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What is Alcohol Addiction?

I'm Sam and have strong interest in substance use and abuse and the psychology of behavioral problems.


You don’t need to have an alcohol problem to know that alcohol is a dangerous substance. Unfortunately, even many non-drinkers know first-hand just how terrible alcohol can be thanks to family or friends who struggle with drinking. If you’re an alcoholic or someone you care about is, then you know how it feels to be concerned about someone’s drinking.

To be able to help someone with their alcohol problem, you’re going to need to understand alcohol and the different terms that are used to discuss it. For example, not all alcoholics are dependent on alcohol, and not all alcohol abusers are considered alcoholics.

In this article, we’re going to outline alcohol addiction. Once you’re finished reading it, you’ll know the difference between an alcoholic and someone dependent on alcohol, and you’ll know about the differences between psychological and physiological alcohol addiction.

How do I know if I’m addicted to alcohol?

If you or someone that you care about has been drinking more than in the past, or if drinking is bringing about negative experiences, you should be wondering if alcohol is becoming a problem There are several signs and symptoms that could indicate an emerging alcohol addiction, and if you can catch these symptoms early on, it could help you prevent the problem from becoming a full blown alcohol addiction.

  • Are you drinking more than you did in the past? Are you drinking more often than you say that you will? Are you celebrating for things that you never considered to be important befor’ as an excuse to drink?
  • Are you making excuses or having to hide the truth from your family or friends so they won’t be worried about your use?
  • Do you feel uncomfortable engaging in social activity or going to work without having a drink or two first?
  • Do you find yourself drinking right away in the morning, drinking alone by yourself often, or becoming reclusive and avoiding friends and family to drink in peace?
  • Are your hobbies and recreational activities suffering or failing to progress as a result of alcohol?
  • Are you facing difficulties at work or school as a result of your alcohol drinking?
  • Have you encountered any problems with family, friends, or other personal relationships as a result of your alcohol consumption?

While one of these conditions alone might not be enough to indicate an alcohol problem, it’s enough for you to do a reality check. The typical response when someone checks off a single sign or symptom is often something similar to, “Oh, that’s just one symptom. I’ll be fine.”

This is the same mentality that virtually every substance abuser and drug addict had at one point in their lives. Nobody wants to be a substance abuser. Nobody wants to be an alcoholic. The hard truth is that, unfortunately, even seeing a single symptom of addiction arise in your life is enough to reconsider the actions you’re taking. If you don’t, then you’re almost guaranteed to see another symptom pop up if you keep drinking.

This isn’t to say that you should go to rehab as soon as you see one thing that could indicate an addiction. Your best best bet is to be truly honest and humble yourself by considering the honest reasons that you drink. If you find that you’re using alcohol as a coping mechanism – even for seemingly inconsequential issues – then you need to stop drinking.

The longer you wait before accepting the problem and abstaining from alcohol, the more difficult it will be to quit.

What’s the difference between alcohol abuse, dependence, and addiction?

These three terms are often used interchangeably, but they actually all have their own unique definitions. Granted, you can use them as layman’s terms for ‘someone who has an alcohol problem,’ but among the medical community, each word has a different definition.

Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol abuse is the misuse of alcohol for personal gains. Someone who abuses alcohol doesn’t necessarily need to be an addict. An alcohol abuser could be an occasional binge drinker who goes out one weekend each month while knowing about the unpleasant repercussions and the shameful stories they would have to hear about themselves.

  • If you abuse alcohol, that means that you willingly continue to use it while knowing firsthand the damage it can wreak on your life.

Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is not necessarily alcohol dependence. Alcoholism typically takes one of two forms.

  1. The first form of alcohol addiction is a form of self-medicating. These types of alcoholics will usually be on either end of the social spectrum. Introverted or anxious people use alcohol to break down some social barriers and help them interact with people easier, which can lead to heavy psychological addiction in which the alcoholic might need to drink to even say hello to their family.
  2. The second form of alcoholism occurs most often as a manifestation of someone’s lack of control. This type of alcoholic might be able to go weeks without drinking but once they hit the bar or the party, they won’t stop drinking until they're passed out or the liquor is gone.

Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence is typically the most serious type of alcohol abuse problem. There are two types of dependence, the latter being the most dangerous.

  1. Psychologically dependent alcoholics, much like the self-medicating users mentioned above, believe that they need alcohol to go about their daily tasks. They may be using it to cover up deep-seated issues or mild anxiety, but either way, they’ll probably need professional treatment if they’re hoping to get clean.
  2. Physically dependent alcohol users have the most difficult degree of addiction to deal with. First off, physically dependent alcoholics are most often psychologically dependent as well. Making exceptions for the mildest users, most psychologically dependent alcoholics end up becoming physically dependent anyways. After using alcohol for any significant amount of time, your body will begin to adapt to the constant flood of alcohol by developing a tolerance. Tolerance means that you’ll have to consume more and more alcohol to get the same effects as you would have earlier. After tolerance sets in, you begin to become physically dependent on alcohol. Physical dependence is mostly determined by whether or not the user experiences withdrawal effects when they’re not consuming alcohol.
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What is alcohol addiction like?

The symptoms of alcohol addiction vary depending on the severity of your drinking addiction.

Not all alcohol abusers have to face the dangers and unpleasantries of withdrawal. Still, alcohol addiction can be very hard to deal with even if it hasn’t become a full-blown dependency,

Psychologically addicted alcoholics tend to change over the course of their drinking. Being reliant on a substance can do some serious damage to their psyche and their self-image. This can manifest as anger directed outwardly at their friends and family, or self-destructive behavior aimed at themselves.

As they become more unhappy and fall deeper into the cycle of addiction, these feelings can compound. This creates a downward spiral and it can be very difficult for an alcoholic to see the light and pull themselves out of the addiction.

People who are fully physically dependent on alcohol face the most difficult kind of addiction. These people, if they try to quit, will have to go through full-blown alcohol withdrawal. Alcohol withdrawal can include any of the following symptoms, and can even be fatal if the drinking problem was serious enough.

  • Shaking of the hands and extremities
  • Extreme sweating
  • Hot flashes or chills and shivering
  • Nausea and vomiting, or other gastrointestinal problems
  • Delirium and hallucinations
  • Irritation and anxiety
  • Seizures caused by excitotoxicity (in serious cases)

In addition to battling withdrawal symptoms when they want to quit, the alcoholic will likely experience some of these effects during their day-to-day waking life.

  • Loss of mobility and motor skills
  • Slurred speech and difficulty gathering thoughts
  • Loss of ability to do math
  • Fatigue, lack of motivation
  • Jaundice caused by liver problems
  • Healthy nails and hair
  • Bad breath
  • Depression or mood swings
  • Anger and irrational behaviour, sometimes leading to violence

Those effects, coupled with the problems of an alcoholic lifestyle, can make it difficult for an alcoholic to even want to go on living. Many dependent alcoholics are broke because they spend all their money on alcohol. Many are living in shelters or are on the verge of homelessness - this could be from a lack of finances thanks to their spending habits, or due to problems that they caused at home when they were drunk.

Many people dependent on alcohol don’t have good support groups to help them quit drinking. Many have verbally abused their friends and partners and must fight the battle alone. For this reason it’s good to try and stop the problem before it develops into full-blown alcohol addiction.

What can I do if I am addicted to alcohol?

If you or a loved one is dealing with alcohol addiction, there are a number of things that you can do to try and help the situation. More importantly, if you catch the symptoms of alcohol addiction before it actually becomes a problem. The following solutions can be applied either to yourself or to a loved one.

If you are hoping to help somebody else with their alcohol problem, remember to approach the situation very carefully. Most often, people with addiction problems are fairly insecure about them, though they may not know this. Insecurities often manifest as anger or sadness instead.

It’s important to be kind and compassionate when approaching anybody about their addiction and to convince them that what you’re doing is in their best interests.

Many alcoholics will think that you are acting in a self-serving manner when you tell them they need to stop drinking.

Stopping the Problem Before it Starts

If you notice the signs and symptoms of an alcohol addiction emerging, you should immediately make an effort to stop drinking before it becomes a problem. We listed the symptoms of alcoholism at the beginning of the article. If you notice that any of these apply to you, it might be possible for you to stop drinking before it becomes a serious issue.

The most obvious sign of an approaching habit is the increased consumption of alcohol. If you have been drinking more than you used to, you need to slow down and potentially stop drinking altogether.

Stopping Mild Alcoholism

If you notice a few of the symptoms of alcoholism, chances are that you might already be mildly addicted. You may not experience full-blown withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink, but you may feel uncomfortable or anxious in certain situations without being able to drink.

When the addiction is at this level, you should be able to quit without too much hassle. Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to recognize your alcohol use as a potential problem at this stage. You’ll need to humble yourself and admit that you might lose your willpower and self-control to alcohol. You should consider the repercussions of your habit, and think about the potentially life-threatening danger that could emerge if you continue drinking.

Outpatient rehab is a good professional treatment for people at this stage of addiction. It doesn’t impose the same tight restrictions that inpatient rehab does, but it will help you get a handle on your usage.


Stopping a Serious Addiction

When the addiction reaches a serious level, you are putting yourself and the people around you in danger if you choose not to quit. At this point, you have probably felt some of the physical and mental symptoms of alcohol dependency. You will have a tolerance, and you will be dependent enough on alcohol that you will experience withdrawal if you attempt to quit.

Most people have tried to quit on their own at least once by the time their addiction gets to this level. This means that the best solution for serious alcohol addiction is getting alcohol treatment at an inpatient rehab facility. You might even need to go through a medically supervised detox - withdrawal can kill somebody who has been dependent on alcohol for long enough.

Inpatient rehabs are more comprehensive than outpatient rehabs. For the duration of the treatment, you’re not allowed to leave the rehab facility. This allows the patients to focus more on their own recovery, while also eliminating many of the stressors and triggers that can lead to relapse in the outside world.

During inpatient rehab, you will be focusing on your recovery 24/7. This allows for a greater chance of success and a higher completion rate among attendees of inpatient rehabs.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2021 Sam Shepards

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