Due to alcohol being such a recreational, widespread substance in most of the world, it can be hard for us to appreciate the dangers that lie within. We’ll start with a simple statement: yes, alcohol can be addictive – seriously so for some. It is a socially accepted substance that many misuse, despite knowing the serious consequence and damage to their lives its excessive use will cause.
What, then, makes alcohol like this? How can we become addicted to and dependent on drinking?
Defining alcoholism and alcohol dependence
Drawing the line on where problematic drinking becomes alcoholism or dependency is a serious difficulty for many people. In our past blog articles, we’ve talked about the challenges of knowing when it’s time to consider rehab, and how alcohol misuse at work affects lives, but despite knowing the dangers many adults still struggle to know, or accept, the severity of their own use.
A good way to understand and define alcoholism is simply the impaired ability to control the amount of alcohol you consume. In earlier stages of alcoholism, this is sometimes known as a ‘pre-occupation’ with the substance. As tolerance raises as a person consumes more alcohol more regularly, they soon find themselves drinking more and more to satiate the cravings they are developing for the substance.
Alcohol and the brain
It’s also important we understand how alcohol affects the brain. Neurotransmitters are something akin to the bridges and routes in our brain that it uses to send messages and information. Dopamine is one of these neurotransmitters and is responsible for transmitting messages between the ‘reward centres’ of our brains – the areas that can make us feel good.
Consuming alcohol releases dopamine in our brains, making us feel happy. As we become drunker, this accumulates into the ‘buzz’ or feeling of euphoria most of us can relate to. It’s more than just dopamine, though; alcohol simultaneously triggers another neurotransmitter called glutamate which makes us feel calm. This combination of two positive feelings is what makes alcohol so alluring to many and addictive to some. Unfortunately, the brain releases less dopamine the more you drink, leading us to become excessively drunk as we chase the high we felt so strongly earlier on in our drinking session.
Lastly, it’s important to also be aware that alcohol ultimately impairs our ability to produce dopamine when not drinking. This leads to the dangerous tendency of heavy drinkers and those with alcohol dependency to suffer from depression or depressive thoughts.
More than a feeling
It’s not just about how alcohol affects our brains, though – although that is important. For many, it’s the social – or non-social - setting of alcohol use that draws us to it. The relaxation with friends or alone after a long day of work makes it a reward we feel worth looking forward to. For many who feel socially anxious, alcohol is an important facilitator of the kind of ease and confidence a person may feel they need to meet new people and talk with friends.
The opposite, of course, is true: life is difficult, and alcohol can be a temporary escape from feelings of disappointment, rejection and anxiety that, for many, feel inescapable and too heavy to bear day-to-day. Through these things, alcohol can have a dangerous combination of ‘psychological dependency’ in addition to the physical dependency that worsens with time and heavy drinking. This is often how a recreational or binge drinker is drawn into alcohol dependency, with the line of problematic alcohol use and alcoholism being a blurry distinction that’s difficult to see in the moment.
Our helping hand
Thank you for reading today’s article on alcohol and problematic drinking. This is a serious issue that affects millions each year, with thousands of adults in the UK alone passing due to alcoholism.
If you yourself are struggling with problematic drinking or what you feel to be full-blown alcoholism, we’d like you to know that Help Me Stop is staffed by professionals who have all dealt with their own journeys of recovery and rehabilitation. If you are ready to reach out and begin your own journey of recovery, we’d like to be the ones to help you do just that.