What is Alcohol Addiction?

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By: Renaissance Recovery

Medically Reviewed by: Diana Vo, LMFT

Last Updated: 7/1/2021

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Authored By: Joe Gilmore

Table of Contents

According to 2019 NSDUH data, 14.5 million people in the United States satisfy the criteria for alcohol addiction. This amounts to over 70% of all those people with substance use disorder presenting with alcohol use disorder, the formal name for alcohol addiction.

While these numbers are mind-boggling, what’s worse is that only 7% of these seek treatment, according to the same SAMHSA data.

The CDC characterizes alcohol abuse as any form of alcohol consumption that leads to damaged health and relationships, as well as impacting your ability to work. While all alcohol addictions vary slightly, they are all grounded in alcohol abuse.

Heavy drinking and binge drinking each qualify as alcohol abuse. Any use of alcohol by under-21s is deemed alcohol abuse, too, and the same applies to the unsafe consumption of alcohol by pregnant women.

NIAAA (the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) reported that more than 25% of adults over the age of 18 engaged in a binge drinking session at some point in the previous month. The same survey indicates that 6% of adults reported drinking heavily in that same month. 

Whatever form it takes, alcohol abuse can be powerfully destructive. When you drink to excess, you’ll cause short-term and long-term harm to your health and wellbeing.

Alcohol abuse frequently leads to the following adverse outcomes:

  • Depression
  • Financial problems
  • Absence from work or school
  • Withdrawing from family and friends
  • Uncontrollable anger
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Legal problems

Now, even if you are abusing alcohol and you know this to be so, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are suffering from outright alcohol addiction. That said, when abusive drinking habits continue long-term, addiction to alcohol almost inevitably ensues. In the event of alcohol addiction, the situation is unlikely to improve without structured addiction treatment.

Is Alcohol Addictive?

Addiction is defined as a chronic and relapsing disease. Addiction is often used interchangeably with severe substance use disorder.

Experts almost universally agree with this concept of addiction as a disease, and while addiction has no cure, it can be treated, and effectively treated.

There are three FDA-approved medications used for the treatment of alcohol use disorder. These medications – more on them below – can reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms during detox, and they can also minimize the frequency and scope of cravings. Medication-assisted treatment can be a vital component of the treatment of severe alcohol use disorder.

Medication-assisted treatment, while proven effective, is most effective when delivered in combination with psychotherapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). CBT will help you to identify the people, places, and things that trigger you to drink alcohol. You’ll discover how to cope with life’s usual stressors using healthier coping mechanisms through psychotherapy sessions.

If untreated, alcohol addiction can be physically and emotionally damaging. Long-term alcohol abuse can also bring about permanent changes to brain structure and functioning.

Most estimates suggest up to 50% of your risk profile for any addiction is genetic. Beyond this, a variety of environmental and social factors also play a role in whether or not you become addicted to a substance like alcohol.

As addiction starts to build, you’ll find you require more alcohol to achieve the same effects as tolerance grows. By this point, you’ll also be liable to experience intense withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking alcohol.

At what stage does addiction spiral into full-blown alcohol use disorder, then?

A formal diagnosis of alcohol use disorder (AUD) is made using the criteria set out in the fifth edition of the  Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5.

Your healthcare provider or treatment provider will ask you the following questions about the previous year:

  1. Do you sometimes end up drinking more alcohol than intended, or drinking for longer periods than intended?
  2. Have you unsuccessfully tried to moderate your alcohol consumption or to stop drinking completely?
  3. Do you spend a great deal of time drinking or recovering from alcohol abuse?
  4. Does the thought of having a drink sometimes feel all-consuming?
  5. Does your alcohol intake cause you problems at home, school, or work?
  6. Have you started spending less time on hobbies and interests to make way for more time drinking?
  7. Is your tolerance for alcohol building so that you need more to feel the same effects?
  8. Do you find yourself engaging in risky behaviors after drinking?
  9. Do you continue drinking in spite of feeling anxious or depressed?
  10. Have you experienced alcohol withdrawal symptoms as the effects of alcohol start wearing off?
  11. Are you still drinking alcohol despite all these negative consequences?

The severity of your alcohol use disorder will be based on the number of criteria you satisfy, as follows:

  • Mild AUD: 2 or 3 criteria
  • Moderate AUD: 4 or 5 criteria
  • Severe AUD: 6 or more criteria

Alcohol Addiction Symptoms

Alcohol consumption is typically a social activity. Even for those who end up drinking alone, it usually doesn’t start out that way.

Many people drink because friends, family, or coworkers are drinking. This can be indirect peer pressure rather than overt peer pressure (such as at college). 

Others drink alcohol to self-medicate the symptoms of mental health disorders like depression and anxiety.

Whether you’re looking to fit in, become the center of attention, forget about your problems, or simply to numb your pain, alcohol means different things to different people. These feelings can become addictive and alcohol can become all-consuming.

The more you drink, the higher your tolerance becomes. Thus starts a vicious cycle where you’ll need increasingly more alcohol to achieve the same effect, with exponentially more damaging consequences.

When drinking alcohol becomes habitual, you’ll find you don’t feel normal when you have no alcohol in your system. This is when addiction becomes psychological. You feel that you require alcohol even if you are not physically dependent.

Physical addiction sets in once you are unable to quit drinking without experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms, such as these signs of alcohol addiction:

  • Shakiness
  • Tremors
  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizure

Both physical and psychological alcohol addiction is rooted in the way alcohol impacts the brain. When you consume alcohol, this releases endorphins in the areas of the brain responsible for reward processing.

Alcohol, then, hits home at the chemical level in several areas of the brain. At a psychological level, alcohol abuse can make you feel unable to properly function in the absence of alcohol.

Why is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol is a CNS depressant. Resultantly, consuming alcohol inhibits overall brain activity. 

The most important way alcohol achieves this is by increasing the activity of an amino acid called GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid).

GABA acts as the brain’s primary inhibitory neurotransmitter. Substances that increase the signaling of GABA are used as muscle relaxants, sedatives, and anti-anxiety medications. It is this increased signaling that leads to people who drink excessively slurring their speech, suffering memory loss and blackouts, and developing problems walking.

If you continue drinking alcohol abusively, your brain starts adapting to this increased inhibitory signaling by increasing signaling in the opposite direction – excitatory signaling. This is achieved through neurotransmitters such as glutamate working in opposition to GABA.

These adaptations are responsible for tolerance building in long-term problem drinkers, triggering a cycle of dependence and addiction.

Beyond these effects on GABA in the brain, alcohol has also been demonstrated to boost the release of endorphins. These naturally occurring chemicals are linked to feelings of euphoria and relaxation. It is believed that the way alcohol affects endorphins is a contributory factor to its addictive properties.

Signs of Alcohol Addiction

  1. Experiencing powerful cravings for alcohol
  2. Trying and failing to moderate the amount of alcohol you drink
  3. Experiencing blackouts
  4. Encountering legal or personal problems stemming from alcohol abuse
  5. Continually thinking about your next drink
  6. Getting withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking
  7. Acting out of character and engaging in reckless behaviors
  8. Continuing to drink alcohol despite negative consequences and an awareness it is harming you

1) Experiencing powerful cravings for alcohol

If you are addicted to alcohol, you’ll get powerful cravings. These could strike at any time, when you’re driving to work, while you’re at work, or even as soon as you wake in the morning. Cravings will become stronger in the aftermath of a binge.

2) Trying and failing to moderate the amount of alcohol you drink

If you find yourself trying to limit your alcohol intake without success, this is a common red flag for addiction.

3) Experiencing blackouts

When blood alcohol concentration gets too high, you’re at risk of blacking out.

4) Encountering legal or personal problems stemming from alcohol abuse

If you always seem to be in trouble at home, work, or school, ask yourself if this is related to your alcohol abuse.

If you start encountering legal problems, too, it’s time for a reality check.

5) Continually thinking about your next drink

If you always have alcohol on your mind, this unhealthy obsession could easily spiral into addiction.

6) Getting withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking

If you find yourself feeling irritable, jittery, and anxious after not drinking alcohol for a day or two, you may already have alcohol use disorder.

7) Acting out of character and engaging in reckless behaviors

If you frequently seem to behave in ways that are totally out of character when you’re intoxicated – driving under the influence, for example – this is a red flag for alcohol addiction.

8) Continuing to drink alcohol despite negative consequences and an awareness it is harming you

Alcohol can damage all aspects of your life and all areas of your body.

If you find your life is imploding and your health is suffering but you’re still drinking anyway, you need to consider taking action before alcohol addiction gets out of control.

Alcohol Abuse Symptoms

The following are considered the primary symptoms of alcohol addiction:

  • Being dishonest and secretive about your drinking
  • Inability to refuse alcohol
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and favored activities
  • Irritability and anger
  • Impaired physical appearance
  • Reduced levels of personal hygiene
  • Looking tired or sick
  • Being frequently intoxicated
  • Growing tolerance for alcohol
  • Patterns of binge drinking
  • Withdrawal symptoms in the absence of alcohol
  • Co-occurring mental health problems

Alcohol Addiction Treatment at Renaissance

If your alcohol consumption is starting to take over your life and to harm your physical wellbeing, it might be time to consider alcohol addiction therapy.

Here at Renaissance Recovery, we offer a variety of personalized outpatient treatment programs for alcohol use disorder, including IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) and PHPs (partial hospitalization programs).

With FDA-approved medications to help you more seamlessly navigate alcohol withdrawal, you’ll also benefit from psychotherapy like DBT and CBT alongside medication-assisted treatment.

If you have a co-occurring mental health disorder like depression, anxiety, or PTSD, our dual diagnosis treatment program will help you attack both of these distressing issues simultaneously.

By the time you complete your treatment program at our California rehab, you’ll be better placed to resist the cravings you get for alcohol and to push ahead with sustained recovery from alcohol addiction. We will also ensure you have the right aftercare in place to minimize the chance of relapse.

To benefit from our evidence-based treatment programs, all you need to do is reach out to the friendly admissions team today at 866.330.9449.

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Diana is an addiction expert and licensed marriage and family therapist who has been in the field of mental health for over 10 years.

Joseph Gilmore

Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country

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