From the outside, alcoholism may look like someone who just needs to drink a bit less. However, alcohol addiction is much more complicated than that. Addiction is not just physical, but psychological, making recovery hard to navigate. If you’re addicted to alcohol, the better you understand alcohol addiction and the role your mind plays in it, the easier it’ll be to make smarter decisions as you maintain your sobriety. Let’s take a deeper look at the psychology behind an alcohol addiction and how to beat it.
What is alcohol use disorder?
An occasional drinker or even someone who regularly drinks at social gatherings isn’t necessarily an alcoholic. But, as soon as drinking becomes all-consuming and begins to disrupt the person’s life - both professionally and personally - that’s when there’s a problem. The technical definition of alcohol addiction is the habitual abuse of alcohol. A person who has an alcohol abuse disorder, or AUD, is an alcoholic.
- According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there were 14.5 million people with an alcohol abuse disorder living in the United States in 2015.
An alcohol use disorder can range from mild, moderate, or severe. However, alcohol addiction in any form can be extremely dangerous.
What does alcohol do to the brain?
Alcohol is a nervous system depressant. Drinking can easily alter behavior, which can alienate personal relationships and damage professional ones. But it goes even deeper than that. Excessive drinking can have devastating effects on a person’s mental health, leading to or triggering mental disorders like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders, and even antisocial personality disorders. If someone has both an alcohol addiction and a mental health disorder, it’s referred to as a co-occurring disorder. Co-occurring disorders can be challenging to treat and requires intensive therapy and counseling. Since it’s common for alcoholics to hide or minimize their addiction, they may not seek help for their mental health issues at all. This can intensify their drinking and make it even more dangerous.
Why does an alcoholic drink?
There is no single answer to this question. People begin drinking for many different reasons. No one sets out to become an alcoholic. Usually, drinking becomes a way to “loosen up” or forget problems. Or someone may drink to deal with stress or anxiety. Even a couple of glasses of wine can have an intense effect on both the mind and body, and it can feel extremely freeing to someone who tends to be more inhibited or reserved. The feeling can become addicting, almost like a way to temporarily become a different person.
Sometimes people drink to deal with trauma or abuse. Like many other addictive substances, alcohol provides temporary relief from emotional pain, or at least it feels that way in the moment. However, drinking to hide or mask pain can intensify it. Then, when the person sobers up, the urge to drink again becomes so strong, it gets harder and harder to fight.
The Long-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain
Drinking excessively doesn’t just temporarily change the brain, it can permanently alter your brain health. Long-term effects of drinking on the brain can range from dizziness and confusion to severe mental health issues. Alcohol interferes with the part of your brain that controls communication, so even one or two drinks can cause brain fog. However, binge drinking can lead to brain damage, even fatal brain damage.
The Psychology Behind Alcohol Addiction
Even drinking one beer can have a noticeable influence on a person’s mood. That’s because drinking releases endorphins - happy hormones - into your bloodstream. Drinking causes people to feel happy, energized, and excited. It can be quite euphoric for people who don’t usually feel this way normally. However, alcohol is a depressant, so those happy feelings aren’t permanent. Regular drinking causes fatigue, restlessness, and depression. This causes a constant up and down relationship with drinking. The addict is constantly chasing that happy feeling, while the unhappy feelings intensify each time they sober up. In other words, alcohol is both a stimulant and a sedative to the brain. It can even begin to alter a person’s thought patterns when they’re sober, leading to misguided thoughts like:
- “I’m only fun when I drink.”
- “I can’t handle this party unless I drink.”
- “People like me better when I’m drunk.”
- “The only way I’ll make new friends is if I drink.”
- “I’ll just drink tonight, and then everything will be better tomorrow.”
An alcoholic begins to associate drinking with who they are. If someone believes they are only capable of love and attention when they’re altered by alcohol, it can become even harder to seek help.
Your Brain on Booze - Scientifically Speaking
So, since alcohol is both a stimulant and depressant, it influences both dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain. Simultaneously, it also messes with neurotransmitters within the brain. Maybe those egg-frying anti-drug commercials from the ’80s weren’t so far-fetched after all since one could say that drinking scrambles your brain.
Scientists have discovered that alcohol alters cell membranes in the body. A cell membrane’s job is to regulate what goes in and out of a cell. If your cell membranes are disrupted, they become “leaky”, leading to all sorts of health issues, like:
- Muscle fatigue
- Loss of appetite
- Lack of energy
While leaky cells affect the entire body, the effect of alcohol on the brain is even more concerning. Drinking severely alters your mood, arousal, behavior, and neuropsychological function. As mentioned before, when a person first begins to drink, alcohol acts as a stimulant to the brain, waking it up and creating an exciting feeling. However, as the drinking slows down, it begins to act as a depressant, making the person feel sad, listless, and even depressed. This wishy-washy effect prompts the person to drink even more, sometimes quickly, posing a potentially dangerous risk.
- Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter responsible for arousal. Alcohol increases the presence of norepinephrine in the brain.
- When an increased amount of norepinephrine is in the brain, the person drinking feels a heightened excitement and an increased chance of impulsivity. This explains the loss of inhibitions that commonly happens when people drink.
Can you beat an alcohol addiction?
Yes, alcoholism has a psychological component that makes it difficult to quit. However, it is not impossible at all. People beat alcohol addictions every day. But it’s hard to do it alone. That’s why rehab is usually the best choice. Not only will you have the best chances of living a sober life if you complete a rehab program, but you’ll also have a built-in support system to assist you both during and after your treatment.
What is Alcohol Rehab?
When someone is addicted to alcohol, rehab centers are there to help. Rehabilitation is a medical and psychotherapeutic treatment for people with alcohol or drug dependencies. There are many kinds of rehabs centers located across the country. Although the goal is always the same with any rehab program - helping a person recover from addiction. The process may look different depending on the facility’s approach, but the goal is always the same. Any rehab program aims to give an addict the tools to live their life without depending on substances. It’s not just about quitting drinking. It’s about learning how to live without alcohol and not falling back into self-destructive habits. A rehab facility uses many different methods to help the addict achieve this goal. Some methods rehab centers use are one-on-one therapy, group therapy, and alternative therapies like art and music. Rehab centers also provide aftercare when you complete the program so that you won’t be starting your new sober life alone.
How Detoxing from Alcohol Affects the Brain
One of the most complex parts of beating an alcohol addiction is the detox process. This is also where the psychological factors of addiction come into play. When you stop drinking, especially after excessively drinking for a long time, your brain essentially tricks your body into thinking it needs alcohol to survive. Your brain really, REALLY wants you to drink again so that it can get its endorphin fix. This results in incredibly intense withdrawal symptoms. In fact, withdrawing from alcohol is even more dangerous than withdrawing from most drugs.
- Delirium tremens, or “The DTs”, is a rapid onset of confusion and disorientation that can happen when withdrawing from alcohol. It usually sets in around the third day of the detox process and can last for 2 to 3 days. Medications may be used to lessen the severity of symptoms.
The most common withdrawal symptoms while detoxing from alcohol are:
- Body shakes
- High blood pressure and/or elevated heart rate
- Muscle aches or pain
Because the withdrawal symptoms can be dangerous, medical detox from alcohol is always recommended. In a medical detox program, the patient has 24/7 care, and medical intervention is used when necessary. Some medications can be used to lessen the severity of the symptoms and make the patient as comfortable as possible.
Inpatient Rehab vs. Outpatient Rehab
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to rehabilitating someone from an alcohol addiction. However, most rehab programs generally fall into one of two categories: inpatient or outpatient. Each program is designed to help a person learn how to live life without alcohol, but each has different features.
Inpatient Rehab: An inpatient rehab program, or residential treatment, is an intensive program where you live 24/7 at a facility. Inpatient rehab programs are generally used for people with severe addictions.
- A controlled environment: There are plenty of checks and balances to ensure the patient stays clean and is committed to treatment.
- 24/7 medical and emotional support staff.
- Planned, supervised visits and contact with family members and friends.
Outpatient Rehab: An outpatient rehab program is less restrictive than inpatient programs, and they are designed to allow a bit more flexibility. You can still live at home while working and maintaining your “normal” schedule with outpatient treatment.
- 10-12 hours a week
- Addiction education
- Individual and group therapy
- Learning coping strategies
- Can be used as a part of a long-term treatment plan
- Lasts 6-12 months
It may seem like alcohol has a hold on your brain, and as you can see - it does. But that does not mean that you can’t break from it and teach your brain new, healthy patterns. You do not have to do it alone, but you have to take that first step. Reach out for help. There are so many people willing to help that have the experience, knowledge, and training to do so. Drinking does not make you who you are. You make you who you are. And it’s time to see what you’re capable of without alcohol.