Alcoholic beverages are everywhere from the smallest pub to gas stations, and now even some movie theaters. More than half of American adults partake in alcoholic drinks, whether it be Happy Hour after work or a New Year’s glass of champagne or shots “because you lost a bet”. Because alcohol use is so commonplace and accepted in American culture as a normal activity, especially when compared to substances like meth or heroin, it can be difficult to perceive the shift from alcohol use to abuse to full-blown addiction.
Just because it can be difficult does not mean that it has to be. By understanding the causes behind alcoholism, it can become easier to avoid alcohol addiction and help yourself or someone you know. In addiction treatment, early detection is arguably one of the most important factors in determining whether or not the addiction treatment process is successful. The more time you wait before taking action, the harder it will be to perceive, and therefore treat, cases of alcoholism and alcohol addiction.
Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States, with nearly 18 million people suffering from alcohol dependence or abuse, which equates to one in every 12 adults. The medical term for alcoholism is Alcohol Use Disorder, which is described as a chronic brain disease distinguished by compulsive alcohol use, a negative mental and emotional state when not using, and a lack of control over alcohol intake. What is the difference between addiction and just common use, then?
A number of factors are in play when it comes to determining what can cause alcoholism in any one person, including environmental, physical, psychological, social, and genetic. However, some of these factors can have a more significant impact than the others. For example, someone’s risk of potentially becoming an alcoholic is as much as three to four times greater if their parent is an alcoholic.
The roots of addiction are commonly traced back to childhood and exposure to alcohol at an early age. Children who start drinking before the age of 15 are six times more likely to later develop a dependence on alcohol than those who don’t drink until the age of 21, which is especially troubling when taking into account that more than 40 percent of all tenth graders drink alcohol. Children and young adults who otherwise wouldn’t intend to start drinking are often introduced to it via peer pressure, causing use to potentially escalate to abuse.
College is also the starting point for substance abuse, with some students unable to appropriately handle their newfound freedom. In fact, freshman students showed some of the highest rates of student substance abuse on college campuses. And while many may think of alcoholism as a “middle-aged” disease, the “Young Adult” subtype is actually the largest subtype of alcoholics in the United States, accounting for 32 percent of alcoholics.
Mental illness is also a common impetus for alcohol dependence and abuse, as many people suffering from conditions like depression or anxiety might use alcohol to self-medicate. At the start, it can feel like alcohol dulls the symptoms associated with these illnesses, but over time, will only serve to make them worse and more difficult to cope with.
Finally, while scientists have yet to identify an “alcoholism gene,” there are genes we do know that can reduce the impact of a hangover as well as boost the power of alcohol. The combination of getting a more intense buzz from drinking without having to feel as much of the effects of heavy drinking puts them at a much higher risk of developing alcoholism.
The shift from alcohol use to dependency and abuse to full-blown addiction generally follows a regular pattern as the user loses control of their consumption and alcohol becomes the force that drives the majority of their behaviors.
Answering “yes” to at least two is a sure sign of a growing dependency.
Beyond this, there are many signs of alcohol abuse, including some that, isolated from the rest, can be easy to miss. However, as these troubling behaviors begin to pile up, things become clearer:
Signs of a fully-fledged addiction are typically far more serious and harder to ignore, such as:
It is essential and potentially life-saving that professional help and treatment are sought out before these last signs, and the serious repercussions that go along with them, manifest.
Alcoholism is dangerous, there is no doubt about it. Unfortunately, many people realize that they or someone they know suffers from addiction, but less than 10 percent of people that are addicted seek treatment. This leaves the roughly 90 percent of the others to either continue abusing alcohol, or in some cases, they try to quit cold turkey.
Quitting something “cold turkey” refers to the act of suddenly stopping all intake of a certain substance in an attempt to treat their addiction. Quitting cold turkey leads to serious side effects, and should almost never be used to treat addiction. Instead, seek professional help in order to treat yourself in the safest, most comfortable way.
Alcohol has a depressive effect on your brain, slowing its function and the way information is communicated throughout the body. Continuous drug abuse forces your central nervous system to practically reprogram itself. Because of the constant depressive effects, your body works harder to stay awake and keep your nerves communicating. Once your alcohol level drops to zero, your body needs time to readjust from working overtime to complete sobriety. Quitting cold turkey gives your body no time to readjust, which in turn causes withdrawal symptoms. Because of this, it is always advised to seek alcoholism treatment to avoid dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from moderate to extremely severe. Depending on the intensity of the alcohol abuse, symptoms can include:
Although these are the most common symptoms, there are more rare, serious, and severe problems such as hallucinations and seizures. Delirium tremens, known commonly as DTs, are very rare, and only happen in around five percent of people suffering from alcohol withdrawal. These are more severe symptoms like intense hallucinations and delusions. Other side effects of DTs are:
There are many different factors involved with treating alcohol addiction, such as whether it is done through a residential or outpatient program. Determining which one is the best option depends on the patient and which environment is best suited to his recovery. However, if a medical detox is necessary, then that needs to be done at an inpatient center. If alcohol withdrawal is not handled by a trained medical professional, the results can be fatal.
Treatment begins with a patient evaluation that helps to determine the most effective treatment plan, which will typically involve a mix of some or all of the following addiction therapies:
The amount of time a person needs to be in treatment will vary depending on circumstances such as the severity of the addiction. It is; however, important to keep in mind that alcoholism is a chronic condition that will require lifelong management.
Despite the skewed cultural perspective on alcohol, the danger of alcohol abuse is very real and often fatal: Alcoholism is the third leading preventable cause of death in the U.S., contributing to roughly 88,000 deaths every year, more than half of which are due to binge drinking. Prolonged excessive alcohol use can negatively affect your body in a number of ways, including:
These are just a few of the most prominent dangers of alcohol abuse, not even mentioning the dangerous situations people can find themselves in when their cognitive functions have been compromised by excessive alcohol, such as driving drunk, acting aggressively, or even causing harm to loved ones.
The destructive effects of alcoholism can be isolating and make you feel like you’re all alone in your struggle, but it doesn’t have to be that way. At Pathway to Hope, a team of experienced professionals, psychiatrists, counselors, and case managers are readily available to help you along your journey to sobriety.
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