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Why is it so hard to quit drinking and using?

It’s common for people to reach a point in their lives where they are drinking or using other drugs more frequently or heavily than is considered healthy. For some, it could be during an experimental “binge drinking” stage in college. For others, it could be during a particularly stressful or emotional time in their lives, for example, after a divorce or the death of a loved one. But for approximately 10 percent of the human population, heavy drinking and other substance use moves beyond a mere stage and morphs into a maladaptive habit—a habit that for those struggling with it, may feel impossible to overcome. This can leave friends and family members confused. Why can’t they just stop? Loved ones wonder. Why is it so hard to quit drinking and using?

While no one knows the answer to that for certain, addiction experts believe the causes may likely be rooted in a combination of genetics and traumatic early life experiences. Below is a closer look at the possible causes of alcohol and other drug dependence and what can be done to remedy them.

Cause #1: A High ACE Score

Addiction is often a symptom of chronic anxiety caused by ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). Research demonstrates a strong correlation between childhood trauma and addiction-forming habits like drinking, smoking, and chronic overeating.

ACEs can take many forms, including:

  • Emotional or physical neglect
  • Verbal, emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
  • Witnessing the abuse of a parent or other close family member
  • Living with a parent who struggled with addiction
  • Living with a parent who suffered from depression or another mental illness
  • Losing a parent to death, divorce, or incarceration

Traumatic experiences are particularly impactful during the formative years of childhood, resulting in the restructuring of neural pathways as well as changes in the way the brain regulates stress hormones. A hyperactive inflammatory stress response is often found in adults who have experienced abuse or other traumatic stressors in childhood.

Studies indicate that nearly 64 percent of adults have at least one ACE. Eighty-seven percent of those with one ACE are found to have two or more, and as a person’s ACE score increases, so too does the likelihood he or she will develop a substance use disorder. An ACE score of four or more means that compared to a person with an ACE score of zero, you are twice as likely to smoke and seven times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.

Solution: Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapy that has been known to effectively treat people with PTSD or those struggling to overcome early childhood trauma. The therapy uses lateral eye movements, hand tapping, or audio stimulation to help people process their trauma and form new associations. You can learn more by watching this brief interview with LVRC Clinical Director, Dr. Dan Shiode, a psychologist and EMDR specialist.

Cause #2: Low GABA Levels

The human brain needs healthy levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in order to cope with stress. For those who seem to exist in a state of continual anxiety and irritability, they may be suffering from low GABA levels. Alcohol, heroin, marijuana, and other substances provide a temporary boost in GABA levels, which is why they can be so appealing for those experiencing high levels of stress or emotional anguish.

Unfortunately, the quick fix only exacerbates the problem, as alcohol further depletes GABA levels, leaving people with more intense stress levels than before. This creates a vicious cycle where people low in GABA levels turn to substances to self-medicate and then become increasingly more reliant on the drug in order to feel “normal.”

Solution: The good news is that exercise, mindfulness, meditation, a balanced diet, and supplements can help increase GABA levels and restore the natural chemical balance in the brain.

Cause #3: An Unbalanced Gut

Stress promotes the growth of detrimental bacteria in a person’s gut. Research has shown that what happens in the gut has a surprisingly strong impact on a person’s mental state. Thus, an overgrown population of bad gut bacteria can be a major cause of anxiety and depression. Good gut bacteria, on the other hand, produces more than 80 percent of a body’s supply of serotonin, which is a chemical that can help to reduce depression.

Alcohol and sugar are both detrimental to gut health, working hand-in-hand with stress to destabilize the mini-ecosystem inside the human body and encouraging the growth of harmful bacteria.

While an unhealthy stomach may not be a direct cause of addiction, it can cause a spike in anxiety and depression, which can make quitting more challenging.

Solution: Before a person can begin the stomach healing process, he or she must quit drinking and using all drugs, which includes caffeine and tobacco. During the first few weeks and months of recovery, a person’s body and mind will be going through physical and mental withdrawal from the substances and will be starting the long repair process.

Once in recovery, a person can begin to revive his or her gut health with fermented foods and probiotics. This can help to ensure that this time when they quit, it will be for good.

Cause #4: Vagus nerve may need toning

Those who turn to substances as an automatic response to stress may need to have their vagus nerve toned. The vagus nerve belongs to the parasympathetic nervous system and runs from the brain all the way to the abdomen, connecting the mind to the gut. It influences a number of crucial functions in the body along the way, including breathing, heart rate, and the stress response. The vagus nerve also affects a hormone called oxytocin, which has a huge effect on human social bonding.

A treatment known as “vagus nerve stimulation” (VNS) therapy has recently been approved by the FDA for use in treatment of depression, epilepsy, and inflammation. This therapy was successfully used to treat rats with a cocaine addiction, though no human trials have been conducted at the time of this writing. Researchers believe, however, this could prove a useful therapy in the future. As in the rat study, VNS helped to reduce cravings and establish new reward behaviors. You can read more about VNS in this article on Psychology Today: Vagus Nerve Stimulation Holds Promise for Treating Addiction.

Solution: Researchers take different approaches to breaking the autopilot response associated with addiction—many promote love and human connection as the best solution, which is why twelve-step support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous have become so widely known. Until scientists develop a new treatment, such as VNS, twelve-step recovery programs remain one of the most effective addiction treatment options available.

When Your Loved One Struggles to Stop: How to Help

Neuroscience has demonstrated that the human brain is extraordinarily adaptable. The vicious cycle of stress and addiction can be broken in many ways, starting with professional help from an addiction treatment center and continuing with ongoing managed care or in a twelve-step program. Addiction is a chronic disease; it must be continually managed in order to remain in remission. What this translates into is regular attendance of support group meetings—such as a twelve-step program—and/or appointments with a mental health professional.

It also requires:

  • A balanced diet and sleep schedule
  • Healthy home and work environments
  • Time set aside for hobbies and recreation
  • Regular exercise
  • Counseling
  • Emotional literacy
  • A healthy spiritual life
  • Loving relationships
  • Service to others through random acts of kindness
  • The intentional practice of gratitude and generosity
  • A sense of purpose in life

While this is an extensive list, it’s absolutely necessary that a person with a history of addiction adhere to it if he or she wishes to remain healthy and content—two important components of long-term recovery.

To learn more about addiction as it relates to alcohol, read: Facts about Alcohol: Everything You Need to Know About Alcohol Use, Abuse and Dependency (Plus: How to Get Help)