Addiction Recovery - Relapse Prevention - Sobriety

What Is the Kindling Effect in Alcohol or Drug Addiction?

What Is The Kindling Effect?

The kindling effect is the result of multiple attempts at withdrawing from drugs and alcohol. Learn more about the kindling effect in our blog.

Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

Addiction Recovery

Relapse Prevention


March 15, 2023

Resolutions that people make for attaining a better physique, quitting bad habits, or maintaining a healthy mindset at the workplace often don’t hold up.

As hard as people try to keep their New Year resolutions about turning around their lives, there is a big risk of not sticking to the plan and falling into the same, old habits. Every time this happens, the person feels defeated and depressed. This also takes a toll in terms of finding the motivation to restart the journey of self-improvement again. People who attempt to quit alcohol and drugs undergo something similar.

It's called the kindling effect.

It is common to find people making promises to quit drinking, smoking, vaping, or injecting drugs. However, the stress of breaking away from an old habit and maintaining sobriety can be very hard.

By the Numbers:

The Nation Library of Medicine reports that over 85% of the people relapse within a year of treatment.

The everyday life stress and multiple personal issues make the person relapse and return to using a substance again. This can turn into a vicious cycle of trying to quit, failing to fight away withdrawal symptoms, feeling defeated by a painful withdrawal and relapsing again.

The kindling effect is the outcome of this process and it can make drug addiction treatment very difficult.

Understanding the kindling effect is very important for people who are contemplating quitting substance abuse cold turkey (which is never a good idea) and those who are curious why every relapse episode seems to make their will and the body weaker.

What Is the Kindling Effect?

The kindling effect refers to a pattern that has been established based on observations related to people going through the various stages of drug addiction treatment. People who repeatedly try to quit drinking without seeking professional help often relapse. Every time a person relapses and tries to quit again, the withdrawal symptoms seem to become more intense.

This effect is common during alcohol withdrawal, which is why the term "alcohol kindling" is also used.

The Kindling Effect: How The Process Works

To understand the kindling effect, it is imperative that you understand the usual process that brings about kindling symptoms and how kindling tends to progress.

Stage 1: An Attempt to Quit Drugs and Alcohol

Most people with a history of substance abuse realize the damage they are doing to their bodies and minds. As a result, they often attempt to quit. However, when people try to quit on their own without seeking professional help, there is a higher chance of failure.

This is because quitting an addiction at home, and using supplies like a home drug detox kit does not provide the clinical expertise and supervision needed to support and guide someone through the mentally and physically draining process of drug detox. Any attempt to go cold turkey might open up the doors to an ER visit and things could quickly spiral out of control despite the presence of a supportive and loving family.

This is even truer for people with long-standing addictions such as alcohol addiction spanning years or using illegal drugs that tend to cause a more serious addiction problem. This can be understood as the first phase of the kindling process: trying to quit yourself without seeking the type of clinical expertise that is found only at a licensed rehab center.

Stage 2: Withdrawal Symptoms

Invariably, every attempt to stop using drugs or an addictive substance comes with a certain degree of withdrawal symptoms. As these symptoms kick in, a person’s will can be overwhelmed by the physical and mental symptoms of withdrawal. Despite the presence of concerned friends and the use of medications prescribed for managing addiction withdrawal, the person might go through seemingly unbearable pain.

At a drug treatment facility, the person suffering from withdrawal symptoms can be comprehensively supervised and treated as they navigate withdrawal. In a self-attempted drug detox, managing withdrawal can get dangerously difficult. Withdrawal is always easier when helped by professionals.

Stage 3: Detox Failure & Relapse

Unable to bear the symptoms of drug or alcohol withdrawal, the person cannot stay strong in the wake of psychological and physical discomfort, and eventually surrenders to the withdrawal symptoms. This is referred to as relapsing.

The chances of a relapse are far more likely when detox is attempted alone when compared to a professionally managed drug rehab center where behavior therapy specialists and treatment experts can help the person overcome the addiction withdrawal challenges. Once the person starts using again, it also weakens the will to attempt detox again or try quitting apart from creating the possibility of suffering the kindling effect.

Stage 4: More Attempts at Drug Detox

Even after repeated self-detox failures, a person might attempt to quit again. An unsuccessful drug detox or alcohol detox can happen at an inpatient drug rehab or outpatient drug rehab, too. This is part of the process of recovery: some people just need more than one attempt to successfully complete the detox.

However, home-based and self-detox attempts are associated with a higher incidence of relapsing. Such people might not realize that withdrawal symptoms tend to worsen with multiple drug detox attempts. This is the kindling effect in action. It results from changes that happen neurologically as the person’s brain chemistry is overwhelmed during multiple detox attempts.

Once the kindling effect sets in, more relapse failures are likely.

Stage 5: The Kindling Effect Overwhelms

People with marked kindling effect symptoms can find it very difficult to attain sobriety again. This is because the increasingly intense withdrawal effects caused by the kindling effect make the person repeatedly seek solace in alcohol or sedative prescription medications [habit-forming painkillers]. The long-term effects of kindling, like body tremors, also worsen the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, making it even harder for the person to overcome the desperation to use again.

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Causes of Kindling Effect: Failure to Prevent Repeated Relapses

Attempting drug detox without having the necessary tools to control expected withdrawal symptoms is perhaps the number one reason why people fail, leading to recurring cycles of attempting to quit, with increasingly worsening withdrawal symptoms, with every subsequent relapse. The only way to prevent this is by seeking the help of a qualified drug rehab specialist or seeking admission to an outpatient or inpatient drug addiction treatment program.

Yes, there are no guarantees that everyone seeking professional rehab care will never suffer from a relapse, but the quality of care and support extended by the chosen rehab center can make a huge difference. For instance, a relapse might not happen just after detox.

Some people might complete the detox and their participation and motivational levels might be appreciable during the entire course of the drug rehab program. However, a relapse might happen once the person exits the safe environment of the drug rehab facility. This is where many alcohol addiction treatment programs fail—they fail to provide the support needed to maintain sobriety outside the treatment program. As this makes a person more susceptible to using again, it also raises the chances of suffering a relapse.

While the first relapse might not lead to the kindling effect as a rule, every relapse to follow can worsen the withdrawal symptoms.

The Kindling Effect: Understanding How It Impacts the Brain

It is no secret that chronic substance abuse tends to impact the central nervous system just like many other street drugs do. The brain’s chemistry is often permanently altered due to the long-term consumption of such drugs or alcohol. A sudden reduction in the use of drugs or addictive substances tends to trigger symptoms as extreme as hallucinations or convulsions—this is what makes cold turkey withdrawal so dangerous.

Drugs such as alcohol tend to impair the activity of the neurotransmitters in the brain. Neurotransmitters are responsible for making us feel euphoric or sad. This includes affecting gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA levels. This is an inhibitory neurotransmitter responsible for creating a feeling of relaxation. When a drug like alcohol is consumed in high quantities, the sedative effect is pronounced, relaxing the person, and taking away the ability to recall the unpleasantness at home or work.

However, there is a difference between using a light sedative occasionally to manage a trauma or repeatedly using sedatives. When there is too much GABA in the brain, the person seems slow and sluggish—typical signs associated with being drunk. When the brain is GABA deficient, the person might feel anxious, and this could worsen, bringing about anxiety attacks or panic attacks. When the GABA levels tend to change a bit too much, the person becomes vulnerable to suffering a seizure. 

A long-term drinking pattern impacts the balance of GABA levels which can be disturbed every time a person suddenly quits drinking. Such rapid changes in neurotransmitter activity can make the person more vulnerable to developing the kindling effect. As the brain is repetitively put through phases of sudden drug or alcohol withdrawal followed by a relapse, the brain’s chemistry is further compromised, increasing the sensitivity, range, and acuity of subsequent withdrawal symptoms.

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What Are the Effects of the Kindling Effect?

Kindling symptoms could last for some time or become chronic. This could be as severe as sustained tremors or involuntary shaking. Long-term effects of kindling are related to emotional and physical side effects, such as:

  • Feeling depressed

  • Anxiety

  • Panic attacks

  • Unable to sleep

  • A feeling of malaise

These physical effects of kindling set in before the psychological symptoms. As the effects of kindling get stronger, the person develops a greater risk of self-medicating and using alcohol. As kindling effect symptoms settle in, subsequent attempts to quit alcohol could fail as Kindling symptoms can worsen withdrawal. After a few cycles of relapse and withdrawal, the more physical symptoms of kindling tend to show up, including delirium tremens which have been closely associated with alcohol kindling.

Delirium Tremens (DT) could set in within 48 hours after the last drink. Kindling-related DT symptoms include:

  • Nausea

  • Sweatiness

  • Chest pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • State of stupor

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Sudden mood swings

  • Agitated state of mind

  • Reduced concentration

  • Sleepiness during the day

  • Compromised mental acuity

  • Unexplained fear or paranoia

  • Imagining things, hallucinating

  • Feeling fatigued without a cause

  • Extremes of low and high energy

  • Involuntary shaking of extremities

  • State of confusion

  • Bodily tremors

Kindling side effects like seizures are also known in people who have attempted to go cold turkey after years of high alcohol consumption. The most extreme kindling effects include:

  • Biting tongue 

  • Convulsions

  • Incontinence

  • Difficulty breathing 

  • Muscular convulsions

  • Clenched jaw

How to Avoid the Kindling Effect? Seek Professional Drug Rehab

If you have a history of failing drug detox, you need to reconsider your approach toward trying to get sober. Similarly, if you have already attended an addiction rehab program but still relapsed, you need to consider the type of rehab expertise that was on offer. This is because there are no straight answers for preventing the kindling effect—there are no medications that can cure it. This condition is best prevented rather than trying to medicate or manage it.

If you already have a pattern of delirium tremens or your last rehab experience clearly stated that your seizures seriously compromise your chances of succeeding with the detox, you need to consider medically assisted detox. This is when a rehab specialist will prescribe anticonvulsant medications to contain the kindling effect, helping you get through the withdrawal process without relapsing.

There are many medications that can be used to contain the symptoms of kindling, just to ensure that you get through the next stage of your drug rehabilitation journey without relapsing. However, it takes more than certifications to provide the best mix of medications through your addiction treatment that can help to contain withdrawal symptoms along with suppressing the side effects of Kindling. This includes the short-term use of benzodiazepine since this medication works on the GABA receptors. 

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Avoid the Kindling Effect & the Cycle of Relapse: The Edge Treatment Center Provides Expert Addiction Help

The kindling effect is the result of a cycle that's too common: drug detox, relapse, repeat. If you or your loved one seems to have fallen into the vicious cycle of trying to quit substance abuse without success, you need to know these recurring relapses are only making things worse.

The Edge Treatment Center provides expert help for drug addiction. A family-owned company, we're intimately familiar with the patterns of addiction and relapse. Our long-term outpatient rehab is designed to help people avoid the patterns of relapse. With us, you'll have the resources you need to break the cycle and live a life free from substance abuse.

Want o know more about how we can help you avoid the kindling effect? Contact The Edge Treatment Center today.

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If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, there is hope. Our team can guide you on your journey to recovery. Call us today.