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Why Can’t I Stop Drinking Once I Start? 4 Major Reasons

Picture this: you’re all dressed up and ready for a night out with friends.

You promise yourself you’ll only have one or two drinks, and you intend to stick to it. But somehow, by the end of the night, you’ve lost count of your drinks and your debit card balance. 

You’re in for a rough morning and have no idea how it happened.

Sound familiar?

Let’s be honest – a lot of us struggle to stop drinking once we’ve started, and it’s not because of a lack of willpower.

In this article, we’ll dive headfirst into the science behind why it’s so hard to put down that glass once we’ve picked it up and why some people struggle more than others.  

Reason #1: Alcohol hijacks the brain’s reward system.

You know those moments when you experience something pleasurable or fulfilling, like biting into some chocolate cake or nailing that presentation at work?

That’s your brain’s reward system hard at work.

Let’s get a little science-y for a moment.

At the heart of the reward system is a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This little chemical messenger is responsible for making us feel all warm and fuzzy when we do something our brain perceives as rewarding.

Dopamine acts like a pat on the back, encouraging us to repeat those behaviors that make us feel good.

In a nutshell, the brain’s reward system and dopamine work together to create positive reinforcement, pushing us to pursue those feel-good experiences. But what does this have to do with alcohol? 

A lot! And this is where things go a little haywire. 

Two men and a woman drink alcohol unable to stop
Why can’t I stop drinking once I start?

But First, Dopamine and Positive Reinforcement

Dopamine and positive reinforcement play a huge part in our decision-making and how we interact with the world around us. Positive reinforcement is essentially our brain’s way of giving us a mental high-five for doing something it deems satisfying or beneficial.

Think about it like this: when you indulge in your favorite snack, your brain releases dopamine, which makes you feel great.

Naturally, you’ll want to experience that feeling again, so you’re more likely to reach for another slice of cake or scoop of ice cream.

Dopamine creates a link between the pleasurable experience and the action that led to it, encouraging us to keep doing whatever it is that made us feel so good in the first place.

Remember the old Pringles slogan, “Once you pop, you can’t stop?” 

It’s exactly like that. 

This reinforcement loop isn’t just about guilty pleasures, though. It’s also at play when we achieve our goals, connect with loved ones, or engage in healthy habits.

The release of dopamine helps us stay motivated and focused on what’s important to us. That’s its intended purpose.

But, as you might have guessed, this reward system can also have a dark side, especially when it comes to alcohol or any other substance or experience that floods the brain with unnaturally high levels of dopamine. 

Alcohol removes the “off switch” in our brains.

When we take that first sip of an ice-cold beer or a glass of wine, our brain releases a surge of dopamine.

This spike in our feel-good neurotransmitter is responsible for the initial buzz we get when we start drinking. It’s like our brain is saying, “Hey, this is pretty great. Let’s keep this party going!”

As we continue to drink, our dopamine levels keep rising, leading to even more enhanced feelings of pleasure and reward. It’s easy to see how this can create a snowball effect.

The more we drink, the more dopamine is released, and the more our brain craves that next drink to keep the good times rolling.

The problem here is that our brain’s reward system doesn’t know when to say, “Enough is enough.”

It’s focused on chasing those pleasurable feelings, even when it’s no longer in our best interest. And this, my friends, is where we start to see the slippery slope of being unable to stop after just one or two drinks.

Here’s a quick video explainer of this process:

This is how we lose control of our drinking:

Remember that positive reinforcement loop we discussed earlier?

Well, this is where it comes into play in a not-so-fun way. As we drink and our dopamine levels rise, our brain starts to associate alcohol with those pleasurable feelings.

Essentially, it’s creating a mental link that says, “Hey, if you want to feel this amazing again, you need to keep drinking!”

The thing is, our brain is really good at forming habits, especially when they involve such a strong feel-good response. So, as we continue to drink, our brain becomes more and more focused on chasing that alcohol-induced dopamine high.

This craving for more alcohol can become so powerful that it starts to override our rational decision-making and self-control.

Before we know it, we’ve gone from “just one drink” to “just one more,” and the cycle keeps repeating itself. The more we give in to the cravings, the stronger they become, making them harder and harder to resist.

This cycle is a major factor in why so many of us struggle to stop after just one or two drinks, even when we know deep down that we should call it a night.

And if you’re engaging in this cycle multiple times per week, over months or years of your life, these effects become even more powerful, making quitting alcohol significantly harder

Reason #2: Alcohol negatively affects self-control and decision-making.

When we drink, inhibition decreases, and flexible decision-making shuts down. This is, arguably, a terrible combination. 

But why does it do this?

To start that conversation, let’s explore a critical part of our brain called the prefrontal cortex.

Located right at the front of your head, the prefrontal cortex is like the CEO of your brain. It’s responsible for making executive decisions, handling complex thoughts, and managing our behavior.

All things we suck at doing when drinking.

One of its main duties is to keep our impulses in check and help us make rational, well-thought-out choices. In other words, it’s the part of our brain that tells us not to eat that entire tub of ice cream or max out our credit cards on a shopping spree. 

(If only we listen!)

What Alcohol Does To Your Prefrontal Cortex

So, what exactly happens to our prefrontal cortex when we drink? A lot! And none of it is good news. Here are the side effects.

Impaired Decision-Making:

When alcohol enters the system, it starts meddling with the prefrontal cortex’s ability to function effectively. As we become more intoxicated, it starts slacking off, leading to impaired decision-making.

The result?

We’re more likely to make choices we wouldn’t usually make when sober, like belting out “Sweet Caroline” at karaoke, making out with that dude we just met, or texting our ex at 2 a.m.

This impaired decision-making also makes it difficult to recognize when we’ve had enough to drink, pushing us to keep going when we should really be calling it quits.

Reduced Impulse Control:

Along with sabotaging our decision-making skills, alcohol also weakens the prefrontal cortex’s ability to control our impulses.

Remember how this part of our brain is responsible for keeping our urges in check?

Well, as we drink, our impulse control starts to wane, making it harder to resist that next cocktail or shot.

Instead of being able to say “no” and stick to our original plan of just one or two drinks, our brain’s internal voice of reason is drowned out by our desire to keep going and rink more.

Here’s another good video explainer for you that talks specifically about alcohol and the prefrontal cortex:

But do you want to know what’s really wild?

Alcohol doesn’t just make you an impulsive, uninhibited bag of bad decisions when you’re drinking.

Over time, chronic drinking (at even surprisingly low amounts) changes the circuitry of our brains in ways that make us more impulsive even when we don’t drink. 

This happened to me with spending. The longer I drank, the more reckless my spending became. I could not talk myself out of any number of truly unnecessary purchases. 

If you’re interested in the topic of alcohol and the brain, here’s a clip from a long but fascinating podcast episode about alcohol from Andrew Huberman.

Why you struggle to stop after one or two drinks:

As our brain’s prefrontal cortex gets more and more bogged down by the effects of alcohol, our ability to make sound decisions starts to crumble.

Our once steadfast resolve to stop after one or two drinks falters, and we reach for another round. Our judgment becomes clouded, and the once-clear line between “enough” and “too much” blurs.

Combine this with the dopamine-fueled cravings we discussed earlier, and you’ve got a perfect storm for continued drinking. Our brain’s reward system is constantly urging us to chase that pleasurable buzz, while our impaired prefrontal cortex is unable to put the brakes on our impulses.

In this situation, resisting the temptation to keep drinking becomes increasingly difficult.

Our brain is essentially working against us, driven by the desire for short-term pleasure and the inability to think clearly about the potential long-term consequences.

A man sits at a bar angry at himself. There are two mostly drank bottles of whiskey in front of him. He can't seem to stop drinking once he starts
Why do I keep drinking if I’m already drunk?

Reason #3: Alcohol Tolerance and Dependence

Tolerance is a phenomenon where, over time, our body adapts to the presence of alcohol, making it necessary to consume more and more to achieve the same effects. In other words, the more we drink, the more our body becomes used to it, and the more we need to drink to feel that same buzz (or any buzz at all).

Tolerance is our body’s way of trying to maintain equilibrium in the face of alcohol’s effects. Our brain chemistry tries to overcorrect for the flood of dopamine, which leads to a whole host of other problems like mood swings and depressed mood when not drinking.

Dependence is a more severe consequence of regular, heavy drinking. It occurs when our body and mind become reliant on alcohol to function normally.

There are two primary types of dependence:

  • Physical Dependence: This occurs when the body becomes so accustomed to alcohol that it starts to need it to maintain normal functioning. When alcohol isn’t present, withdrawal symptoms can kick in, including anxiety, tremors, and even seizures in severe cases.
  • Psychological Dependence: This type of dependence is characterized by a strong emotional or mental need for alcohol. It’s often driven by the belief that alcohol is necessary to cope with stress, unwind, or have a good time. Psychological dependence can create intense cravings and make it difficult to resist the urge to drink.

The psychological dependence was the most challenging part for me to overcome. Alcohol had a chokehold on my brain, and even when I got past the initial withdrawal, I still had to wrestle with my reliance on alcohol as a coping mechanism for pretty much everything. 

How Tolerance and Dependence Contribute to Our Inability to Stop Drinking:

As tolerance develops, the amount of alcohol needed to achieve the same pleasurable effects increases, pushing us to drink more than we initially intended.

This can make stopping harder after just one or two drinks, as our brain and body constantly chase that diminishing high.

At some point, you might “need” one or two drinks just to return to a baseline feeling of “normal,” never mind getting a buzz or drunk. 

When dependence comes into play, the struggle to stop drinking becomes even more challenging.

Our brains and bodies have become so reliant on alcohol that they constantly urge us to consume more.

This can lead to a vicious cycle where we drink to alleviate the negative feelings associated with withdrawal, further reinforcing our dependence on alcohol.

Limiting ourselves to “just one” drink at that point feels absurd. We’ve gone way past our ability to do that. 

Reason #4: “Everyone Is Doing It!” Social and Environment Pressures to Keep Drinking

Raise your hand (I know I can’t see you, but just humor me) if you’ve ever been to a party or social event where it seemed like everyone was drinking.

Chances are, you felt the pressure to join in – and that’s totally normal.

Our social environment can have a major impact on our decision to drink and how much we consume.

Peer pressure, social norms, and the desire to fit in can make it tough to stick to our one or two-drink plan. After all, who wants to be the odd one out nursing a soda while everyone else is doing shots or ordering their fourth round? 

Can I be honest with you for a second? 

I used to be the biggest instigator when it came to pressuring people to drink more than they wanted to.  

My coworkers and I would meet up at the same happy hour spot on Friday nights. Someone would inevitably turn down a second beer. They had a dinner to go to or wanted to hit the gym.

Who was the first person offering to buy them another round so they’d stay longer or skip the gym entirely? 

Me. (Hi! I’m the problem. It’s me.)

I feel terrible about that, but a lot of us have friends like I used to be. These are the bad influences – the proverbial devil on the shoulder made real. 

Close up of a woman with folded arms on a table. A glass of wine sits in front of her
Can’t stop drinking once you start?

It’s also hard when alcohol is everywhere.

This is the environmental aspect of it all. 

Alcohol is everywhere. From bars and restaurants to liquor stores and even some grocery stores, it’s almost impossible to avoid.

This widespread availability can make it difficult to resist the urge to drink, especially when it seems like everyone else is partaking, and it is literally right there.

Plus, alcohol marketing and promotions can create the illusion that drinking is essential to a fun, exciting lifestyle.

When we’re constantly bombarded with images of people enjoying alcohol, it’s no wonder we can have a hard time stopping after just a few drinks.

So much of our social life is set up around not stopping. 

Can you control drinking without quitting?

Honestly, it depends on who you are. For me, the answer was no. Believe me, I tried. Sometimes I could get away with just having two or three drinks at a party and going home.

But the effort took up too much mental energy. It was hard to have fun while simultaneously fighting with myself internally about having another one. 

It’s why I don’t think moderation works as a long-term strategy, especially not for people who have struggled with their drinking habits for extended periods of time. 

But maybe that’s not you, or perhaps you’d still like to give it a go. In that case, there are some strategies you can try. 

1. Set Limits and Create a Plan Before Going Out:

One of the best ways to keep our drinking in check is to set a limit before we even step foot out the door. Having a plan in place can help us stay focused and resist the call of “just one more.” 

Now, I realize that part of the reason you landed on this article is that you’ve tried (and failed) to have just one or two drinks, so setting limits seems like an unhelpful suggestion.

You might be right! But again, this is why I don’t bother trying to moderate my drinking. I know what I’m up against, and my life is easier and of a higher quality sober

But if you insist, setting limits that you’ll actually stick to is a must. 

2. Enlist the Support of Friends and Family:

There’s strength in numbers, and that’s especially true when it comes to tackling our drinking habits. Enlist the help of your friends or family members to support you in your quest for moderation. Having a buddy system can make it easier to resist temptation and stay accountable. 

Of course, this only works if your friends and family aren’t enablers of your drinking. If all of your friends have the same problem with binge drinking, you’ll need another plan. 

3. Switch to Mocktails:

After you reach your limit, or even in between drinks, switch to mocktails, soda, or water. Yes, soda is unhealthy, but so is scarfing a burrito at 4 am and vomiting all over the sidewalk (that’s gross, I’m so sorry). 

Choose your battles. 

4. Seek Professional Help:

If you’re struggling to regain control over your drinking despite your best efforts, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. A therapist, counselor, or support group can provide valuable guidance and resources for managing your alcohol consumption. 

You might even look into a moderation-friendly program like The Sinclair Method

Try Talkspace.

You don’t have to do this alone. Talk therapy can help.

Take a quick assessment and get matched with a specialist who understands your needs. Many insurance plans are accepted.

Soberish is a Talkspace affiliate partner.

What If None Of Those Things Work?

Suppose you can’t cut back, limit, or moderate your alcohol intake. In that case, consider it a clear sign that your relationship with alcohol is potentially beyond repair, and it’s time to look into sobriety.

Chronic alcohol consumption fundamentally changes the structure of your brain and impairs its ability to communicate effectively with itself. These changes can take months, if not years, to repair (if at all), which can only be done in sobriety.

And I know how terrifying the thought of sobriety can be.

But this is one of those turning point moments in your life that require reflection and consideration. If you’re interested in exploring the idea of sobriety further, visit my Sobriety Roadmap and Resource Center.

If this article has sparked additional questions for you, I’ve got a lot of resources to help you, starting with this AUDIT quiz. 

AUDIT stands for Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test. It’s a standard questionnaire that can help you determine if you are at risk for alcohol dependence. 

It’s not a medical diagnosis and should only be used for informational purposes. But based on your scores, you might have more questions to discuss with your doctor. 

And that’s okay! 

You’re already here asking great questions. Why not take the next step toward action? 

If you want some people to talk to, consider joining our private Soberish Facebook group. There are a lot of caring people there who’ve gone through a similar experience with alcohol. We’d love to have you!

Welcome to your Alcohol Use (AUDIT) quiz

1. How often do you have a drink containing alcohol?

How many units of alcohol do you drink on a typical day when you are drinking?

A unit of alcohol is one standard drink. Examples of one standard drink include:

  • 12 oz can of beer with about 5% alcohol
  • 5 fl oz of wine (roughly 12% alcohol)
  • 1.5 fl oz shot of spirits like vodka, rum, or whiskey (about 40% alcohol)

How often have you had 6 or more units if female, or 8 or more if male, on a single occasion in the last year?

How often during the last year have you found that you were not able to stop drinking once you had started?

How often during the last year have you failed to do what was normally expected from you because of drinking?

How often during the last year have you needed an alcoholic drink in the morning to get yourself going after a heavy drinking session?

How often during the last year have you had a feeling of guilt or remorse after drinking?

How often during the last year have you been unable to remember what happened the night before because you had been drinking?

Have you or someone else been injured as a result of your drinking?

Has a relative or friend or a doctor or another health worker been concerned about your drinking or suggested you cut down?

Additional Resources on Alcohol and Sobriety:

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