Alcohol Abuse: How to Handle Alcoholism and Move Toward Sobriety
When people think of drug abuse and addiction, they most likely are not thinking about alcohol and its effects. But here's the truth: alcohol is a drug. And it's highly addictive.
Alcoholism research shows that the psychological and social side effects of being addicted to alcohol can be successfully treated through alcohol rehab.
Thankfully, this is an option for anyone who takes the first step and reaches out for help handling problems with alcohol.
Alcohol Recovery Information
The Reality of Alcohol Abuse - and the Hope of Alcohol Treatment
Alcohol Addiction Statistics
- 100,000 people die every year from alcohol-related causes
- In 2005, 2.5 million Americans were treated for alcohol use disorders
- Almost 25 percent of Americans have engaged in binge drinking in the past month.
- Almost ten percent of American adults fit the description for an alcohol use disorder.
- Over 17.5 million Americans are considered alcoholics, and many more are at high-risk.
- Very few people who struggle with alcoholism actually receive alcohol treatment and start moving toward their sobriety.
These are sobering facts about alcohol abuse and alcoholism in the United States. They also show that any alcoholism definition means alcohol is a drug.
Here's the headline: Alcoholism is dangerous to your physical health and your relationships. But it is treatable, and anyone can move toward sobriety.
If you think you may be struggling with alcohol abuse, or know someone who is, consider this your starting guide to an alcoholism definition.
We are here to help anyone and everyone struggling with a substance use disorder. In this alcohol abuse guide we address all of your major questions about alcoholism, alcohol abuse and alcohol treatment, like:
- What can I expect in alcohol withdrawal?
- Are there different types of alcoholism? What are the stages of alcoholism?
- What does treatment for alcoholism and abusing alcohol look like?
- What is the best way to move away from alcoholism and toward sobriety?
- How does alcohol abuse affect the brain and body?
- What does alcohol abuse look like? What about alcoholism?
- Is alcoholism a disease or a personal choice?
- What is the relationship between trauma and alcoholism?
More than anything, we are here to help you with alcohol addiction treatment. If you still have questions after reading through this alcohol abuse and alcohol treatment guide, feel free to reach out and contact us today.
The Basics: Alcohol as a Dangerous Drug
One of the major problems with dealing with alcohol abuse in the United States is that people rarely think of alcohol as a drug. The link between the 'desirable' effects of alcohol and the development of alcohol dependence just doesn't click for most people.
But here's the truth: binge drinking and abusing alcohol are so common for just one reason. Alcohol is a drug.
As a drug, alcohol:
- Affects the brain in both the short- and long-term.
- Creates dependency in the body over time.
- Has less of an effect over time, leading to tolerance.
- Loosens the brain's inhibitions, creating dangerous situations.
- May be fine in social situations; can be dangerous in isolation.
Alcohol is not dangerous in and of itself - unlike, say, a stick of dynamite. But one of the keys to getting to the bottom of alcohol addiction and alcohol abuse is to recognize that it invites the risk of abuse.
All of those bottles have "Drink Responsibly" on their label for a very good reason.
Alcohol is addictive because of the chemical reactions that it causes in our brains. Ethanol - the alcohol that is contained in everything from Jack Daniels to boxed wine - interacts with the central nervous system. When alcohol hits our brain, it gets our inhibitory neurotransmitters firing on all cylinders.
In other words, alcohol inhibits our brain's ability to function normally. It's a kind of sedative and depressant. The more alcohol we drink, the more inhibited we become. At the same time, alcohol releases dopamine in the brain. This is what makes us feel good when we drink.
If we drink heavily enough, over time our brain becomes dependent on the effects of alcohol. It becomes the 'new normal', and the brain will tell the body to keep drinking in order to keep feeling normal. This is physical dependence, and the beginning of alcohol addiction.
There's no question about it: alcohol has a heavy effect on both the brain and the body. But what does this effect look like, exactly? A lot of the impact of alcohol on the brain is covered above. Some of the more dangerous effects of alcohol abuse on the body are discussed below, when we talk about the dangers of binge drinking and being addicted to alcohol.
But we do want to say that this guide to alcohol abuse should be taken with a grain of salt. Drinking alcohol does not mean that you will become addicted to alcohol. After all, over half of Americans drink alcohol regularly.
In reading through this guide, you should keep in mind that the extent of how alcohol affects the brain depends on:
- The quantity and frequency of alcohol consumption.
- How early you began drinking, and how long you have been drinking.
- Biographical details, like your age, gender, genetic background, and even a family history of alcoholism.
- Your overall physical health.
- Whether you are diagnosed with another mental disorder, like depression or anxiety.
While we do want to make the danger of abusing alcohol clear, we don't want this guide to be a scare tactic. The rest of the guide on alcohol dependence and treatment should help you through the details.
The impact of alcohol isn't just limited to the individual. Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction have had an enormous impact on the entire country. This is why it's so important to address the need for alcohol treatment.
Research on alcohol in the United States shows just how much of an impact alcohol has in the United States. For example:
- One in three high school seniors have consumed alcohol in the past month.
- Over ten percent of college students are considered heavy drinkers.
- Almost ten million men currently struggle with an alcohol use disorder.
The alcohol research shows the risks of alcohol abuse and the dangers of alcohol itself.
These alcohol stats and trends are not the only insights that make the need for alcohol abuse treatment clear. The other unfortunate reality of being addicted to alcohol is that it is so secretive. Because of the stigma of either being addicted to alcohol or abusing alcohol,
We hope to break that trend.
There's no doubt that alcohol abuse has short-term and long-term side effects. The substance affects the individual physically, psychologically - and even emotionally.
The short-term side effects of alcoholism are nearly the same as the symptoms of alcoholism itself. (You can see these symptoms and signs of alcoholism below). Some of the most common long-term side effects include:
- Kidney failure
- Heart disease
- Depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders
- Memory loss
- Problems with balance
- Lowered inhibitions
These long-term alcohol side effects are both physical and psychological. Thankfully, alcoholism and alcohol dependence can be effectively treated.
Understanding Alcoholism & Alcohol Dependence
To understand what works in treating alcoholism, we first need to understand what alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence look like.It's hard to objectively capture what alcoholism means. Alcohol abuse looks different for different people, and alcoholism rarely takes the same form. That said, there are several key factors to alcoholism:
Drinking more than the recommended maximum level of alcohol for each day or week. This looks different for men than for women.
Alcohol Tolerance & Dependence:
Becoming tolerant to the effects of alcohol. Then subsequently drinking more to reach the same 'desired' effects, until your body is physically dependent on the substance.
Reaching the point where you have lost control over your alcohol consumption. For heavy drinkers and alcoholics, this means drinking even when you don't want to just to feel normal.
These are not necessarily stages of alcoholism. Instead, each of these factors play into each other to create the unfortunate reality of addiction to alcohol. We dive into the details of abuse, dependence, and addiction here.
Moderate alcohol consumption is perfectly acceptable in social settings. But drinking can easily turn into alcohol abuse.
Sometimes it can be difficult to know when drinking alcohol becomes too much. People often cross the line into abusing alcohol without even knowing it. Thankfully, there is an objective measure for what alcohol abuse means.
- Binge drinking is considered to be 5 drinks for men and 4 drinks for women in less than 2 hours. This brings the BAC to 0.08.
- Heavy drinking is considered to be binge drinking on at least 5 days in the past month.
- Moderate drinking is considered to be no more than 4 drinks a day for men and 3 drinks a day for women. The weekly limit is 14 drinks for men and 7 drinks for women.
What's in a drink? A 'standard' drink in the United States has about 14 grams of pure alcohol. This is found in 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, and 1.5 ounces (or one 'shot') of spirits.
Alcoholism goes beyond the binge drinking and alcohol abuse described above. On top of alcohol abuse, addiction to alcohol has a few major elements:
- Craving the effects of alcohol.
- Building up tolerance for alcohol.
- Creating a physical dependence on the effects of alcohol.
- Losing the ability to control your drinking.
- Drinking even when you don't really 'want' to, just to feel normal.
Seeing several of these symptoms is a major sign that alcohol addiction may be present. These symptoms can creep up slowly, over a long period of time. It is important to carefully watch you alcohol intake and your relationship with the substance. Using the standard 'moderate drinking' guideline from above is a good way to avoid the risk of alcohol abuse.
Alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction are not the same thing. Someone who consistently abuses alcohol through binge drinking will not necessarily become an alcoholic. But alcohol abuse certainly increases your risk of alcoholism.
The major difference between alcoholism and alcohol abuse is actual physical dependence on the substance. When alcohol abuse turns into alcohol addiction, quitting alcohol becomes much more difficult for the drinker.
Some of the most common signs of both alcohol abuse and alcoholism include:
While these symptoms are present in both alcohol abuse and alcoholism, addiction takes these symptoms to an entirely new level. On top of these, an alcoholic has lost control over their drinking completely and experiences alcohol withdrawal.
Alcoholism Quiz - Are You Addicted?
Even after reviewing what alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction look like, you may still be having a hard time deciding if you are addicted. This is normal, especially since denial is a common feature of alcoholism.
Help us help you: take our alcoholism quiz to determine if alcohol abuse or addiction has become an issue in your life.
The questions in this alcohol addiction quiz will help you determine which symptoms of alcoholism you exhibit. It will also help you decide what the next steps of alcohol rehab are. Some of the questions to ask yourself include:
- Do you drink to deal with stressful situations or relationships?
- Do you spend a lot of team thinking about drinking each day?
- Do you consistently drink more than the recommended levels?
- Do you find yourself finishing a bottle of alcohol once you open it?
- Do you start to feel uneasy if you go without alcohol for a couple of days?
- Do you engage in dangerous activities when you drink?
- Do you continue to drink even though you know it has caused problems with your relationships?
There are many other questions on an alcohol addiction quiz. All of these questions can help you determine whether alcoholism is an issue in your life. Since many people have a skewed understanding of alcoholism, the results may be surprising.
Understanding Addiction, Alcohol and Your Brain
To understand how addiction and alcohol rehab works, you also need to understand the reality of addiction on your brain. We've already covered how alcohol affects the brain, and why alcohol is so addictive.
But what we haven't yet covered is how to understand the interaction between addiction, alcohol and your brain. This is an important distinction. For instance, knowing that alcohol addiction is a disease that changes the way your brain works gives you a kind of freedom.
This knowledge frees you from feeling trapped in addiction and feeling like it is a personal failure. Instead, you are able to understand alcoholism as a disease and alcohol treatment as a choice.
Many people continue to think of alcoholism as a personal choice, or a result of a character flaw. This is not only unfortunate - it is also completely untrue.
All types of addiction - including alcoholism - have been shown to be mental disorders. What does this mean, exactly?
In short, it means that people who are addicted to alcohol have literally lost control over their actions and choices. Their brain has taken over the decision-making. When someone is withdrawing from alcohol, the decision from an addicted brain is very clearly to drink more alcohol.
But that is not to say that control cannot be regained. It just means that regaining control in the face of addiction will most likely require some professional help - and a little help from your friends.
Addiction to alcohol means losing control over how your brain makes decisions. Let's jump into that further. There are a few main points in understanding addiction and your brain:
A brain suffering from alcohol addiction has one major goal - to keep drinking alcohol.
In many cases, alcohol addiction is not driven by a desire to 'feel good'. After type, withdrawal symptoms kick in and alcohol abuse is driven instead by a desire to feel normal.
At first, abusing alcohol may be a choice. But after awhile, the brain and body become physically dependent on the substance. At this point, binge drinking and alcohol abuse are continued because of alcohol dependence.
All of this is not to say that being addicted to alcohol cannot be overcome. Alcoholism is treatable. It just requires alcohol rehab and intensive treatment that focuses in on the effects of alcohol addiction on your brain.
In some cases, it is possible to get sober on your own - but we don't recommend it. Alcohol dependence is bigger than your own personal freewill. Overcoming abuse, dependence and addiction requires time. More than that, it often requires help.
Alcohol detox and self-treatment is not only difficult - withdrawing from alcohol on your own can be dangerous. Instead, consider the alcohol detox options we lay out in this guide.
Alcohol Withdrawal and Detox
The first step of overcoming alcohol dependence is to go through the withdrawal stage. When you are addicted to alcohol, your body becomes accustomed to its effects. Over time, you become dependent on alcohol to feel physically and mentally 'normal'. But that's not normal at all.
Withdrawal, or alcohol detox, is essentially taking the time to rid your body of the toxic effects of alcohol. It's not a pleasant experience, but it is necessary in order to overcome the symptoms of alcoholism and binge drinking.
Alcohol rehab begins with this detox process. Withdrawing from alcohol - or any other drug - takes time. But it is well worth the discomfort.
So what can you expect when you face the possibility of withdrawing from alcohol? It's uncomfortable, for starters. But then withdrawal ends and recovery begins!
When detoxing, you can expect at least several of these withdrawal symptoms:
- Shaking hands or feet
- Nausea and vomiting
- Sleep problems (including insomnia)
- Confused thinking
- A higher blood pressure and heart rate
None of these withdrawal symptoms are easy to manage. But withdrawals do go way down after the initial stages. Even if you continue to crave a drink, the physical symptoms of withdrawal won't last more than a week at most.
The length of withdrawing from alcohol depends on how long you have been drinking and how much alcohol you typically consume. In general, withdrawals from alcohol begin around 12 to 24 hours after your last drink and can last several days.
In cases of heavy drinking on a daily basis, mild withdrawal symptoms can begin just six hours after your last drink.
Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous if they are not carefully monitored and managed.
In extreme cases, heavy drinkers will experience delirium tremens. This is a dangerous condition, complete with hallucinations, and requires medical attention. Delirium tremens occurs in only about 5% of people withdrawing from alcohol.
Because alcohol withdrawals can be dangerous in some cases, you should consider participating in a medical detox. This is the first stage of many alcohol treatment programs, since detoxing is an essential stage in rehab for alcohol.
The Types of Alcoholism
Even though alcoholism affects millions of people all around the country, it can take on many different forms. There is not just one type of alcoholism - there are many.
The type of alcoholism depends on your age, your behaviors, your level of drinking, and how long you have been abusing alcohol.
The types of alcoholism presented here are different than the stages of alcoholism. Someone can move from one type of alcoholic to another, but this doesn't mean they are entering a different stage of alcoholism. It just means they have moved into a different life stage - and potentially a more serious form of alcoholism.
As the name implies, this type of alcoholism affects young adults all around the United States. The average age is of a young adult alcoholic is 24, though the ages range from 18 to the early thirties.
Unlike other alcoholics, the young adult alcoholic subtype engages in binge drinking several times each month. They do not necessarily drink heavily every day. Instead, they are more likely to get drunk every weekend in a social setting. Even though the young adult alcoholic makes up a third of alcoholics in the United States, less than ten percent ever seek out alcohol treatment.
The young antisocial alcoholic contrasts both the functional alcoholic and the young adult alcoholic. Young antisocial alcoholics begin drinking at a young age, and most develop alcohol addiction by the time they turn 18.
On top of abusing alcohol, half of this group also struggle with an antisocial disorder. This makes it difficult to seek out treatment, and often only drives them deeper into alcoholism.
Typically, alcoholism takes a heavy toll on professional and personal relationships. But this isn't the case for a smaller group of alcoholics.
Functional alcoholism means that you are able to maintain normal relationships and perform well at your job despite abusing alcohol on a daily basis.
Most functional alcoholics will drink at least five alcoholic beverages every single day. Some drink even more than that, all while keeping up their appearances.
This is a lesser-known type of alcoholism, but it is serious nevertheless. Intermediate familial alcoholics also begin drinking at a young age, but don't start seeing problems with their alcoholic consumption until their thirties.
The name comes from the fact that at least half of those in this subcategory have close relatives that have also struggled with addiction in the past. Many also struggle with co-occurring disorders, like depression or a bipolar disorder.
The chronic severe alcoholic is probably what most people think of when they think about alcoholism. Chronic alcoholics make up less than ten percent of everyone struggling with an alcohol use disorder. But the condition is very serious.
Chronic severe alcoholics have the highest rates of co-occurring disorders and family histories of alcoholism. At this point, alcohol dependence is so severe that you couldn't go more than a few hours without starting to experience alcohol withdrawals.
The good news here is that chronic severe alcoholics are more likely to seek out help for abusing alcohol. In fact, two-thirds of chronic severe alcoholics eventually seek alcohol treatment for their condition.
The Stages of Alcoholism
Alcoholism does not typically happen all at once. Instead, there are usually early signs of alcohol abuse. If these signs go unaddressed, abusing alcohol can slowly turn into alcohol dependence. From there, dependence can easily turn into full-blown addiction.
These stages of alcoholism will often progress very slowly. This makes it difficult to recognize when alcohol addiction is actually present.
To help you recognize alcoholism, we go through an overview of each of the stages of alcoholism. The important point here is that you can choose to overcome the effects of alcohol addiction no matter what stage you are in. It is never too late to find rehab information.
From a Drinking Habit to Dependence
We've mentioned it before: you don't usually become alcohol dependent immediately.
Instead, people generally develop a drinking habit before dependence begins to take shape.
Two of the most common symptoms that your drinking habit is transforming into alcohol dependence are:
You find that you need to drink more and more alcohol to reach the same effects. This is building up tolerance.
You find that you keep drinking alcohol once you've started, and are unable to stop.
Drinking heavily does not necessarily mean that you are addicted to alcohol. But it is a sign that physical dependence and eventually addiction is on the way.
In this early stage, it is sometimes difficult to identify the symptoms of alcoholism.
Instead, people generally develop a drinking habit before dependence begins to take shape.
Especially for those who are 'good' at handling their alcohol, it may not be immediately apparent that they are struggling with alcoholism. They may even be able to honestly deny it themselves.
The most concrete way to identify early-stage alcoholism is in social activity. There are two factors here:
Either you or other people begin to notice changes in your behavior - even if they cannot pinpoint what it is.
You consistently drink alcohol to deal with stress or other social problems.
A good way to assess these behaviors is by taking an alcohol addiction assessment. By being honest with yourself, you can find the help that you need.
In this middle stage of alcohol addiction, the social and physical symptoms of alcoholism become more obvious.
It is in this stage that an alcoholic will become more socially withdrawn. They will also begin to drink more heavily, and sometimes experience blackouts during bouts of drinking.
On top of these two major signs of this alcoholism stage, mid-stage alcoholism is generally associated with sharper withdrawal symptoms. At this stage of alcoholism, it is not uncommon to become shaky or lose your appetite when you go too long without an alcoholic drink.
Mid-stage alcoholism can also affect you psychologically. If you find that you are struggling with depression or anxiety without alcohol, it may be time to seek out professional alcohol treatment.
This is the last of the stages of alcoholism. It is also considered the most serious and the most dangerous stage.
There are a few key symptoms to late-stage alcoholism:
- You have lost friendships or relationships with family members because of your alcohol abuse.
- Alcohol has interfered with your work or school.
- You start experiencing the physical effects of long-term alcohol abuse. This includes everything from liver damage to heart failure.
- You aren't able to fall asleep at night without an alcoholic drink first.
- No matter what you say or do, you are unable to control your drinking or stop drinking altogether.
At this stage, becoming a chronic severe alcoholic is likely. If you see these symptoms in yourself or someone you know, the best thing you can do is get help through rehab.
Treatment for Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse
Here's the good news: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence can both be counteracted with alcohol treatment.
No matter which stage of alcoholism you are in or which type of alcoholism you suffer from, alcohol rehab can help you get a handle on your binge drinking, alcohol abuse, or whatever it is that you are struggling with.
Treatment for alcohol addiction does not just mean going to Alcoholics Anonymous group meetings. AA meetings are extremely helpful, but there are other alcohol rehab options for those currently struggling with the symptoms of an alcohol use disorder.
All of these options should include support during the alcohol detox process, individual therapy, group support, and specific treatment for co-occurring disorders.
For alcohol rehab, there are two types of treatment programs: intensive outpatient treatment and residential rehab.
The risks of alcohol abuse and addiction can be addressed through both of these treatment options. Which one you go is less about which treatment program is better, and more about which works better for you.
Most people think of inpatient alcoholism treatment when they think of rehab. Another name for this is residential rehab.
As the name implies, residential rehab for alcohol means living in a residential alcohol treatment facility for the duration of rehab.
Inpatient alcohol rehab usually lasts around four weeks - but it can last up to six months in serious cases.
Residential rehab is usually the best option for people who have struggled with alcohol dependence for many, many years. One of the unique aspects of inpatient treatment for alcohol is medically assisted detox. This means that patients receive medication to help them through the withdrawal stage of alcohol treatment.
Residential alcohol rehab is not for everyone. But if you have already entered alcohol treatment in the past without success, this may be the best option for you.
Intensive outpatient treatment for alcoholism has many of the same features as residential rehab. The major difference is that intensive outpatient programs have participants come in for 10-12 hours each week. This can last for three months, six months, and even up to a year.
Intensive outpatient treatment is a great approach to alcohol rehab for several reasons:
- IOPs for alcohol treatment allow greater flexibility for anyone needing to keep up on responsibilities at home or at work.
- Outpatient rehab for alcohol is usually a much cheaper option. This is because there is no need to pay for room and board.
- Intensive outpatient treatment takes you through the detox process and into sessions specifically designed to get you on the road to recovery.
On top of these benefits, outpatient alcohol treatment generally lasts much longer than residential rehab. Many people see this as a benefit, since it gives them a longer runway for launching their recovery in a supportive environment.
From there, they can choose to participate in Alcoholics Anonymous or another support group.
Intensive outpatient treatment programs have many of the same features of a residential alcohol treatment facility.
In fact, any kind of alcoholism treatment means getting to the core of the alcohol addiction in each individual. In order to do that, rehab for alcohol has to take into account everything from the dangers of alcoholism to the long-term side effects of alcohol addiction.
A successful outpatient program will include all of the following:
- Support in Detox: Detoxing on your own can be dangerous, so treatment programs need to help you through the withdrawal process. This is the first and most crucial stage of alcohol treatment.
- One-on-One Counseling: In alcohol addiction treatment, individual counseling like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy helps people process the effects of their alcoholism.
- Larger Support Groups: Getting support from others going through the same process is key to long-term success in alcoholism recovery. This is the basis of groups like Alcoholics Anonymous.
- Co-Occurring Disorder Treatment: Many people who struggle with alcoholism also struggle with another mental disorder. Effective treatment addresses both simultaneously.
- Workshops for Coping: Alcohol rehab is not just about facing the past. Alcohol treatment is also about planning for the future. These workshops help participants through this process.
Moving Away From Alcoholism and Toward Sobriety
To help you figure out where to go from here, consider taking at least one of these next steps in moving away from alcoholism and toward sobriety:
Ask for Help
Alcohol's effect on the brain can make it very difficult to overcome dependence on your own. Instead, reach out to those around you and ask them to help you star this process.
Even the most well intentioned friends can't help you completely overcome alcoholism. Instead, take the time to get an alcohol abuse assessment. At the same time, consider entering a program for alcohol treatment.
It may be a small step, but support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous can help you get on the right path toward recovery. These groups can come alongside you, and you can be honest with them about your struggles.