Alcohol Addiction and Abuse
“one in four Australians will struggle with alcohol, drugs or gambling in their lifetime,” said Dan Lubman, professor of addiction studies and executive clinical director of Turning Point.
Recognising Alcohol Use Disorder and Addiction
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition categorized as the inability to stop or control alcohol use. For those with alcohol addiction, the inability to stop drinking is present regardless of the consequences that may occur from continued excessive alcohol use. Over time, abruptly ending alcohol use could become fatal without proper medical care.
AUD looks different for everyone, making it difficult to see themselves as having an alcohol problem, especially for people who don’t drink every day. The truth is, drinking every day is not a prerequisite for alcohol use disorder. Some of the most dangerous alcohol use conditions often involve binge drinking or drinking large amounts of alcohol in one sitting, rather than consuming a few drinks daily.
Completing an assessment with us at Alegna Solutions Psychology practice can be the best strategy for determining if you truly have a substance abuse disorder and what level of severity it may be.
Why is Alcohol So Addictive?
Regardless of its impact on the body, alcohol does one thing well: producing a feeling of euphoria and numbing negative feelings. The brain is hardwired to focus on enjoyable behaviours that stimulate its reward centre, called the striatum. Other important areas of the brain, including the basal ganglia, amygdala and prefrontal cortex are associated with the reward system in the brain. An easy way to understand how alcohol interacts with the brain’s reward system is to think of substance abuse disorders as a cycle that includes three phases: reward development, reward reduction and executive functioning difficulties. In each phase, the addiction grows more intense, and the user becomes increasingly unable to stop. Thinking of addiction in this way can make it easier to understand how individuals can “fall into” a substance abuse disorder without realising it.
Phase 1: Reward Development
The first phase of developing alcohol addiction is using alcohol specifically for its reward effects. Many people use these effects to manage social environments with reduced inhibitions and anxiety. While many people have experienced this behaviour and effects without consequences, this pleasurable activity may lead to developing a daily habit for some. Depending on how frequently someone consumes alcohol, the brain will continue to build a sense of “excitement” and, ultimately, motivation to consume alcohol. This then develops into an encouraged behaviour pattern that makes the individual “excited” about consuming alcohol. This excitement translates into urges, or cravings to use alcohol. The brain will find ways to associate alcohol with other information, such as people, places and things (e.g., sports games) where drinking is generally experienced. This cycle can become the foundation for multiple substance use disorders and other addictions. It is not uncommon to find food, sex, drugs and even impulse behaviours (e.g., shopping) becoming unhealthy coping strategies for negative emotions. Escapism from mental health struggles, like depression or anxiety, stressful situations, and stressful environments, frequently result in some from of substance abuse disorder to self-medicate from discomfort.
Phase 2: Reward Reduction
The second phase of a developing alcohol addiction is when many realise they have a problem, as it tends to include the more negative symptoms associated with alcohol use. In this stage, many individuals experience unwanted withdrawal symptoms after they stop drinking alcohol, such as increased stress, feeling irritable, difficulty feeling pleasure, sleep disruption, increased anxiety, and many more negative feelings. Once this phase begins, drinking becomes less about pleasure and more about feeling “normal,” resulting in a cycle of alcohol use characterised medically as alcohol abuse disorder.
Phase 3: Executive Functioning Difficulties
In the third phase, the physical and emotional dependence on alcohol impacts how the brain determines its executive functioning within the prefrontal cortex. Executive function refers to three major types of brain function: working memory, mental flexibility, and self-control. When alcohol addiction reaches this phase, the brain becomes “preoccupied” with alcohol, resulting in a reduced capacity to perform the duties and responsibilities commonly required in daily life. This phase is generally seen in more severe alcohol use disorders and can require a dedicated plan of treatment to help someone recover. Unfortunately, this cycle can be experienced for quite a while, with many individuals struggling for decades before they truly realise, they have an alcohol abuse disorder and decide to seek help. However, recovery is out there for those interested in ending the cycle of addiction to live their life again.
How Does Alcohol Impact the Brain?
Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, which slows down the important parts of the body’s functioning. The CNS is responsible for intelligence, memory, emotions, physical abilities, and personality. When alcohol is ingested, it stops the flow of chemical signals in the brain, resulting in the feeling of intoxication.
The feeling alcohol gives you when you first start drinking can feel amazing, eventually you’ll keep trying to chase that feeling. Taking more and more until it slowly stops working entirely and it can lead to an empty feeling, that feeling is negative and it’s your brains reward system telling you what you’re doing is no longer working. If you identify with any of these symptoms give us a call at Alegna Solutions psychology practice to help you work through your addiction. We will help you work out what started you down this path and how you can get better.