead an individual to seek relief or escape through addictive substances or behaviors.

  1. Emotional and Psychological Pain: Many individuals struggling with addiction have experienced significant emotional or psychological trauma. This could include childhood neglect, abuse, loss, or untreated mental health conditions like depression or anxiety. The addictive behavior often starts as a coping mechanism to numb or escape from this pain.
  2. Social and Environmental Stressors: Factors such as social isolation, poverty, community violence, and lack of access to resources can contribute to the stress and pain that fuel addiction. These environmental stressors often exacerbate feelings of hopelessness and despair, making addictive substances or behaviors a temporary solace.
  3. Physical Pain: For some, the journey into addiction begins with an attempt to manage chronic physical pain through prescribed or illicit drugs. Over time, reliance on these substances for pain relief can evolve into an addiction.

The Benefits of This Approach

  1. Compassion and Understanding: Starting from a place of seeking to understand the pain acknowledges the humanity of the person struggling with addiction. It fosters a compassionate, nonjudgmental space where individuals feel seen and heard, which is crucial for healing and recovery.
  2. Identifying Root Causes: By focusing on the underlying pain, counselors can work with individuals to identify and address the root causes of their addiction. This deep understanding is essential for developing effective, personalized treatment plans that address more than just the symptoms of addiction.
  3. Healing and Recovery: Recognizing the role of pain in addiction shifts the goal from merely stopping the addictive behavior to healing the underlying wounds. This holistic approach supports not just sobriety but also overall emotional, psychological, and social well-being.
  4. Empowerment: Understanding their own pain gives individuals insight into their addiction, empowering them to make informed choices about their recovery. It helps them see that their addiction is not a failure of willpower but a response to their pain, which can be addressed and healed through support and therapy.
  5. Reducing Stigma: This approach challenges societal stigma around addiction by highlighting the complex interplay of factors that lead to addictive behaviors. It promotes empathy and understanding, both for the individuals experiencing addiction and within the broader community.

In essence, asking “why the pain?” instead of “why the addiction?” opens the door to a more compassionate, effective, and holistic approach to addiction treatment. It underscores the importance of addressing the whole person, not just the addiction, and lays the groundwork for healing and transformation.

Common Myths About Addiction

Addressing common myths about addiction is crucial in reducing stigma and fostering a more compassionate and understanding approach to those struggling with substance use disorders. Here are several pervasive myths that contribute to the stigmatization of individuals with addiction:

Myth: Addiction is a moral failing.

  • Reality: Addiction is a complex disease that involves changes in the brain’s chemistry and function. While the initial decision to use substances may be voluntary, addiction involves uncontrollable cravings and compulsive use despite harmful consequences.

Myth: People with addiction lack willpower and should be able to quit easily if they really want to.

  • Reality: Quitting requires more than just willpower. Addiction affects the brain’s reward system, leading to intense physical and psychological cravings. Recovery often requires professional help, medical treatment, and support.

Myth: Addiction only affects certain types of people or socio-economic statuses.

  • Reality: Addiction does not discriminate. It can affect individuals of any age, gender, economic status, race, or social background. Stereotypes about who is affected by addiction contribute to stigma and may prevent people from seeking help.

Myth: You have to hit rock bottom before you can get better.

  • Reality: Recovery can begin at any point in the addiction process. The belief that someone must reach their lowest point before seeking help can be harmful and discourage early intervention, which can be more effective.

Myth: Relapse means treatment has failed.

  • Reality: Relapse is not a sign of failure but rather a common part of the recovery process. It indicates the need for treatment adjustment or a different approach, not the ineffectiveness of treatment itself.

Myth: Using drugs or alcohol in moderation means you’re not really addicted.

  • Reality: Addiction is characterized not only by the amount of substance used but by the impact it has on an individual’s life. Even moderate use can be problematic if it leads to negative consequences and an inability to stop.

Myth: Detox is enough to overcome addiction.

  • Reality: While detox is an important first step in removing substances from the body, it does not address the psychological, social, and behavioral problems associated with addiction. Comprehensive treatment and ongoing support are essential for long-term recovery.

Dispelling these myths is vital for supporting individuals in their journey toward recovery and helping society adopt a more informed and compassionate stance on addiction.

Recovery is Possible

If you or someone you love is grappling with addiction, I want to share a message of hope: Recovery is not just a possibility; it’s a reality for countless individuals who once thought they were beyond help. The path to recovery is seldom straight. It meanders, with its share of setbacks and triumphs, but each step forward is a testament to the human spirit’s resilience.

Addiction can make you feel isolated, as though you’re trapped in a storm with no end in sight. Yet, within you lies an undeniable strength, a capacity for change that can lead you through the darkest times towards a brighter future. Remember, recovery is a journey of progress, not perfection. It’s about learning from setbacks and continuing to move forward, even when the road gets tough.

Embrace the support around you, whether it’s from family, friends, counselors, or support groups. These connections can provide the strength and encouragement you need to continue, especially during challenging times. Recovery is not something you have to do alone; there’s a community waiting to hold you up, share your burdens, and celebrate your victories, no matter how small they may seem.

Let go of the stigma and shame that often come with addiction. They do not define you. You are not your addiction; you are a person capable of growth, change, and achieving your dreams. Your past struggles can become the foundation for your future strength.

Fascinated by ideas? Check out my podcast:

Struggling with an addiction?

If you’re struggling with an addiction, it can be difficult to stop. Gaining short-term relief, at a long-term cost, you may start to wonder if it’s even worth it anymore. If you’re looking to make some changes, feel free to reach out. I offer individual addiction counselling to clients in the US and Canada. If you’re interested in learning more, you can send me a message here.

Other Mental Health Resources

If you are struggling with other mental health issues or are looking for a specialist near you, use the Psychology Today therapist directory here to find a practitioner who specializes in your area of concern.

If you require a lower-cost option, you can check out BetterHelp.com. It is one of the most flexible forms of online counseling. Their main benefit is lower costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily, until you find the right fit.

*As an affiliate partner with Better Help, I receive a referral fee if you purchase products or services through the links provided.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help, since the quality of counselors are not consistent. If you are not feeling supported, it may be helpful to seek out another practitioner. I wrote an article on things to consider here.

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1 Comment

  1. Kirsten Wasson

    Thank you for this informative and clear message. I can’t believe that anyone can still think addiction is about making poor choices or moral failure!


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