Alcohol Addiction: What is Alcohol Abuse Disorder?

People that struggle with alcohol abuse disorder will continue to drink even if it negatively affects their finances, relationships, career, and personal health [1].  Alcohol abuse disorder (also known as alcoholism, alcohol addiction, or alcohol dependence) is a persistent need to consume alcohol. People that struggle with this condition are sometimes called “alcoholics.” Although this term is widely recognizable, we don’t believe in labeling people as a condition. But replacing “alcoholic” with “someone that struggles with the disease of alcohol addiction” might be more longwinded than it would be helpful. Though we use the term alcoholic on this page, it’s important to know that you are more than your addiction.

Alcoholic Behavior Traits: Signs of Alcoholism

Some people have more severe cases of alcoholism than others. These people will meet more of the criteria below and vice versa. According to the most recent edition of the Diagnostic Statistics Manual (DSM-5), anyone who meets 2 of the following 11 criteria in a one year period can be diagnosed with Alcohol Use Disorder:[1]

  • There were multiple times when you ended up drinking more than you intended.
  • More than once you wanted or tried to cut down or stop drinking, but couldn’t.
  • You spent a lot of time drinking or getting over the aftereffects of drinking
  • Experienced a strong need, or urge, to drink.
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family, or caused job or school troubles.
  • Continuing to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends.
  • Given up or cut back on activities you once enjoyed in order to drink.
  • There were several times that, while intoxicated, you engaged in dangerous activities which increased the chances of hurting yourself or others (e.g. operating machinery, driving, swimming, having unprotected sex, or walking in a dangerous area).
  • Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed, anxious, or caused you to have a memory blackout.
  • Found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before.
  • Experienced symptoms such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating when the effects of alcohol wore off.

 Worried that you or someone you love may be struggling with alcohol? Take this quiz from Alcoholics Anonymous to get their suggestion. 

How to Help an Alcoholic:

If someone you love is struggling with alcohol abuse, they may not realize the extent of their problem or be willing to admit they have one. This is normal. Luckily there are things you can do to help:

1. Self-Care: The most important step at this point seems paradoxical but it’s to make sure you’re ready to help them and love them. Rushing to confront someone or stage an intervention before you’ve acquired a healthy and loving headspace will likely not end with the person listening. People with addictions hurt the ones they love most with their habits and you have every right to be angry and resentful. But it’s not going to help you help them. Try Al-Anon. You’ll know you’re ready to help them when you are able to confidently and truthfully say that you’re comfortable hating the person’s addiction and who they’ve become but you also know that they are sick and that that is not who they are.
2. Find a Detox Center: Nobody should ever try to quit alcohol without medical supervision. The symptoms of withdrawal are very uncomfortable and can be life-threatening without proper treatment. The last thing you want is to watch them suffer or to start drinking to make the pain stop. A detox will provide 24-hour medical supervision and medicine to make them as comfortable as possible.
3. Intervention: An intervention is an emotional conversation between a person struggling with alcohol and their loved ones who want them to get help. The first intervention is very rarely the last so be patient. The following tips from our on-staff intervention team may help:

  • Don’t go for shock and awe or try surprise the person. In fact, you should tell them that you and some people want to talk to them about things you’ve noticed about their drinking.
  • Don’t invite a lot of people. Nearest and dearest is all you need as well as anyone you know the person respects.
  • Don’t try to stop them from leaving if they want to go.
  • Make it clear that they’re surrounded by love. Have people recall memories of what a wonderful person your loved one was before their sickness. Moments of pride, success, triumph, compassion, achievement, or strength in their lives. Tell them stories and don’t be afraid to show emotion. Tell them how much you miss that person.
  • Go around the room and use *I-Statements* to explain how their drinking has affected you or hurt you as time has passed.
  • Ask them to get help and tell them you’ve found a detox they can call right now. Don’t wait to call.

4. Go To Detox: Again, nobody should ever try to detox at home. If they agree to get help, call the detox facility immediately and encourage them to check-in as soon as possible.

How to Stop Drinking:

  1. Use A Medical Detox: Detox occurs while your body recovers from its physical dependence to alcohol. Because alcohol detox can be dangerous, it is always recommended to use a medically supervised detox with 24-hour medical care.
  2. Consider Inpatient Care: Inpatient is the highest and most expensive level of care in rehab. You’ll live in a hospital, get medicine for complications, and participate in group therapy sessions. These counselors will also help connect you to nearby treatment programs or group meetings.
  3.  Go to Rehab: Rehab programs are about helping you learn how to live and thrive without alcohol. For instance, at Tree House Recovery our treatment includes 3-5 months of treatment for 5 days a week and live-in facilities where you’ll learn: *
    • A Better Perspective: Healthy ways to cope with stress without chemical help.
    •  The Origin of Your Addiction: Discover and process the “initial injuries” that led you to start drinking heavily.
    • Social Fitness: How to develop meaningful lifelong bonds with your team and the people in your life. This also includes connecting with support groups.
    • Physical Fitness: Exercise is a proven tactic in reducing cravings and improving the body’s resilience to stress. The idea is that after a while it will take more and more to stress you out.
    • Sustainable Sobriety: Find appealing hobbies and activities that will give you reasons to stay sober.
    • Relapse Prevention: Tools from scientifically proven practices like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help you stay sober during difficult times.
  4. Use Aftercare: Aftercare or outpatient care is recommended for those who’ve finished rehab. Aftercare sessions happen in the evening to accommodate work schedules and are about an hour-long 1-3 times a week.

For more information about Tree House Recovery’s rehab or aftercare program call us anytime at 503-850-2474.

Effects of Alcoholism:

Short or long term physical effects of alcohol use disorder are [4][5][6]:

  • Liver disease.
  • Heart problems.
  • Diabetes.
  • Erectile dysfunction or menstruation issues.
  • Eye problems.
  • Bone damage.
  • Weakened immune system.
  • Breast, bone, throat, head, neck, colon, rectal, and liver cancer.
  • Decreased coordination.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Brain damage.

Short or long term psychological effects of alcohol use disorder are [4][5][6]:

  • Short term memory loss.
  • Dementia.
  • Trouble thinking.
  • Mood swings.
  • Depression.

Short or long term social effects of alcohol use disorder are [4][5][6]:

  • Car accidents.
  • Accidental injury.
  • Relationship problems.
  • Poor performance at work or school.
  • More likely to commit a crime.
  • Unemployment.
  • Financial problems.
  • Unprotected sex leading to pregnancy or STD transmission.
  • Date rape.
  • Increased risk of suicide.

The Road to Alcohol Abuse Disorder:

There is a lot of evidence that suggests addiction runs in families and is genetic. But it’s important to understand that not everyone who struggles with alcohol addiction inherited the struggle. In other words, it’s possible to become an alcoholic if you drink enough. If you ore someone you know uses alcohol in the following ways they could be at risk for developing alcohol abuse disorder:

Problem Drinkers: Even though a problem drinker may be able to go days or even months without alcohol, they are rarely able to moderate how much they drink. As a result, they binge to the point that it causes problems in their lives such as: [3] [2].

  • Missing class or work.
  • Having a hangover.
  • Blacking out.
  • Getting injured.
  • Engaging in unsafe or promiscuous sexual activities.
  • Damaging property.
  • Breaking the law.

Binge Drinkers: When binge drinkers consume alcohol they drink a lot, or binge (hence the name). Although this is also true of problem drinkers, a binge drinker is more likely to be a regular drinker. Binge drinking is defined as having:
– 4 drinks a day or 15 drinks a week if you’re a man
– 3 drinks a day or 7 drinks a week if you’re a woman

 What counts as 1 Drink?
+ 1.5 oz (1 shot) of spirits like whiskey, vodka, tequila, etc.
+ One 12 oz bottle of beer.
+ 5 oz (a quarter bottle) of wine.
+ 8-9 oz of malt liquor

Alcohol Dependence: Someone who drinks too much too often will eventually become physically dependent on alcohol. At this point, they are only a small step away from alcoholism because they will be unable to stop drinking without experiencing physical discomfort (or withdrawals). These effects go away once the person has a drink, so alcohol becomes a staple in the person’s life. They must always have it nearby in case they need to quickly relieve the discomfort of withdrawal. Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Include:

  • Fever.
  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Shakes.
  • Rapid Heart Beat.
  • Confusion.
  • Mood Swings.
  • Nausea or vomiting.

“High Functioning” Alcoholic: A High Functioning Alcoholic is someone who is dependent on alcohol but is having temporary success in not letting their drinking have too many negative consequences on their life. A high functioning alcoholic will likely binge drink in private or even in public if alcohol is available and it seems socially acceptable to drink. Someone who admits to being a high functioning alcoholic is usually in denial about their problem. And unfortunately, few realize or want to consider that as they continue drinking their tolerance will continue to rise, and they will need ever more to avoid physical withdrawal symptoms (shakes, anxiety, depression, confusion, nausea, vomiting). Eventually, this will require them to prioritize drinking over their work, family, friends, or other responsibilities.

Alcoholic: An alcoholic drinks excessively and often. Drinking takes priority over family, friends, food, water, shelter, jobs, finances, or personal health. If an alcoholic stops drinking they feel the pangs of physical withdrawal (nausea, vomiting, shakes, fever, anxiety, sweating, rapid heart rate, etc). In addition, because they have drunk so much for so long, alcohol has altered the chemistry of their brain. Put simply, this means that they will regularly crave a drink because their brain needs it now in order to function properly.

Is Alcoholism A Disease?

Alcoholism is not a vice or a choice. It’s a response to something that eventually alters the brain in ways that require treatment to correct.For a long time, people believed that alcoholism was a result of personal weakness or a faulty character. The rationale was that nobody forces people to drink, they choose to. But thanks to modern science we now know that addiction is a biopsychosocial disease.

  • In other words, the cause of addiction lives in the biology, psychology, and environment of those who struggle with it. It’s true that nobody forces anyone to drink, but it’s just as true that for some people, drinking solves a problem or just has a reduced effect. [7]
  • Studies have found that children of alcoholics were less affected by the same amount of alcohol than the children of non-alcoholics [7].
  • Other studies have concluded that over 90% of people who struggle with alcohol report a high ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) score or personal trauma [8] [9].
  • Research suggests that having a parent with alcoholism increases the chances of having an alcohol abuse disorder by 50% [7].
  • Over 60% of people with a mental health condition (attention deficit, bipolar, borderline personality, etc) also struggle with substance abuse disorder [10].

All of this evidence suggests that while many people in the United States, consume alcohol, some people are just more prone to use high amounts either because it affects them differently than others or just feels better. In addition, over time excessive alcohol changes the chemistry of the brain. This is where the term disease comes from. Because drugs and alcohol release dopamine and dopamine activates the brain’s rewards system, over time drinking will enlarge the rewards system, and your brain will crave alcohol. As the rewards system grows larger it also grows less sensitive to the dopamine that activates it. Meaning that more and more alcohol is needed to produce the same effect [7].

Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

The reason why alcohol is addictive lies in the effect that it has. When you drink alcohol it lowers the activity of your brain, which includes reducing your inhibitions, removing your ability to think about stressors, and “slow down.” This effect is the result of the neurotransmitter GABA (gamma-Aminobutyric acid). If you imagine your brain and body as a car, then GABA would be the brake-pedal chemical. What’s important to understand about this is that our brains try to maintain a balance called homeostasis. So if it gets a lot of GABA from your frequent drinking then it will stop producing it on its own.

When this happens, if you try to stop drinking you’ll experience withdrawals because your brain has lost the ability to slow down. To return to the analogy of your brain and body as a car, consider what would happen if a car ran at its top-speed and wasn’t allowed to slow down. It would shake, break apart, and overheat.  Similarly, symptoms for alcohol withdrawal include:

  • Fever & Sweating: Heat is the result of excessive internal activity and sweating is the body’s attempt to cool down.
  • Seizures: Seizures are the result of excessive brain activity that eventually causes an error or glitch.
  • Nausea & Vomiting: Your digestion doesn’t work as well in a stress state (it’s part of your body’s fight or flight response).
  • Shaking Hands: A symptom of a stress state and your body’s inability to slow down.
  • Anxiety & Insomnia: Because your body can’t slow down, you’ll feel more agitated and struggle to fall asleep.
  • Racing heart: Your body normally regulates heart rate and breathing unconsciously to keep you balanced. But without the ability to regulate itself your heart rate will increase.

 It is never a good idea to try quitting alcohol at home or by yourself. Alcohol withdrawals can be life-threatening, which is why you should seek a medically supervised detox if you or someone you love is considering quitting. For more information call, 503-850-2474.

Cause of Alcoholism & Who’s at Risk:

Fifteen to twenty percent of people who try alcohol develop a drinking problem [11]. However, the reason that some people develop drinking problems is not fully understood. There are several common traits of those who’ve entered treatment for alcohol abuse. 

  1. Mental Disorders: Conditions such as anxiety, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, borderline personality, schizophrenia, and conditions that produce high levels of stress are more likely to co-occur with alcohol abuse [12]. Individuals with these co-occurring mental disorders often use alcohol to ease their symptoms. The more they drink the more their brain and body begin to depend on alcohol. 
  2. Genetics: According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, genetic factors are responsible for about half the risk of alcoholism. Meaning that a child of an alcoholic is 2x more likely to become an alcoholic compared to children of non-alcoholics [13]. 
  3. History: Children who experienced trauma early on (physical abuse, sexual abuse, or neglect) are more likely to develop alcohol problems later on [14]. For those with adverse childhood experiences, alcohol helps numb the pain and is consumed excessively to provide relief. 
  4. Environment: People are more likely to drink heavily or develop drinking problems if they were raised in homes or around people who drank regularly or had positive feelings about drinking [14].
  5. Stress Sensitivity: People who do not have a clinical diagnosis of anxiety or other mood disorders, but experience higher levels of stress or anxiety, have a higher risk of developing a drinking problem [14]. However, stress sensitivity by itself is often not enough to predict a drinking problem. Links between stress-sensitivity and alcohol abuse are more common when the individual copes with stress by avoiding problems and has another risk factor for alcohol abuse [14].
  6. Gender: Men are more likely than women to abuse alcohol [15]. 
  7. Age of First Use: Those who start drinking at a young age are more likely to develop a drinking problem [16]. A 10-year study of 5,856 people indicated that 13.5% of people who began drinking at ages 11-14 had an alcohol abuse diagnosis, and 15.9% were diagnosed with alcohol dependence. Rates for those who began drinking at ages 13-14 were 13.7% and 9%, while rates for starting at age 19 or older were 2% and 1% [16].

Take Back Your Life From Alcohol:

The journey toward recovery begins with a single phone call. There is no shame in getting help, and nothing is impossible. Our graduates no longer feel the need to drink and go on to live happy and successful lives. For more information call us anytime at 503-850-2474.  


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