Well, it isn’t actually. You’ve probably quit many times. The difficult part is maintaining abstinence for extended periods of time. Hours in some cases, days or weeks in others. Quitting drinking is not as simple as wanting to or lacking the will power to do so. Years of alcohol abuse changes the normal function of specific neuroreceptors in the brain. These receptors called GABA-A receptors are responsible for initiating a sequence of chemical events that result in the production of dopamine. Dopamine helps us feel calm, relaxed and content. Drugs and alcohol produce abnormally large spikes in dopamine. The brain recognizes this and over time attempts to regulate its production to a more normal level by desensitizing the GABA receptors. When a person stops drinking, the desensitized GABA receptors are unable to initiate production of sufficient dopamine so the individual experiences anxiety and stress. This is what sets up the failure mechanism, a persistent anxiety that’s difficult to ignore even with the stoutest resolution. The normal reaction is to return to drinking to make it stop and to feel normal again. Until these desensitized GABA receptors are reset it is extremely difficult to quit and maintain abstinence.
Click on the buttons at the top of the adjacent graphic to see an animated representation of what happens at the brain’s reward receptor sites (GABA) with or without alcohol present. Courtesy of www.thebrain.mcgill.ca