Alcoholism is defined as the compulsive and uncontrolled consumption of alcoholic beverages, which usually takes place at the detriment of the individual abusing the alcohol. Alcoholism is widely considered by the clinical community to be a serious physical and psychological disease, that if not treated properly, can become life-threatening.
The abuse and addiction to alcohol can be due to several different interconnected factors, including environment, physical and emotional health, even genetics. People who have a family history of alcoholism, suffer from existing mental health problems, or are even part of different racial groups such as Native Americans and Native Alaskans, all have a higher risk of developing alcoholism. While it is important to remember that not all people who abuse alcohol are necessarily full-blown alcoholics, abusing alcohol on a regular basis can increase the risk for developing the disease of alcoholism exponentially.
What is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a chronic disease characterized by a physical and mental dependence on alcohol. Alcoholism is generally characterized by a craving or compulsion to drink alcohol, the frequent inability to stop drinking once an individual has begun, an increased tolerance to alcohol, and the occurrence of physical withdrawal symptoms. These physical withdrawal symptoms include uncontrolled shakiness, anxiety, profuse sweating, nausea, vomiting, and hallucinations. Physical alcohol withdrawal symptoms can even become so severe that they can cause a life-threatening condition known as delirium tremens, which is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that involves severe and sudden mental and nervous system changes.
However, it is important to understand that alcoholism is different than alcohol abuse. Just because someone may abuse alcohol regularly does not necessarily mean that they are an alcoholic. The main difference between individuals who regularly abuse alcohol and those who suffer from the disease of alcoholism is that alcohol abusers do so willingly, while alcoholics are completely dependent on alcohol and could not stop drinking even if they sincerely tried.
Most alcoholics share similar symptoms including:
- The inability to stop drinking after one or two drinks
- Drinking to the point of a memory blackout
- Increased tolerance to alcohol
- Drinking despite the harm it’s doing to work, family, or personal relationships
- The inability to stop drinking even though an individual’s health may be deteriorating because of it
- Has the need to have alcohol in the house at all times
- Drinking until the point of vomiting
- Experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms
- Tried to cut back or stop drinking multiple times, but cannot
Key Signs & Symptoms oF Alcoholism
There are numerous symptoms of alcoholism including various psychological, physical and social symptoms. These can include, but are not limited to:
- Obsession with drinking
- Inability to stop drinking after one or two drinks
- Increased aggression
- Depression and Anxiety
- Financial and Legal problems
- Physical alcohol withdrawals when you stop drinking including nausea, vomiting, sweating, shaking
- The inability to stop drinking even when you know it is causing health problems
- You feel guilty about drinking alcohol
- Physical signs of alcohol dependence including weight loss, gastritis, and liver problems
It is important to remember that alcohol withdrawal symptoms can potentially be life-threatening for people who have been drinking heavily over a long duration of time and stop suddenly. These symptoms can begin as soon as a few hours after the last drink and can persist for days, even weeks at a time. These can range from being nauseous, having mild anxiety and depression, to having seizures and what is known as delirium tremens, or DTs. Delirium tremens are characterized by extreme confusion, high fever, rapid heartbeat, terrible nightmares, hallucinations, and uncontrollable shaking. If not treated properly, delirium tremens can have up to a 35% mortality rate.
If you or someone you know is showing any of these signs and symptoms of being an alcoholic, we suggest you call us or make an appointment with a local alcohol clinic, click here to find a local resource and access the national database of treatment providers.
Alcoholism – Hidden in Plain Sight
One of the most troubling aspects of an alcohol addiction is that the vast majority of individuals fail to realize they even have a problem with alcohol. They may feel that they have complete control over their drinking, or it isn’t negatively affecting them in any way. The truth is, that while they may feel they have their drinking under control, they may be experiencing problems at work, problems with their relationships, and problems with their health due to their chronic drinking. If you, or someone you know, is unsure whether they might have a drinking problem, you should contact an alcohol treatment specialist to get a professional alcohol evaluation. Because a level of denial is firmly entrenched in the mind of many alcoholics, sometimes the best thing they can do is to get an outside perspective of their problem with alcohol, so they can realize the true impact alcohol is having on their lives.
How to Identify the 5 Stages of Alcoholism
Different sources identify different stages of alcoholism, but just about every list out there agrees that the progression of alcoholism consists of 5 basic stages:
Social Drinking: Most people who don’t have alcohol problems are social drinkers. At the social drinking stage, you can take alcohol or leave it. You can control how much you drink and seldom drink to intoxication, and exhibit little or no alcoholic behavior. This has also been described as having access to alcohol rather than use of it. For the social drinker, drinking is a secondary activity engaged in at social functions. At later stages of alcoholism, priorities will shift and social activities will become opportunities to drink.
The second stage of alcoholism is where the first signs of alcoholic behavior tend to appear, though many individuals in the pre-alcoholic stage will still appear typical to outside observation. In the second stage, you begin indulging in non-social drinking to reduce stress or tension. A tolerance begins to appear, allowing you to consume increasingly large amounts of alcohol without being obviously affected. The first signs of alcoholic behavior include “sneaking” drinks and feelings of guilt associated with drinking. Individuals in the pre-alcoholic stage will often seek out other heavy drinkers, and begin to lose interest in activities that don’t involve drinking.
As you enter the third stage of alcoholism, occasional drinking to relieve stress becomes frequent or habitual drinking to relieve stress. You begin to view drinking as the solution to problems, and problems that demand drink seem to continuously appear. Alcoholic behaviors exhibited in the pre-alcoholic stage intensify, and tolerance continues to increase.
By the time the fourth stage of alcoholism arrives, friends, family, and coworkers have probably begun to notice that something is wrong. You may be missing days at work or school, or having other performance or disciplinary problems. You experience blackouts and lost time. By this point, tolerance has become dependence.
At the fifth stage, alcohol has completely taken over your life. Signs of long-term abuse begin to manifest, including health problems like cirrhosis of the liver or cardiomyopathy.
Alcoholism is a Disease
Alcoholism is a disease. Both the American Medical Association (AMA) and the World Health Organization (WHO) state unequivocally that alcoholism is a disease.
Just like any other disease, alcoholism needs to be treated by a doctor or professional drug treatment specialist. Without this vital treatment, the disease of alcoholism will only continue to progress overtime, putting the individual at higher risk for a multitude of diseases including, liver failure, cirrhosis of the liver, several different kinds of cancers, heart disease, and ultimately death.
The process of becoming an alcoholic (alcoholism) is usually a slow and gradual process, which occurs after years of heavy drinking. When alcohol is consumed in large levels over time, it begins to alter the levels of certain chemicals in the brain, mainly gamma-amino butyric acid (GABA) and dopamine. GABA controls a person’s impulse levels in the brain, and as more and more alcohol is consumed, it can alter the production of these chemicals, making people more impulsive and less aware of what they are doing. Dopamine levels can also be negatively impacted by excessive alcohol consumption.
Because dopamine is one of the chemicals in the brain that control feelings of happiness, joy, and euphoria, the more alcohol that is consumed, the more the brain becomes dependent on alcohol to release this vital chemical. As the brain becomes accustomed to this chemical imbalance overtime, the individual will not feel the same levels of joy and happiness without drinking. If an alcoholic tries to suddenly stop drinking and the brain is completely deprived of alcohol, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, tremors, shaking and nervousness will likely be the result.
Studies suggest that individuals, who have a family history of alcoholism, have an increased chance of becoming alcoholics themselves. People who also start drinking at an early age have a greater risk of developing alcoholic tendencies later in life. As researchers continue to understand more about alcoholism and its deadly effects, many are reaching similar conclusions about this dangerous drug, mainly that alcoholism is a deadly disease and needs to be treated as such.
While most people contribute alcoholism to lack of self-control or moral integrity, the vast majority of doctors and researchers now characterize alcoholism as a progressive, chronic, and sometimes even fatal disease. Like many other diseases, alcoholism generally has a predictable course, recognizable and well defined symptoms, and is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors. Because alcoholism is a pathological condition that detrimentally affects both the mental and physical condition of the individual, if an alcoholic does not alter their excessive drinking pattern, they can eventually die from this deadly disease.
Alcoholism is a disease that impacts every aspect of the sufferer’s life—from relationships to work to physical health. The Mayo Clinic defines alcoholism as a “chronic and often progressive disease,” with symptoms that include continuing to drink even when it harms you and causes problems in your life, difficulty controlling your drinking, and physical dependence.
Alcoholism affects different people differently, and no two alcoholics will go through the exact same series of stages or exhibit the exact same symptoms. That’s why treatment for alcoholism isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution, but should be tailored to the needs of the individual. Non-12-step treatment program treats the whole person, not just their alcoholism, so that you can get your life back on the right track.