Table of Contents
What is Alcohol Addiction?
Over the past two years, we have all been challenged to find innovative ways of protecting ourselves from the waves of uncertainty and helplessness unleashed by the pandemic. To find relief, many of us have developed coping mechanisms – some good for us and others not so much. One of the most popular ways many found to keep the pandemic blues away is drinking. Moreover, as the world transfers back into a semblance of normality, some may use drinking to cope with social anxiety spurred on by the pandemic leading to “pandemic drinking”.
Alcohol addiction – also known as alcoholism – is a chronic disorder characterized by intense cravings and an inability to control, reduce, or stop drinking, even when faced with adverse consequences.
How Do You Know if You’re Addicted to Alcohol?
- A growing preoccupation with obtaining and drinking alcohol
- Hiding alcohol consumption
- Becoming isolated from family and friends
- Making mistakes or falling through in relationships or at work due to alcohol use
- Feeling like you can’t make it through the day without drinking
- Often drinking more than intended
- Developing a tolerance
- Wanting to limit or stop drinking, but being unable to.
What Causes Alcoholism?
Alcoholism is a complex disorder that can develop from a wide range of often overlapping and entangled factors.
Living or growing up in a setting where heavy drinking is featured, normalized, or glamorized can significantly impact the potential for alcohol addiction in later years.
Social and Cultural Factors
Cultures that emphasize and promote drinking make it easier and less noticeable for people to engage in risky drinking behaviors that slowly but surely grow into alcohol addiction. Cultures where drinking is less encouraged or celebrated often see lower rates of alcohol addiction.
Mental Health Conditions
Specific mental health conditions like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder put people at higher risk for developing alcohol use disorder. People with mental health conditions often attempt to self-medicate with alcohol or narcotics to relieve mental health symptoms.
Stress is a frequent trigger for addiction, as well as relapse. When we are stressed, the relaxation-inducing effects of alcohol can appear particularly attractive. However, left unchecked, a few drinks to calm nerves can slowly grow into an uncontrollable addiction to alcohol.
Who is at Higher Risk for Alcoholism?
Individuals who have grown up in a setting that normalized drinking – whether that was their family, friends, or social environment – are at higher risk of developing alcoholism. While researchers are still exploring the relationship between alcoholism and genes, studies suggest a family history of drinking can increase our potential for alcohol use disorder by 50%.2
Underage or frequent binge drinking can predispose individuals towards alcohol addiction. Men are typically more likely to drink excessively, putting them at higher risk for alcoholism than women.3
Certain mental health conditions, like anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and more are more likely to develop alcoholism from excess drinking habits. Research suggests that 20% of people with depression abuse or are dependent on alcohol,4 with that number rising to over 40% for people with bipolar disorder.5
A history of trauma can also lead to the development of alcohol use disorder, as drinking often provides a dangerously attractive escape from the symptoms or the stress of these conditions.6
How Easily Can You Get Addicted to Alcohol?
Did the Pandemic Expose a Drinking Problem?
In times of uncertainty, stress, and fear, it is critical to have solid coping mechanisms and dependable support systems to help you stay grounded. Without these, we often turn to coping methods – like pandemic drinking – that make us feel better in the present but hurt us in the long run.
Drinking as a Coping Mechanism
Beyond boredom, pandemic drinking also provides many with an outlet for their stress and overwhelm. Drinking alcohol often elicits feelings of sociability, pleasure, and decreased awareness. By numbing our awareness, alcohol provides an all-too-easy pathway out of the prolonged uncertainty and anxiety we feel. Unfortunately, this quick path to stress reduction is not without consequences, as it’s easy to blur the line between a coping mechanism and addiction.
Shifts in Sleep Patterns Sleeping Issues
The pandemic completely shifted the structure of our days, from where and when we go to work to balancing working from home with homeschooling our kids. These new schedules have led many to go to sleep later. As the days grew longer and people drifted to sleep later, drinking patterns shifted, leading to higher rates of alcohol consumption.
Women Drinking vs. Men Drinking
Research from The U.S. National Pandemic Emotional Impact Report found that women reported higher rates of pandemic-related changes in sleep, mood, irritability at being unable to participate in favorite activities, worries about health, and productivity than did men.9 A Rand Corporation study further found that the women’s rate of alcohol consumption increased by 41% during the pandemic.10
This rise in alcohol consumption and pandemic drinking among women may be related to the far greater number of women than men who left the workforce to help with childcare and homeschooling.
Alcohol Manufacturers Exploiting the Pandemic
Exacerbating the issue, alcohol manufacturers began capitalizing on the growing perception of drinking as a magic bullet for instant relaxation. As a result, pandemic drinking was framed as “trendy” and the ultimate “cure” to COVID-related stress. While alcohol consumption rose for both men and women since 2001, companies heavily leaned into this media campaign during the pandemic.11
How to Stop Alcohol Dependence after Pandemic Drinking
If you are looking to decrease or stop your alcohol use, pre-commitment, social support, intentionally designed obstacles, and changing your routine can help.
Clarity and specificity in your goals and future support systems can be beneficial. By defining these specifics before detox, you reinforce your commitment and make it easier to stay resolved on your path to sobriety.
A dependable social support system can help you change pandemic drinking habits. Removing influences that triggered drinking and replacing them with people who support your new goals can make it easier to stop drinking.
Make it harder to drink by placing obstacles in your path. Try removing all the alcohol from your house or filling your schedule with fun distractions so you don’t have time to drink.
If you find yourself craving alcohol, try switching up your routine. For example, schedule time outside the house for self-care, exercise, start cooking at home, schedule time to go out with a friend or walk home with a colleague.
Effects of Alcoholism
When left unchecked, alcoholism can significantly impact both your short-term wellbeing and long-term health.
- Feelings of increased sociability, confidence, and relaxation
- Loss of balance and coordination
- Distorted vision and hearing
- Decreased perception
- Mental fog and memory issues
- Slurred speech
- Nausea and vomiting
- Difficulty breathing
- Increased impulsivity and impaired judgment
- Anemia (lower levels of red blood cells)
- Blackouts (gaps in memory where drinker cannot recall what happened)
When we expose our bodies to extreme alcohol levels over extended periods, we can accrue damage that leads to long-term health side effects. Long term excessive drinking can increase your risk of:
- Alcohol poisoning
- Issues with fertility, impotence, sexual problems
- High blood pressure
- Liver disease
- Liver cancer
- Bowel cancer
- Breast cancer
- Head and neck cancer
- Mouth cancer
Alcoholism can create serious implications in our careers and personal life, leading to financial issues, unemployment, domestic abuse, divorce, and homelessness.12
Alcohol poisoning occurs when we drink more alcohol than our bodies can process and metabolize. When this happens, we can experience a host of life-threatening symptoms which may require emergency medical attention. Symptoms can include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Mental confusion
- Trouble remaining awake
- Breathing becomes slow or irregular
- Decreased heart rate
- Clammy skin
- Reduced gag reflex, which helps prevent choking after vomiting
- Low body temperature
If you have become dependent or addicted to alcohol, you may experience a collection of physical and psychological symptoms, which include:
- Mood swings
- Alcohol shakes (also known as tremors)
- Insomnia, sleep issues, nightmares
- Mental fog and difficulty concentrating
- Nausea and vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Increased sweating
- Pale skin
- Dilated pupils
- Increased heart rate
Roughly 3-5% of alcoholics may experience a condition called delirium tremens (DTs) as they go through withdrawal. DTs are a life-threatening condition. Should you or someone you know experience DTs, it is highly recommended that you seek medical help.
Symptoms of delirium tremens include:
- Heightened confusion and agitation
- High blood pressure
Alcoholism and Depression
The relationship between depression and alcoholism is complicated, to say the least. Research suggests nearly 30-40% of alcoholics also have a depressive disorder.13 However, the question remains of which came first – depression or alcoholism. Most researchers feel the question of chicken or egg more often than not begins with depression, which leads the individual to drink more and more as they build tolerance and ultimately become dependent.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction
There are several pathways for those seeking alcohol addiction help. The first step in alcoholism treatment typically begins with a medically supervised detox to give you a strong start on your path to recovery.
In-Patient and Out-Patient Support
After detox, patients can choose between in-patient or out-patient support. Out-patient support is often a good fit for patients who cannot take extended time away from their work or home life but still want hands-on support and guidance. On the other hand, in-patient support provides patients with an opportunity to step into an entirely new environment designed to make the transition to sobriety as easy and comfortable as possible.
Alcohol addiction treatment typically involves behavioral therapies that help patients become more aware of their thoughts to develop more helpful behaviors and habits. These therapies often include cognitive behavioral therapy, motivational interviewing, and 12-Step programs.
Several medications may help someone overcome alcohol addiction. Medication for alcoholism includes:
- Naltrexone – blocks the euphoric high that accompanies drinking
- Acamprosate – releases endorphins that trigger positive emotions, helping to relieve cravings that prompt alcohol consumption, mainly used following detox
- Disulfiram – creates an adverse reaction when mixed with alcohol, making the “high” that prompts relapse less attractive
- Benzodiazepines – anti-anxiety medications that help relieve withdrawal symptoms, including seizures, hallucinations, and delirium tremens.
An unwavering support system is the cornerstone of alcohol addiction help. It is essential for maintaining commitment, motivation, and trust in sober living. This support system can come from in-patient care, 12-Step groups, group therapy, or family and friends. What matters most is havin g someone you trust in your corner, so you can achieve your goals and live a life you love.