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Why do people get addicted to alcohol?

Alcohol addiction is a disease. It is wrong to think of it as a problem of self-control. It is not entirely something that you can choose. Granted that nobody forced you to start drinking, and granted that drinking alcohol is something to an extent, under your control, there are some aspects of alcohol addiction that are beyond your control.

 

The factors that you cannot change are the physical and physiological aspects of alcohol addiction. We will explain the elements of these factors concisely in this article. About the emotional factor, we will discuss what facets of it can be changed through re-learning and re-education.

 

Let us present some recent evidence-based facts that cause alcohol addiction. But before that, we need to be clear what the term “alcohol addiction” means.

 

Medically, the term “Alcohol Use Disorder” (AUD) is used to describe alcohol addiction. Only medical professionals can diagnose AUD. In common usage, people refer to the terms “alcoholic” or “alcohol addict” when they are describing someone who has a drinking problem. There are three degrees of severity for AUD, and these are mild, moderate and severe. Medical professions use a standard criterion to evaluate AUD.

 

Body Systems

New studies have found that there are complex interactions in the body’s organ systems in patients who have AUD. These interactions are between the nervous, endocrinal, and immune systems.

 

The parts of the brain that control reward, emotional regulation, self-control, sleep, decision-making, learning and memory are all affected by AUD.

 

Development

AUD has a different impact on a person, depending on what life stage the person is. During adolescence (ages 10 – 19), the brain is still developing. People who start using alcohol during the period when their brains are still developing take the chance of damaging their long-term and short-term cognitive functions. They are also at the risk of having AUD in their adulthood.

 

Genes and endophenotypes

Endophenotypes are biological characteristics that tell what personality traits a person will likely have. Sometimes, endotypes are referred to as “behavioural phenotypes”. These characteristics are something we inherit from our genes. It is a known fact that 50-50% of alcoholics have alcoholic parents. The behavioural traits which we likely inherit from our predecessors that increase our likelihood of AUD are: impulsivity, willingness to try new things, tendency not to follow rules, and active seeking of intense sensations.

 

The endophenotype can be called the “emotional factor” factor of AUD. Medical experts are still refining their research on what behavioural interventions can be used to change behaviours tied with these traits. Some of the leads include changing the environment, providing social support, and self-directed behavioural change through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy techniques.

 

The Three-Stage Cycle of AUD

Using brain scans such as Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans, scientists have identified specific areas that are active when a person has AUD. These areas and the behaviours they control are:

  1. The basal ganglia – reward system and habit formation
  2. Extended amygdala – responses to stress and strong emotions such as fear and anxiety
  3. Prefrontal cortex – controls decision-making, personality, drive, self-control, and thinking rationally

 

There are three evident stages of AUD. In this part of the article, we are going to explain how the brain works depending on the stages of AUD.

  1. Binge/Intoxication Stage – People who are in this stage feel a loss of control over their drinking. At the level of the brain, this is what happens:
  • Certain cues are present (for example, good feelings, a certain bar, 5 PM, weekends with friends)
  • Nucleus Acumbens goes into action (feels pleasure)
  • If repeated again and again, the straitum goes into action (habit formation)
  • Incentive Salience, a type of associative learning takes place
  • People who have learned incentive salience will have an irrational desire to drink, a compulsion or an urge that cannot be denied. This behaviour is governed not by the rational parts of the brain. This is why the people who have AUD say, “I have lost control over alcohol, it now controls me.”

 

  1. Withdrawal/Negative Affect Stage – During this stage, people with AUD will have the urge to quit. Their rational minds know that what they are doing is excessive and harmful.
  • But when they quit drinking, they experience what scientists call “reward deficit”. Because they have been overtaxing their reward system through heavy drinking in the Binge/Intoxication stage, the brain got used to producing a high level of neurotransmitters that elicited the feeling of pleasure. Now that they have stopped drinking, the neurotransmitter level that the person is used to has dropped.
  • Dropped nuerotransmitter levels triggers another part of the brain, the amygdala, which is responsible in countering stressful feelings. The amygdala is prompted to be in a “stress surfeit” state. Under this state, feelings of anxiety, sadness, irritability and uneasiness surface.
  • When people who have AUD try to quit but come back again to drinking, the amygdala turns on its “anti-reward stress system”. When this happens, a person becomes apathetic. They become numb to situations that normally make people feel happy. It is as if they are robbed of their ability to feel any kind of pleasure.

 

  1. Pre-occupation/Anticipation Stage
  • In this stage, the prefrontal cortex takes center stage. This part of the brain is about “executive functions”. These functions include decision-making and rational thinking.
  • This part of the brain is home to two systems that oppose each other: the go and no-go system. In a brain that functions normally, there is a balance of these systems. For example, you can say “no” to things that are not good to you, and “yes” to things that are good to you in a balanced way.
  • For people who have AUD, there is either too much activity in the go (“yes”) system , or too little activity in the no-go (“no”) system.

 

The three-stage cycle of AUD is a loop. It adequately explains why people who are addicted to alcohol keep being dependent on alcohol. Even if they are already in the process of recovering from alcohol addiction, it will take time for the brain to return back to a normal state.

 

We hope that the information we provided gave you a well-defined outline of the physical, physiological, and to some degree, the emotional aspects of alcohol addiction. We would like to convey the message that people with AUD are not victims of their brain. Granted that the brain sustain damage from alcohol addiction, there are steps that can be taken to facilitate change.

How to Stop Drinking Alcohol

You have come to the point of honestly deciding that you want to be a better person. You do not want to be addicted to alcohol anymore. You’ve heard about sober warriors, grey area drinkers, cutting down on alcohol and total abstinence. Have you decided what step to take to further your goal? What are the more effective ways to stop drinking alcohol?

 

Sober Living

MacMillian’s open crowd sourced dictionary defines “live sober” as “to no longer use, need or benefit from the consumption of illegal drugs, mind altering substances and alcohol”. Ask yourself, is this what you want to do? If your answer is “Not yet”, then you can start cutting down on alcohol consumption.

 

But if your answer is “yes”, then you are a sober warrior. This means you totally abstain from alcohol.

 

There is growing trend to shift from the label of “recovering alcoholic” simply “alcoholic” to “sober warrior”. The idea behind this movement is the thinking that we should not be ashamed of quitting alcohol. Many sober warriors came from the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) community and self help groups for alcoholics.

 

The re-branding of alcohol recovery came from their desire to strip the words “alcoholic” and “anonymous” because of the stigma these words bring.

 

We should not remain nameless, not wanting other people to know that we are kicking a bad habit. Why is it that when you want to quit smoking people applaud you, but when you decide to be sober, people think you are damaged goods?

 

Certainly the effects of alcoholism on families show the dwindling opinions of loved ones against those struggling with alcohol or substance addiction, as opposed to addictions of other nature.

 

When we rename recovery, we are able to focus on the optimistic part of ourselves, the part of ourselves that know we have a future without addiction. Alcohol addiction is now seen as life-style disease, much like diabetes or being overweight. These diseases can be corrected through lifestyle changes, not just through medicine and alcohol rehab.

 

Cutting down on alcohol consumption

 

Dry January is an effort by Alcohol Change UK, a charitable organization. The simple instruction is to stay “dry” (no alcohol consumption) for the whole month of January. It is an effort to encourage people to cut down on alcohol consumption, with an intention to change the way people think about socializing without alcohol.

 

Some heavy drinkers have benefited from this movement; some eventually decide to cut down their alcohol consumption. There are many helpful on-line sites such as DrinkAware, DrinkCoach or the NHS website. There are even people called “DrinkAware Crew” who volunteer to monitor drinking on nights out.

 

Obviously, these are all positive signs that more people are aware of the perils of being addicted to alcohol. More and more people are open to the new thinking that consuming alcohol is not good for health—mental, emotional and psychological health.

 

Grey Area Drinking and Coaching

There are some people who consider themselves to be grey area drinkers. Grey area drinkers are people in between two zones, the dangerous zone of hitting an alcoholic rock bottom, and the safe zone of social drinking.

 

They know they drink too much and are losing interest in living life at large.

 

They are what Jolene Park describes as people who want to drink normally in social situations, but end up regretting how much they drank once they started drinking.

 

Jolene is a functional nutritionist and a life coach. She supports abstaining completely from alcohol. She is also one of the pioneers of using life coaching techniques for sober living.

 

Here are some top tips from life coaches like Jolene:

  1. Try a holistic approach – integrate your alcohol-free goals with your life goals. For example, you can put your fitness goals and sobriety goals together and call it “my make-over”.
  2. Explore new interests and re-discover old ones. Maybe drinking has gotten you stuck. You can stop resisting, and start learning new things now. Tapping in into that creative, curious part of you.
  3. Try alcohol alternatives like alcohol-free beer. Or switch to lower alcohol-strength alternatives.
  4. Make two days of your week alcohol-free.

Being accountable through an accountability partner

Taking further advice for life coaching experts, it could help to have an accountability partner. Look for someone you trust, someone who has your well-being in mind. An accountability partner is basically someone you report your progress about.

 

Ideally, you should have a well-defined schedule or “date”, where you both talk about your sobriety goals.

 

In Alcoholics Anonymous, the Sponsor is usually your accountability partner. If you are part of other mutual support groups such as SMART recovery, you will need to find an accountability partner by yourself.

 

 

Keeping yourself motivated during withdrawal

The first week of alcohol withdrawal is the most taxing. Physically, your body has depended on alcohol to feel pleasure. Not using alcohol will make you feel very ill. Symptoms include headaches, stomach upsets, tremors insomnia and anxiety. Understandably, there is an urge to drink, just to stop the sick feeling.

 

To help you stay with your commitment, we suggest you do detox in a dedicated facility. In a centre, there will be people who are more than willing to help you go through this rough patch. Alcohol addicts dread the DTs (Delirium Tremens).

 

When it hits, you can lose consciousness, have seizures, and hallucinate. Certainly, DT is too scary to be faced alone. Step beyond the shame of entering detox. Many people share the same predicament that you do, and they have been helped to move along.

 

Detox is a major step when you are on recovery. If it is done right, you will tend to stick to the process.

 

Look at the big picture

Sometimes, when all we can see is trouble and more trouble up ahead in our sober living journey, we cannot see the forest for the trees.

 

It could help to go back to the most important questions you asked yourself when you started recovering from alcohol addiction.

 

Ask yourself:

 

 

Find your vision again. Get in touch with that part of yourself who honestly wants to be a better partner, spouse, parent, son or daughter.

 

You know you can do it. It just takes practice and time.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment & Recovery – Welcome

Welcome to the new site!

We’re going to be bringing you a winning combination of:

– News & views on alcoholism recovery – how to get better with (and without!) rehab or treatment
– The view from the trenches – what we’ve seen working in alcohol treatment in the past, and new developments in the field of alcohol treatment
– Making friends with your alcoholic past & understanding it so you can move forward
– Navigating getting help for a loved one suffering with alcohol addiction

We’ve got plenty experience in this arena – much of it personal, and we hope to share it with you, over time.

If you have any questions please reach out to us at email@alcohol-recovery-info.com and we’ll endeavour to answer them.

Looking forward to bringing more news soon!

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