Is Quitting Cold Turkey the Right Choice?

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Is “quitting cold turkey” the best choice for a bad habit?

If you have an addiction, you may wonder about the effectiveness of this sudden change to your routine.

Is it better to wean yourself off your addiction with support, or immediately stop?

If you want to build more good habits and are curious about the effectiveness or dangers of, “going cold turkey” getting rid of the bad ones, then this article is for you.

(Side note: Another positive ​way to improve your life is to read and learn something new every day. A great tool to do this is to join over 1 million others and start your day with the latest FREE, informative news from this website.)


When is Cold Turkey a Good Option?

Quitting cold turkey is a term that is often associated with smoking cessation. But it is not limited to that. It means any habit that you try to quit by willpower alone.

Most people try to quit their bad habits this way – and most people fail.

This type of change is the most popular choice and is usually the one that has the highest failure rate. But is there a time when the cold turkey technique can be the “right” thing?

The answer to that is… sometimes.

The first thing that is important is to understand is the type of addiction.

There are mental and physical addictions. For those with physical addictions, cold turkey is will result in a higher degree of failure. But with a purely “mental” addiction, like online gaming, sometimes a modified cold turkey solution can be the thing to do.

What is “Modified” Cold Turkey?

“Modified cold turkey” is when you get support, help or assistance from others.

For mental addictions, it CAN work to just “stop” rather than set up a process to “wean” off of the addiction. But doing this without the support of friends or a step-by-step strategy means you'll probably fail.

So if you want to immediately stop a habit, then it pays to get help and assistance from others.

4 Reasons Why Cold Turkey Doesn’t Work

Generally speaking, the cold turkey solution doesn't work with most bad habits.

Here are four reasons why:

#1 Cold Turkey isn't Effective

It is estimated that less than 5% of people who try to go cold turkey will succeed in the attempt. In fact, it's less effective than using a medical placebo. This means that just thinking that you are getting physical outside help is more effective for beating bad habits than going it alone.

The “cold turkey quitter” may bull their way through a habit change, but without a regimented approach, it is almost impossible to turn it into a permanent routine.  Usually, this person will get blindsided by an obstacle and will eventually backslide.

Does this mean that quitting cold turkey is impossible?

Of course not, you can’t throw a stone without hitting someone who will say something like, “I quit XXX cold turkey and I haven’t had a XXX since 20XX.”

So, it's possible to stop a habit one day and never do it again.  And it's possible to win the lottery.  But don't count on either happening to you anytime soon.

#2 Cold Turkey Causes Suffering

Have no doubt about it, quitting a physical addiction suddenly and abruptly can cause pain and suffering, both mental and physical depending on the level of your addiction.

Now, there are many people who have gone cold turkey who will you that craving is a natural part of ending an addiction. They have the idea that the withdrawal symptoms “motivates” them to never to pick up this habit again.

What you find instead is these same people will eventually relapse and will become more resistant to trying to quit again because they painfully recall their traumatic experiences from the past.  Since it sometimes takes a few tries to finally kick a habit, this is a huge obstacle to making a lifelong, permanent change.

It is just so hard to beat bad habits directly.

#3 Cold Turkey can be Dangerous

Before I go further, let me say that quitting any serious addiction (drugs, alcohol and eating disorders) should be monitored by a doctor, because of the safety factors. But even habits like smoking and caffeine can become a safety hazard if you try to quit cold turkey.

When your body is used to something, it rebels when that habit disappears. This can cause fluctuations in your heart rate and blood pressure. It can also cause depression, anxiety, and transference to other addictions.

Depending on the seriousness of the addiction, you should talk to a doctor before trying to quit that bad habit.

#4 Cold Turkey Doesn't Follow a Plan

Admittedly, cold turkey can be the quickest way to fight off an addiction.  There is no need to plan, no need to tell others, no need to slowly wean yourself from the addiction.  You just DO IT.

But I always think of a phrase I often heard growing up, “If you are going to do something, do it right”.

After all, jumping off a building may be the quickest way to the bottom, but taking the steps down is a safer and smarter way to get to the same place.

While cold turkey may be the quickest way to a cure, it's often not the most effective.

A far better approach is to plan, build a support network and use whatever tools are at your disposal for the specific addiction/bad habit that you are trying to combat.  By taking a strategic approach and planning for potential relapses, you'll be more likely to turn this change into a permanent elimination of an unhealthy habit.

Beating a bad habit is hard.  No doubt about that. But when you learn to avoid the major habit mistakes it does become a bit easier.

If you're a visual person, our post on vision board examples for addiction recovery may benefit you.

For a little bit of inspiration, check out these empowering and inspiring songs about recovery for different kinds of addictions.

Finally, if you want another positive ​way to improve your life, then read and learn something new every day. A great tool to do this is to join over 1 million others and start your day with the latest FREE, informative news from this website.


5 thoughts on “Is Quitting Cold Turkey the Right Choice?”

  1. Cold turkey has also another feature perceived as an advantage. You mentioned in 30 day habit challenge post how scary to our subconscious the thought of “permanent” change is. Cold turkey gives a real “never again!” attitude. We love quick fixes nowadays and planning a habit change looks like sooo mundane job. I think that’s why so many people try cold turkey instead of planning a strategy. BTW, do you know some numbers on how many people try to change habit by brute force approach and how many by planning a transition?

    • Excellent point Michal — I did some research on your question. To be honest, it’s very conflicting. Same people say you have 30% chance more success to go cold turkey, while other studies have shown the long, slow approach works. So I’m taking the approach from the “long-term” habit development standpoint where you slowly eliminate bad habits and introduce good ones. It’s the strategies that has worked for me and a number of people I know.

  2. I read the article and I have to totally agree…..It is hard without, the support of family and friends, when you are trying so hard to change a bad habit. But, if you don’t have the support…you must remember that you are changing, this part of you for yourself… You are worth the change! You have to pray and ask God to help you…..And father God will surely help you with everything, you may need to conquer it! Wonderful Article!

  3. Thanks for the article, it was interesting and informative. I need to admit, however, that I am unconvinced. I believe strong habit and addiction for some people can only be overcome by cold turkey.

    That is the very nature of why the success rate for drug addiction recovery is much higher than that of obesity! People can quit taking drugs (cold turkey), but we can’t “quit” food, we need it to live. Most people also can’t “manage” food if they suffer from addiction, the social pressure and temptation for some is only manageable through “brute force” and “cold turkey” methods.

    • I will agree, there is a case to be made for the other side. ULtimately I think it boils down to the person. Some might take to weaning others the all or nothing. If one fails for you.. try the other way.

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