Alcohol addiction is a chronic and progressive condition, characterized by loss of control over alcohol consumption, continued drinking despite related consequences, and compromised physical, mental, and emotional health. Those who struggle with a diagnosable alcohol use disorder engage in compulsive drinking despite repeated attempts to quit or cut back. The disorder occurs on a spectrum, and can be mild, moderate, or severe in nature. The severity of the disorder determines which treatment option will be the most effective. In most cases, individuals who are struggling with a moderate or severe alcohol use disorder benefit from a multi-staged program of recovery, including medical detox, inpatient addiction treatment, and a long-term program of aftercare.
If you or someone close to you has been drinking heavily and has started to experience a range of consequences directly linked to alcohol consumption, seeking professional help might be necessary. It can be difficult to determine whether or not treatment is right for you, especially because alcohol addiction and denial tend to go hand-in-hand. However, there is certainly no harm in reaching out for more information, even if you are not quite ready to commit to a program of recovery.
How Does Alcoholism Develop?
Alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing, and progressive brain disease. As a person continues to drink alcohol over time, the brain undergoes physical changes. Significant shifts in brain structure and function eventually lead a person to drink compulsively; they lose all choice in the matter, regardless of the consequences they face. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (1) states, “Alcohol, like other drugs, has a powerful effect on the brain, producing pleasurable feelings and blunting negative feelings. These feelings can motivate some people to drink alcohol again and again, despite possible risks to their health and well-being.”
Excessive alcohol consumption has short and long-term effects on the brain. When you drink alcohol, the areas of the brain that control cognitive function, memory, coordination, and judgment are compromised. This can lead to reduced inhibitions and an increased risk of accidental injury. Those who engage in patterns of binge drinking are also liable to experience blackouts; significant lapses in memory that occur when the hippocampus cannot adequately carry out memory consolidation. Continuing to drink heavily for an extended period of time can do permanent damage to the brain. Memory and cognitive function can be irreversibly damaged. If you or someone close to you has been drinking heavily, it is a good idea to seek professional help before permanent damage has been done.
Scope of Alcohol Use in the U.S.
Alcohol is the most widely used chemical substance in the U.S. According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (1), “85.6 percent of people ages 18 and older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, 69.5 percent reported that they drank in the past year, and 54.9 percent (59.1 percent of men in this age group and 51.0 percent of women in this age group) reported that they drank in the past month.” 25.8 percent of people over the age of 18 reported binge drinking at least once over the course of the past month. Binge drinking refers to heavy alcohol consumption in a relatively short time span, and is the most common and costly pattern of excessive alcohol use in the U.S. Binge drinking is characterized by “consuming 5 or more drinks on an occasion for men or 4 or more drinks on an occasion for women.” (2) Rates of alcohol use disorder are also high; according to the 2019 NSDUH, “14.5 million (nearly 15 million) people ages 12 and older (5.3 percent of this age group) had AUD. This number includes 9 million men (6.8 percent of men in this age group) and 5.5 million women (3.9 percent of women in this age group).” (3)
Despite exceedingly high rates of alcohol misuse and dependence, very few people who would benefit from professional treatment end up seeking or receiving the help they need. In fact, less than 10 percent of people with past-year alcohol use disorders end up receiving treatment of any kind. This is often because they are in denial about the problem at hand, or because they are unaware of the resources available to them. If you or someone close to you has been struggling with an alcohol use disorder, there is help available, and recovery is always possible.
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?
How can you tell whether you have transitioned from problem drinking into the realm of a diagnosable alcohol use disorder? Most people who struggle with alcohol misuse and problem drinking are able to quit on their own if a good enough reason presents itself. The same is not true of alcohol addiction. If you are physically dependent on alcohol, it will seem impossible to successfully quit on your own for any substantial amount of time. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition, lays out several additional diagnostic criteria those with AUDs tend to experience. If you answer “yes” to more than two of the following questions, there is a good chance you would benefit from some degree of treatment.
- Do you often drink more than you intended?
- Have you attempted to quit drinking on your own with limited success?
- Do you experience cravings for alcohol throughout the day?
- Do you spend a significant amount of time obtaining alcohol, drinking alcohol, and recovering from the effects of heavy alcohol consumption?
- Have you started to experience problems at work or at school directly related to your alcohol consumption?
- Do you continue to drink despite newly developing or worsening physical and psychological symptoms?
- Have you been instructed to cut back on your alcohol consumption by a licensed healthcare professional?
- Do you engage in risk-taking behavior while under the influence of alcohol, like driving while intoxicated or mixing alcohol with other substances?
- Have you started to neglect activities you previously enjoyed?
- Have you developed a physical tolerance, meaning more alcohol is required in order for the desired effects to be achieved?
- Do you experience withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to cut out alcohol entirely?
If you answered “yes” to two or more of these questions, you might be afflicted with an alcohol use disorder, and professional treatment of some degree might be beneficial.
Coming to terms with a drinking problem is no small feat, especially considering the cultural accommodation of excessive alcohol consumption. If you have repeatedly attempted to cut back and quit on your own with short-lived success, reaching out for professional help is likely a good idea. There are numerous levels of clinical care and additional resources available to you. Regardless of your current circumstances and personal treatment goals, we are available to help point you in the right direction. The moment you decide to reach out you will be connected with an experienced advisor, who will help guide you in the right direction. We look forward to speaking with you soon and answering any additional questions about alcohol addiction and recovery you might have.