What is alcohol addiction?
Alcohol addiction is a condition in which someone has a physical need to drink alcohol or a mental obsession with it, despite this having a negative impact on their life. Around 7,500 people in the UK die from the direct consequences of drinking alcohol each year, and this number is rising.
Moderate or low level use of alcohol is not a problem. Occasional heavy drinking need not be a problem. However, when this tips over into not being able to stop and alcohol dominating someone’s thoughts every day (even if they do not drink every day), then there is a problem and there is an addiction.
What are the symptoms of alcohol addiction?
The symptoms may be noticed by the people who care about the person with the alcohol problem before the individual themselves realises they have a serious drinking problem. Signs to be aware of include:
- Once starting to drink, not wanting to stop and continuing to drink after other people have had enough i.e not being able to easily limit the amount of alcohol consumed
- Drinking quite fast in order to get a buzz or the ‘early relief’ that alcohol can give
- Poor memory. This can lead to not being able to remember whole periods of time (known as ‘black out’)
- Storing alcohol in strange places
- Drinking alone or having ‘secret’ drinks
- Feeling sweaty, shaky or nauseous on a regular basis, especially in the morning – and feeling relief from these symptoms once alcohol is consumed
- Needing to consume more and more alcohol to feel its effect or to get through the day
- Having habits that revolve around alcohol e.g. drinks before, during, or after meals, or after work. If these habits are deviated from, feeling irritated or angry about this
- Needing to have a supply of alcohol to hand at all times ‘just in case’.
- Planning events around alcohol consumption e.g. meetings, social occasions which include alcohol
- Having relationship or other life problems e.g. with work, finances, the law, that stem from drinking
- Losing interest in hobbies that were previously enjoyed, becoming emotionally ‘unavailable’
- Having a mental obsession with alcohol
- Drinking becoming more important than eating
- Drinking leading to sadness, emotional distress, depression, unreliability, unpredictable behaviour and general chaos
- Drinking leading to sleeping at inappropriate times and not sleeping at night
When alcohol starts to dominate someone’s life, or when the effects of alcohol have more of a negative than positive effect, then there is a definite problem. Effects and problems can be physical, psychological and social.
Why do people get an alcohol problem?
Alcoholism can be genetic, meaning that if there is someone in the family with a problem, there is a higher chance of someone else in the family developing alcohol dependency. This could be at least in part due to the way the body processes alcohol.
People with low self worth, lack of confidence, higher sensitivity to stress and anxiety, and a predisposition towards being depressed, can also be more likely to develop an addiction. This is because alcohol seems at first to alleviate the symptoms, making the individual feel more positive about themselves, more confident, less stressed and anxious, and a little happier. People also use it to help them sleep. However, eventually more and more is required to produce the same positive effect – and then this effect is not felt at all, and the alcohol actually turns on the individual making them more lacking in self esteem and confidence, more stressed and anxious, more depressed and less able to sleep.
Alcohol itself is a chemical depressant.
People who have used alcohol to cope with a traumatic life event may also be more likely to develop a problem. Those who start drinking from an early age, who mix with people who drink a lot and who have easy access to alcohol are also more likely to develop a dependency.
The Physical and Psychological Consequences of Alcoholism
Many people worry about the effects on their liver of drinking too much (cirrhosis and hepatitis). However, there are many other harmful effects of alcohol which may pose an even greater risk to the health and wellbeing of the drinker.
Alcohol is a sedative which depresses the nervous system. It affects people’s judgment, and lowers inhibitions. It affects memory and leads to confusion. It affects muscle co ordination and clarity of speech. Very heavy drinking can lead to passing out to the point of coma.
Alcohol can drain the drinker of energy making them tired all the time. It can affect the eyes (making them weaker and watery), cause problems with the digestive tract (including causing the extremely painful pancreatitis), and cause high blood pressure, heart problems and diabetes. It can affect fertility and ability to perform sexually (eg erectile dysfunction), and lead to deformities in babies. It can thin the bones, increase the risk of cancer and dementia, and lead to greater risks of accidents, violence and suicide. It can also lead to problems socially within the family, at work and financially.