What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is the most severe form of alcohol abuse and involves an inability to control drinking habits, despite the negative consequences they cause. It occurs when a person drinks alcohol excessively and repeatedly, to the point that they become dependent on alcohol and feel they cannot function normally without it.
It is also commonly referred to as alcohol use disorder (AUD).
AUD is a physical and psychological disease and, like many other diseases, follows a generally predictable course. The progressive nature of the disease is usually subtle and takes place over an extended period of time – which can mean even the alcoholic fails to notice the point at which they lost control.
There are four stages commonly used to describe the severity of alcohol abuse, based on how long a person has been abusing alcohol and the extent of its impact on their lives:
- the early stage: increased pattern of drinking
- the middle stage: cravings and dependence
- the late stage: severe alcohol abuse, physical dependence and addiction
- the end stage: loss of control.
It is common to have co-occurring disorders with AUD, such as anxiety, depression, trauma and behavioural disorders. Alcohol is more commonly used as an escape from the symptoms of these disorders than any other drug.
AUD is a highly destructive condition that grows worse over time and, without the right treatment, can lead to devastating consequences. Where mental illness and alcohol addiction are both present, a dual diagnosis treatment significantly improves the quality and effectiveness of recovery and prevention of relapse.
What are the Four Stages of Alcoholism?
Alcohol use disorder is a complex disease, commonly described as having four stages. Each stage features signs and symptoms that can be used to determine when someone has developed a problem and the extent of its impact on their lives:
The early stage
This stage begins with an increased pattern of drinking, which can be drinking more often and/or drinking greater quantities. Binge drinking is a common initial sign of a drinking problem. Other signs include:
- drinking to relieve stress, anxiety and / or boredom
- developing a higher tolerance for alcohol
- blacking out as a result of heavy drinking.
The middle stage
At this stage, our drinking problem is more obvious, to us and those around us. Regularly drinking large amounts of alcohol leads to dependence, so we will begin to experience cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Signs will include:
- increased heart rate
- nausea and vomiting
- loss of appetite
- obsessively thinking about when we can have our next drink.
At this stage we may be having difficulties meeting our responsibilities at work, home, socially and / or financially. We may also begin to experience other negative effects, such as ill health, mood changes and unpredictable behaviour.
The late stage
By this stage, physical dependence and addiction will be established. There will be serious consequences to our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. We are likely to become unable to maintain a job or function normally in our daily routines. We are also likely to lack motivation to take care of ourselves, so our personal hygiene and appearance will suffer.
The end stage
Reaching this stage, we have lost control over our drinking and will be experiencing a variety of alcohol-related medical issues. Heavy and long-term alcohol abuse may have caused damage to vital organs, including the liver, kidneys and brain. At this stage we are at high risk of poly-substance abuse, severe withdrawal symptoms, life-threatening health issues and suicide. Even at this stage, alcoholism is treatable – it is never too late to seek help.
Due to the fact that alcohol is legal and widely accepted in most societies, it can be hard to tell the difference between casual use and abuse. In general, any usage of alcohol that causes negative results is considered abuse.
Each person’s experience will be different, but recognising the symptoms as early as possible – and seeking help – will significantly increase our chances of reversing the damage and making a full recovery.
What are the Causes of Alcoholism?
Everyone is different and certain people tend to have a stronger reaction to alcohol than others, making them more susceptible to developing an addiction.
AUD is a highly complex condition and there is no single cause that determines if we will become addicted. However, there are several risk factors known to play a role in the development of alcohol use disorders:
- Family history
- Environment / social
- The brain
AUD can be influenced by the environment we grew up in, e.g. if close family members struggled with alcohol abuse, if we had easy access to alcohol or we were exposed to certain parental behaviours, such as negative communication, inconsistent parenting, misplaced anger, neglect, abuse and/or trauma.
The genetic factors that contribute to AUD are incredibly complex, but research has discovered that a large number of genes are involved and interact with each other. These genes dictate things like how easily and quickly alcohol is broken down in the body, how alcohol makes a person feel, how severe hangovers are, and to what extent a person will engage in risky behaviours after drinking. This does not mean we will become an addict, but it makes us more vulnerable to the condition. No single factor has as much influence on whether we become an alcoholic or not, as our genetic makeup.
Those already at risk for AUD are more likely to become alcoholics if they have a partner or close friends who drink regularly, especially if this starts at a young age. Social settings, where it is acceptable and encouraged to drink too much, also play a role. Other environmental factors that can greatly influence the likelihood of addiction developing include, easy access to alcohol, peer pressure, stress, poor living conditions, lack of social support and community division. Stress is one of the greatest triggers of AUD.
Research has shown that mental health disorders can significantly increase the likelihood of a person developing AUD – including depression, anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Experiencing trauma also increases a person’s risk, especially where the trauma involves violence or assault (including childhood abuse). Many people with mental health issues use alcohol as a means of self-medication to cope with their symptoms (or unpleasant side-effects from medication).
The latest science shows that drinking alcohol actually alters our brain structure and function, causing lasting changes in brain chemical systems and circuits, including pleasure, memory, self-control, judgment and decision-making. Alcohol also destroys brain cells and contracts brain tissue. Even in a person who was not likely to develop an alcohol use disorder, binge drinking can change the brain to make addiction much more likely.
By seeking support and treatment to get to the root cause of our addiction – and address any co-occurring disorders – it is possible to recover and enjoy long-lasting sobriety and wellness.
What are the Warning Signs of Alcoholism?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, published by the American Psychiatric Association, lists 11 warning signs of alcohol use disorder:
- continuing to use alcohol despite it persistently causing social and interpersonal problems
- continuing to use alcohol despite knowing the physical and psychological problems it is causing or exacerbating
- having cravings and urges to use alcohol
- putting alcohol above everything else, and failing to meet obligations at work, home, etc
- spending a great deal of time getting, using or recovering from use of alcohol
- drinking larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended
- having a persistent desire (or failed attempts) to cut down / stop alcohol use
- giving up or reducing social, work or recreational activities because of alcohol use
- using alcohol in situations where it is dangerous, for example drink-driving
- developing a tolerance for the effects of alcohol – a need to increase amounts of alcohol to achieve the desired effects
- having withdrawal symptoms, which can only be relieved by using more alcohol.
It is important to recognise that without expert help and support, alcohol addiction will become increasingly worse, resulting in a negative impact on all areas of our life.
Recognising the warning signs as soon as possible, and acknowledging we need help, is the first step to recovery. Alcoholism is treatable and there are a number of effective treatment options available to get us back on track to living a healthy and fulfilling life.
What are the Effects of Alcohol Abuse?
The harmful effects of alcohol abuse are extensive and range from accidents and injuries to disease and death – as well as being detrimental to our family, friends, and wider community.
The mental and physical effects of any addiction can be very obvious, however, with alcohol abuse they can often take a long time to reveal themselves.
The short-term side effects of alcohol abuse include:
- temporary blackouts or short-term memory loss
- nausea and vomiting
- slow reaction times / poor reflexes
- reduced brain activity
- lowered inhibitions
- blurred vision
- difficulty breathing
- irritability and mood swings
- violent behaviour.
As alcohol is able to enter almost all tissues of the body, prolonged abuse will cause physical damage as well as a decline in mental and emotional health. Without the appropriate help, alcohol abuse will result in more serious long-term effects that can include irreversible damage.
The long-term effects of alcohol abuse include:
- anxiety disorders
- brain damage
- compromised immune system
- heart disease
- liver disease
- diabetes complications
- increased risk of cancer (including liver, bowel, breast and mouth)
As well as causing serious mental, emotional and physical health disorders, long-term alcohol misuse can lead to major social problems, such as unemployment, divorce, domestic abuse and homelessness.
Finding the help and support we need in the early stages of alcohol abuse can significantly improve our chances of long-term recovery.
Can Alcoholism be Treated
Research has shown that people participating in recovery programmes, with the help of specialists, have a much higher chance of achieving long-term sobriety.
The best treatment programme for each individual will depend on a variety of factors, and needs to be carefully designed in collaboration with an experienced therapist. It is also important to have a safe and structured environment in which to address all the medical, emotional and psychological needs.
The most effective treatment for overcoming alcoholism involves a combination of:
- Behaviour therapy and counselling to address the thoughts, emotions and behaviour patterns that are contributing to the addiction – including family therapy and group therapy.
- Treatment for related mental health problems, such as anxiety or trauma.
- Medication and drug-based treatment to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms, as well as to treat underlying mental health disorders, such as depression.
- Community support, including in-person or online support groups, as a source of education, encouragement and social support.
Research has shown that modern approaches to treating addiction are more effective, especially those that treat the addiction and co-occurring mental illness together.
Alcoholism Treatment at White River Manor
Through mixed therapeutic methods, a strategic approach, and staff with decades of experience, White River Manor provides the setting, resources, and tools necessary for a full, successful recovery.
Our holistic treatment programme is shaped around your personal preferences and therapeutic needs and can include various elements from the traditional 12-Step Programme, which are known to provide a solid foundation for recovery.
Using a combination of traditional methods, ancient philosophy and cutting-edge science, the team at White River Manor treats the whole person and not just the addiction. This personalised, holistic approach ensures deep transformational healing and a full recovery.
We understand that recovery is a lifelong pursuit of positive habit building, maintaining mental wellbeing and avoiding triggers, which is why we also include a complete after-care plan to support you following treatment.
Admitting you have a problem and deciding to get professional help is the first step to a better and more successful life – a life where you can wake up feeling great, enjoy better relationships and work more productively.
If you are struggling with alcohol abuse, or are worried about a loved one, please contact us to talk about treatment options. We are here and ready to help.