“Why can’t I just quit even when I know that alcohol is ruining my life?” This is the big question that boggles so many daily drinkers’ minds. Many theories have attempted to offer an answer – some say maybe it is genetic, others speculate it is personality, and again others, call it a disease.
Bame Mophuting, clinical psychologist specializing in psych assessment and substance abuse among others says, “If the individual has been drinking heavily for years, the changes that take place in the brain may be permanent. Chronic alcohol use actually changes the brain neurologically; it sensitizes certain brain circuits and changes neurotransmitter levels, and it can also affect executive function, which is the part of the brain involved in decision-making that tells a person not to drink. Individuals can vary in their vulnerability to becoming addicted to alcohol, Some people are more genetically susceptible than others, and alcohol dependency tends to run in families. About half of the cases of alcohol use disorders are due to genetics and family history, and the other half are due to environmental exposure. Environmental factors may include social influences, such as friends and family, the availability and access to alcohol, and age at first use.For someone with a long-term addiction to alcohol, quitting drinking can be a difficult process with a high likelihood of relapse. But chronic alcohol problems are treatable. The best treatment is a combination of medication and counseling, and some people need to go through a detox program first to get the alcohol out of their system.”
A social worker, Dr Poloko Ntshwarang from the University of Botswana on the other hand says, “If you have ever tried to overcome an obsession yourself, you may have a better understanding of how hard it is to quit drinking. Alcohol makes most people feel good. It takes away worry and stress, releases inhibitions, and leaves you feeling warm and happy. These benefits are hard to give up, especially if you are someone who normally worries a lot or feels awkward in social situations. After all, everyone wants to feel good, and alcohol fulfills that role. This makes it a habit that is very difficult to break. For some people, alcohol becomes a problem because they can’t control how much they drink. They may drink more than they intended to or more often than they wanted to. They may feel like they need to drink in order to relax or have fun. Drinking may cause problems at home, work, or school. It may make you feel anxious, depressed, or irritable. You may have trouble sleeping or eating. You may even start to feel like you are not in control of your own life.”
The problems caused by drinking and the feel good energy from the alcohol high are also believed to cause a cognitive dissonance in alcoholics, making it even more difficult to quit.
Cognitive dissonance is when a person’s attitude, beliefs, or behaviors are not aligned. Humans strive for internal psychological consistency, and any internal conflict could cause a person significant amounts of psychological discomfort .For example, one would experience cognitive dissonance if they are a daily drinker and, at the same time, believe that alcohol is bad for their health and they should stop drinking. In such a situation, their belief and action are not aligned with each other, and every time after a heavy drinking session, they would experience psychological discomfort due to the conflict between their action and belief. Anyone who experiences such internal inconsistency, or cognitive dissonance, would be motivated to resolve the internal conflict and reduce the discomfort through a couple of ways. The first option is to change one or more conflicting attitudes, behavior, or beliefs. For example, they could simply match their behavior with their belief by stopping drinking. However, with alcohol, things can get complicated quickly, as people often have conflicted beliefs about alcohol. For instance, a person may believe alcohol is bad for their health, but also believe alcohol is the source of their happiness. Now they face a painful dilemma. If they drink, their action will conflict with the belief that alcohol is bad for their health, but if they don’t drink, their action will disagree with their belief that alcohol makes them happy. Whether they choose to drink or not, their action will inevitably conflict with one of their beliefs.This unresolvable dilemma is why quitting drinking can be so hard. The person gets caught between their conflicting beliefs and is unable to restore internal consistency no matter what they do. In vain attempts to restore internal peace, they go back and forth between the only two options they know – stop, drink, stop, repeat.
When the first option doesn’t work, people tend to move on to the second option, which reduces the importance of one or more beliefs or attitudes. For example, a person could attempt to undermine the importance of the belief “alcohol harms my health” with arguments such as “living in the moment,” “just one drink won’t hurt,” or “everyone drinks”. It must not be that bad.” This approach can work for a while. However, sooner or later, they may find that the overwhelming evidence of the harm alcohol has on their life no longer allows them to undermine such beliefs. Consequently, they are back to the original dilemma. The last option is acquiring new information to outweigh the dissonant beliefs. One may inquire about their beliefs about alcohol, such as “alcohol makes me happy.” They may collect new information about alcohol and happiness and test out whether unlimited alcohol consumption, in fact, leads to true happiness.