Alcohol drinkers may develop a physical or psychological dependence on alcohol. This can cause great harm to the drinker, in terms of physical and mental health, financial problems, employment difficulties, etc. In addition, alcohol dependence may cause distress to partners, children or other family members or friends, who may be directly or indirectly exposed to the consequences arising from compulsive alcohol consumption.
Physical dependence is often related to consistently heavy drinking. People who drink on a regular basis become tolerant to many of the unpleasant effects of alcohol and are able to drink more before suffering these effects. Many heavy drinkers may not appear to be drunk. Because they continue to work and socialize reasonably well, harm to their physical health can go unrecognized until severe damage develops or until they are unable to drink for some reason and suddenly experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms range from jumpiness, sleeplessness, sweating, and poor appetite, to tremors (the “shakes”), convulsions, hallucinations and sometimes death. Deaths from suicide, accident and cirrhosis of the liver are very common among heavy drinkers.
Psychological dependence upon alcohol may occur with regular use of even small daily amounts, such as a glass or two a day. It can also occur in people who drink alcohol only under certain conditions, such as before and during social occasions. This form of dependence results from a craving for alcohol’s psychological effects, such as relief from anxiety, although the drinker may not consume amounts that produce serious intoxication. For psychologically dependent drinkers, lack of alcohol tends to make them anxious and prone to panic attacks.
Family Struggles with Alcohol
Excessive consumption of alcohol is commonly cited as a reason for difficulties within a family or marriage. These problems may range from drunken violence directed toward a spouse or child, to financial problems. If an individual continues to abuse alcohol over a period of time, his or her behavior is likely to cause bitterness and resentment among family members. While family members may love the alcohol abuser, they are likely to dislike his or her behavior.
How does it work?
Alcohol depresses parts of the central nervous system and slows down some of our brain functions. Various parts of the central nervous system are depressed by alcohol, with many consequences. For example, when the brain’s speech centers are inhibited, this cause’s slurred speech; when the vision centers are affected this produces distorted vision; when the coordination centers are depressed this results in loss of balance and limb control.
The strong depressant effect of alcohol lasts for a few hours after drinking, but alcohol also produces a weaker agitation (or irritation) of the nervous system that lasts much longer. This is the cause of the “morning after” hangover and shakiness. This effect often leads heavy evening drinkers to drink again the next morning, as the (very uncomfortable) agitation can be temporarily overcome by drinking more alcohol. Thus, a vicious circle is set in motion, which can play a large part in alcoholic drinking patterns and take a person that much closer to alcoholism.
What effect does it have?
The impact of drinking alcohol depends on the state of the brain at the time, and this in turn depends on the drinking environment.
In a quiet environment (low brain activity), perhaps at home in an armchair, an alcohol user will experience relaxation or drowsiness at low to moderate doses.
In a social setting, with lots of sights, sounds and social interaction (high brain activity) low doses of alcohol may feel stimulating. This is caused by depression of the higher brain centers, which produces apparent stimulation by reducing anxiety and self-consciousness. A drinker may become more talkative than normal and demonstrate increased self-confidence and loss of self-restraint. So alcohol can feel like a stimulant – but it’s not – these effects are a result of the inhibition of normal brain activity.
As the alcohol dose is increased, significant depression of brain activity can result in slurred speech, loss of limb coordination and loss of emotional control. High doses of alcohol can inhibit vital brain functions – this can produce deep sedation and slow down the breathing rate, which can result in coma or death.
Is Alcoholism inherited?
Research shows that the risk for developing alcoholism can be inherited. However, not all children of alcoholic parents/families get into trouble with alcohol. Some individuals develop alcoholism even though no one in their family has a drinking problem. The genes you inherit partially explain the drinking pattern, but lifestyle is also a factor. Your friends, the amount of stress in your life, and how readily available alcohol is to you are factors that may increase your risk for alcoholism. Research is underway to discover the actual genes that put people at risk for alcoholism.
Can alcoholism be treated?
Yes, alcoholism can be treated. Alcohol treatment programs use both counseling and medications to help individuals stop or control their drinking. Most alcoholics need help to recover from their disease. With support and treatment, many people are able to stop or manage their drinking and rebuild their lives.
Does alcoholism treatment work?
Alcoholism treatment works for many people. But just like any chronic disease, there are varying levels of success when it comes to treatment. Some people stop drinking and remain sober. Others have long periods of sobriety with bouts of relapse. And still others cannot stop drinking for any length of time. With treatment, one thing certain – the longer a person abstains from alcohol, the more likely he or she will be able to stay sober.
Are specific groups of people more likely to have problems?
Alcohol abuse and alcoholism cut across gender, race, and nationality. Nearly 14 million people in the United States – 1 in every 13 adults – abuse alcohol or are alcoholic. In general, though, more men than women are alcohol dependent or have alcohol problems. And alcohol problems are highest among young adults ages 18-29 and lowest among adults ages 65 and older. We also know that people who start drinking at an early age –for example, at age 14 or younger – greatly increase the chance that they will develop alcohol problems at some point in their lives.
How can you tell if someone has a problem?
Answering the following four questions can help you find out if you or a loved one has a drinking problem:
Have you ever felt you should cut down on your drinking?
Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
Have you ever felt bad or guilty about your drinking?
Have you ever had a drink first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
One “yes” answer suggests a possible drinking problem. More than one “yes” answer means it is likely that a problem exists. If you think that you or someone you know may have a drinking problem, it is important to see a doctor or other health care provider right away. They can help you determine if a drinking problem exists and plan the best course of action.
If an alcoholic is unwilling to get help, what can you do about it?
This can be a challenge. An alcoholic can’t be forced to get help except under certain circumstances, such as a violent incident that results in court-ordered treatment or medical emergency. But you don’t have to wait for someone to “hit rock bottom” to act. Many alcoholism treatment specialists suggest the following steps to help an alcoholic get treatment:
Stop all “cover ups.” Family members often make excuses to others or try to protect the alcoholic from the results of his or her drinking. It is important to stop covering for the alcoholic so that he or she experiences the full consequences of drinking.
Time your intervention. The best time to talk to the drinker is shortly after an alcohol-related problem has occurred – like a serious family argument or an accident. Choose a time when he or she is sober, both of you are fairly calm, and you have a chance to talk in private.
Be specific. Tell the family member that you are worried about his or her drinking. Use examples of the ways in which the drinking has caused problems, including the most recent incident.
State the results. Explain to the drinker what you will do if he or she doesn’t go for help – not to punish the drinker, but to protect yourself from his or her problems. What you say may range from refusing to go with the person to any social activity where alcohol will be served, to moving out of the house. Do not make any threats you are not prepared to carry out.
Get help. Gather information in advance about treatment options in your community. If the person is willing to get help, call immediately for an appointment with a treatment counselor. Offer to go with the family member on the first visit to a treatment program and/or an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.
It is important to remember that you are not alone. Support groups offered in most communities include Al-Anon, which holds regular meetings for spouses and other significant adults in an alcoholic’s life, and Alateen, a program for children with alcoholic parents. Both groups help family members understand they are not responsible for an alcoholic’s drinking problem and that they need to take steps to take care of themselves, regardless of whether the alcoholic family member chooses to get help.