Alcohol is the most popular drug in the world. People of many different cultures drink alcohol for different purposes. Because of its availability, and because it’s socially acceptable, it’s easy to assume that alcohol is safe. Many people are unaware of the fact that alcohol is highly addictive.
In fact, alcohol is one of the most addictive drugs on the planet. It causes physical dependency and withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can actually be so serious as to kill you. In this article, we’re going to describe some of the health issues associated with alcohol so you can understand the dangers of alcohol addiction.
What Is Addiction?
There are different approaches to looking at addiction. Generally, addictions can be broken up into either psychological or physical components. Alcohol can be both psychologically and physically addictive.
Psychological addictions that do not involve the use of drugs or alcohol are called behavioral addictions. This happens when the brain becomes so accustomed to a certain sort of rewarding or enjoyable behavior that the individual begins to compulsively seek it. Examples of behavioral addictions include addictions to sex, gambling, and eating.
Physical addictions occur when somebody actually becomes physically dependent on a substance. When somebody is physically addicted to something their body requires that substance to function. This leads to the experience of withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop using that substance.
Alcohol is dangerous in the sense that it can be both physically and psychologically addicting.
Understanding the different aspects of addiction is important for anybody hoping to understand how and why alcohol can be addictive.
Alcohol & Psychological Addictions
People can be psychologically addicted to alcohol without actually being physically addicted to it. This occurs when the brain associates pleasure and reward with the consumption of alcohol.
Psychological addiction can also describe the limiting belief that one needs a substance in order to function. In the case of alcohol, this is often seen when people believe that they need a drink in order to socialize.
While their body might not actually be dependent on alcohol, they have developed a belief that encourages them to drink whenever they’re around people.
Alcohol, Addiction & the Brain
Addictions, whether they are psychological or physical, all lead to changes in the brain.
One thing common among addictions of all types is the changes that occur in the dopamine reward pathway. This is the pathway that is naturally activated when we do something that is good for the survival of ourselves or our family. Things like eating healthy, exercising, and having sex all produce a rewarding sensation.
Alcohol can cause the same sort of dopamine release.
This becomes a problem when you continue to abuse a substance or behavior so much that your dopamine system becomes overloaded. It becomes reliant on this behavior in order to release a normal amount of dopamine. This creates symptoms of psychological addiction. As your dopamine system becomes desensitized, it gets harder to enjoy things without alcohol being present.
Causes of Alcohol Addiction
When we talk about the causes of alcoholism, there are several different things to consider — the psychological and physical/biological aspects.
The environmental or emotional causes of alcoholism are one thing, but the biological mechanism that creates dependence in the body is something different entirely. We will discuss both of these things in the section of the article.
Emotional and Environmental Causes of Alcoholism
There are many reasons that people may choose to drink alcohol. These are some common examples of environmental or emotional situations that may lead people to drink.
Alcohol is very often used as a tool for relieving stress. This is not really a sustainable option, nonetheless, alcohol is among the most commonly used coping tools for fighting stress.
If you are frequently stressed, and you always rely on alcohol as a tool to ease your stress, then this can easily lead to alcohol addiction. While alcohol may be useful in the short term for relieving stress, it should not be considered a permanent solution.
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression are difficult and unpleasant emotions that many people prefer not to experience. Unfortunately, they can be tricky to resolve. Managing anxiety and depression often involves the help of a therapist, or at the very least, deep and personal inner work.
Rather than opting to permanently deal with their anxiety or depression, many people turn to alcohol in hopes of numbing these feelings. If you are using alcohol to numb some sort of emotion rather than processing it, this is a good way to start a psychological addiction.
Furthermore, many people with anxiety or depression aren’t even aware that they have these issues. They may simply believe that it’s normal to feel this way, or that life is just unfair, and rationalize having a drink so that they feel better.
Trauma is one of the main reasons that people develop addictions.
Trauma occurs when the mind is overwhelmed with a situation that it cannot cope with. This trauma is then stored in the body and deep in the psyche where it must be worked through at a later date.
People who have experienced trauma often find that it manifests as phobias, anxieties, depression, or other challenging conditions. Many trauma victims use alcohol as a coping method to help them avoid the results of their traumatic experiences.
One of the most common reasons that people begin drinking is peer pressure. If you hang around people who are drinking all the time, or if your primary friend group relies on alcohol for their social outings, it can become fairly easy to develop an alcohol addiction yourself.
If this is the case, it’s important to reconsider the sort of people you’re hanging out and whether or not they are actually good for you and your mental health.
Biological Causes of Addiction
There are several different biological mechanisms which can contribute to addiction.
One of the main mechanisms by which people become psychologically addicted to a substance has to deal with a part of the brain called the mesolimbic reward pathway. As mentioned earlier, this is the pathway that generally gets activated when we do something that is good for our health orr survival.
Drugs and alcohol stimulate this pathway without us actually having to put any effort into accomplishing something. This is why they are so addictive.
The brain generally tries to maintain a state of balance. So, when you’re constantly bombarding your dopamine system with addictive behaviors, your brain goes through a process known as down-regulation. This means that it actually desensitizates itself in order to find a state of balance.
When this happens, it becomes difficult for people to experience joy and pleasure from regular things. Your brain has become accustomed to associating dopamine release — pleasure — with drinking, making it hard for you to enjoy anything else.
One of the main biological reasons for physical addiction has to do with the way that alcohol influences other neurotransmitters besides dopamine.
Alcohol strongly influences the GABA neurotransmitter. This is called an inhibitory neurotransmitter and its function is to help bring balance to the nervous system and prevent it from getting over-excited. It keeps you relaxed. It can be considered a sort of counterbalance to excitatory neurotransmitters like glutamate.
When you drink for extended periods of time, your body down-regulates the GABA system. In other words, it desensitizes the part of your brain that keeps you from being anxious and uncomfortable.
This means that you’ll no longer have the counterbalance to your excitatory glutamate system. When there’s too much glutamate, people can get anxious and jittery.
What this means is that when you stop drinking, your body won’t have enough GABA to counterbalance your glutamate. On top of this, your body will be producing more glutamate than it usually does.
The result of this is overexcitation which causes symptoms like anxiety, tremors, and even seizures. The withdrawal period lasts for as long as it takes for your body to begin producing these neurotransmitters effectively on its own again.
Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
These are some of the most common signs and symptoms of alcohol addiction.
Emotional and Behavioural Symptoms
- Different behavior. Regular alcohol use can cause problems with behavior. Alcohol reduces inhibitions and can make people behave eratically or angrily..
- Missing or rescheduling of responsibilities and social gatherings in order to drink.
- Being unable to attend social settings or work without having a drink.
- Frequently showing up at work drunk or hungover, or missing time at work to get alcohol or deal with your hangovers.
- Frequently talking about wanting to stop drinking but not being able to do so.
- Lying about the amount that you drink or hiding your drinking from your friends.
- Drinking in secret or drinking alone because you don’t want others to know how much you drink.
- Spending more money than you intend to, or can account for, because of your drinking.
Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction
- The development of tolerance. As your body becomes accustomed to the presence of alcohol, it will become difficult for you to achieve the same effect with the same doses. This is called tolerance. As tolerance builds up, you’ll find that you need to drink more and more to catch the same buzz.
- Withdrawal symptoms. If you’re drinking to the point that you feel uncomfortable when you’re not drinking, you’re probably experiencing alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal is a collection of symptoms that we will describe in more detail later. This happens when your body is unable to function properly without alcohol.
- Physical health problems. Alcohol is toxic to the body and can lead to a number of physical health problems. If you notice yourself feeling aches, pains, or having digestive issues, this is a sign that you’re drinking too much.
- Problems with balance and coordination. It’s no secret that alcohol can cause problems with balance and coordination while you’re under the influence. However, if you’re drinking all the time, these problems can become semi-permanent.
Alcohol withdrawal is the term used to describe the symptoms that someone experiences when they stop drinking after developing a dependece. These symptoms can range in intensity from quite mild to very serious and potentially fatal. Here are some examples of alcohol withdrawal symptoms.
- Shaking and sweating
- Mood instability
- Nausea and vomiting
- Hallucinations and delusions
If you or someone that you love are trying to stop drinking, it’s important that you don’t simply stop immediately. Doing this can send your body into shock and cause you to have seizures.
While this is generally only the case for heavy, long-term alcoholism, it’s still important to wean yourself off. Weaning is a process that involves gradually reducing the amount that you drink over a period of weeks.
Even after doing this, it’s generally recommended that you go through a medically sanctioned alcohol detox program. In doing this, you will be supervised and provided with any medication that can help ease the worst of the symptoms and prevent you from having a seizure.
What To Do if You Are Addicted to Alcohol
If you think that you or a loved one are addicted to alcohol, don’t worry. There are a number of solutions. Here are some examples of things that can help with the issue.
Find a good support network
Many people don’t open up about their problems with alcohol because they’re afraid of being judged or ostracized. However, this can make the problem even more difficult because feeling isolated causes further feelings of loneliness, depression, and anxiety, which are all triggers for alcoholism in the first place.
Finding a good support group is very important for anybody who wants to overcome a psychological problem like alcohol addiction.
If your primary support group consists of regular drinkers, it’s going to be hard to stop drinking. If you’re serious about sobering up then it may be time to reconsider what you call a support group.
Finding a new support group isn’t always easy. However, there are lots of things that can help you with this.
- You can find a group of people who enjoy similar hobbies such as you.
- Take up a new sport or start engaging with locals at a community facility.
- Try to meet people online through dating or friend-finding platforms
You can also consider joining a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous. These support groups were designed specifically to help people who struggle with alcoholism.
One of the main purposes of this group is to allow people to feel connected to others and understood.
During an Alcoholics Anonymous group, you will get to meet a lot of new people who have experienced a similar situation as you. It helps you recognize that you’re not going through this alone. You’ll also learn things that you might not be able to figure out on your own — life lessons from people who have already picked themselves up.
Practice some new hobbies and activities
Boredom is one of the main causes of addiction. If you are trying to stop drinking but find yourself getting bored, it’s all too easy to turn back to the bottle.
One of the best ways to counteract this is to make sure that you have fun and enjoyable activities that you can fill your time with.
Consider taking up a musical instrument, learning a new game to play with other people, or doing some other sort of creative pursuit. Fulfilling activities trigger the same dopamine response that you get when you’re using alcohol.
Take some time do you think about what you would do if you had the time. Then, allow yourself to recognize that you could make the time if you really wanted to. If you invested the time you supent drinking in passionate pursuits, you would be more fulfilled and less likely to drink.
What do you like to do when you’re drinking with your friends? Maybe you can find a group of people who enjoy the same activities but don’t need to be drinking to do them. Or, if you realize that you’re only doing these things because you’re drunk, this shows you that they’re not really that important to you.
Go to rehab.
Rehab is a specific program designed to help people learn the skills and tools that they need to enjoy life sober.
During a rehab program, you will connect with a counselor or a therapist who will help you understand the root cause of your addiction. They will also help you learn how to manage in social situations and tackle your responsibilities without feeling like you need to rely on alcohol.
Rehab is strongly recommended for people who have serious alcohol addictions because of the potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
There are different forms of rehab that can be useful to different people. It depends on the severity of the drinking problem.
If you have a relatively mild psychological addiction to alcohol, then you may be a good candidate for outpatient rehab. Outpatient rehab is great because it allows you to come and go from the rehab facility during your treatment. As long as you attend your scheduled meetings, you don’t have to spend any more time at the rehab.
This allows you to build a life and practice the skills that you’re learning in real-time.
However, chronic and serious alcoholics may not do so well at outpatient rehab. The freedom allowed by this form of treatment can actually be a hindrance for someone trying to get sober. There’s nothing but your own willpower stopping you from simply walking to the nearest liquor store.
In this case, you might want to go to inpatient rehab. Inpatient rehab is much more intensive and requires that you stay at the facility for the duration of your entire treatment. While there are some obvious drawbacks to this form of treatment — such as the inability to hang out with your friends and the need to take time off of school or work — it’s generally a much more effective option for people who have serious alcohol addictions.
While you’re at inpatient rehab you won’t be able to go to the liquor store and buy booze, so you’ll have nothing to focus on but your treatment.
Despite the fact that alcohol is one of the most popular and commonly-used drugs on the planet, it remains one of the most dangerous and addictive. Alcohol can create serious physical and psychological dependence and the withdrawal symptoms can be extremely dangerous.
If you think that you or one of your loved ones are struggling with alcohol addiction, it’s not too late to seek help. There are many options for people who are interested in breaking free from the grip of alcohol.