The Causes of Alcoholism and Effective Solutions

April 08, 2024
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Categories: Addictions
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What Causes Alcohol Addiction?

This is a question we should all know the answer to if we drink the poison. Why? Because we’re all at risk of alcoholism. This is because anyone can become addicted to almost anything. And the causes of alcohol addiction are just that, plural. So, this article is important for us all. Even if you think you have a healthy or ‘good’ relationship with alcohol, do read on. Indeed, you might just learn that your relationship with alcohol is not quite what you think or hope it is. This is because of how normalised alcohol is in many societies. However, it IS a drug, and the only hope of preventing alcoholism is by knowing what is alcoholism, about symptoms of alcoholism, the causes of alcohol addiction, and the causes of alcohol dependence (because they are somewhat different). And of course, how to enjoy a healthy and respectful relationship with the substance.

What Is Alcoholism?

So what is alcoholism? It’s a psychiatric disorder according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition. According to the DSM-5, alcohol use disorder, or AUD is a chronic, relapsing condition. People with alcohol use disorder consume alcohol compulsively and uncontrollably, this is referred to as alcohol abuse. Now you may not view your consumption of alcohol in this way, but you’re not off the hook that easy. You must learn the symptoms of alcohol abuse and alcoholism to grasp your risk level, so let’s understand it a bit better.

In a nutshell, you may be at risk of AUD if you experience strong cravings for alcohol due to physical dependence, and psychological dependence. Both kinds lead to tolerance and withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is reduced or stopped. Then there are the ways alcohol can severely affect various parts of a person’s life, including relationships, work, physical health, and mental wellbeing. If any of this sounds familiar to you and you continue to drink, you may have AUD or be at risk of developing it so it’s important to assess your drinking habits honestly.

According to the DSM, there are 11 criteria, and if an individual meets at least two of these within 12 months, they receive a diagnosis of AUD. Furthermore, one’s AUD is judged mild to severe based on how many of the criteria are experienced. So let’s look a the criteria for diagnosing AUD:

Signs And Symptoms Of Alcoholism

  • Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
  • There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
  • A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
  • Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
  • Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfil major role obligations at work, school, or home.
  • Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
  • Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
  • Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous.
  • Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
  • Tolerance, as defined by either: a) a need for markedly increased amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or desired effect, or b) a markedly diminished effect with continued use of the same amount of alcohol.
  • Withdrawal, as manifested by either: a) the characteristic withdrawal syndrome for alcohol, or b) alcohol (or a closely related substance, such as a benzodiazepine) is taken to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.

Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

The causes of alcohol addiction are many and complex. Indeed, our brains have a reward centre that if activated when drinking alcohol, will make it highly addictive. This is because the reward centre releases dopamine when we do something that feels pleasurable or rewarding in some way. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter (i.e., a chemical messenger) that makes us feel good. You might assume the release of dopamine can only be a good thing, right? Wrong – because when we drink alcohol regularly, we experience neuroadaptation. Essentially the body’s natural baseline level of dopamine is reduced to compensate for the higher levels of dopamine due to drinking. And because we aren’t getting as much of this feel-good hormone naturally, we need more alcohol to achieve the same level of pleasure, otherwise known as tolerance. Alcohol addiction causes and effects also play a part in one’s risk of addiction because alcohol also affects other neurotransmitters that are involved with mood and behaviour regulation.  causes of alcohol addiction can also impact it. Now we turn to other factors that cause AUD. For example, environmental factors like peer pressure, or societal norms can influence how vulnerable one becomes to addiction, as can genetic predispositions.

Causes Of Alcoholism

Biological Factors

Addiction to alcohol causes can be biological. For example, if AUD runs in the family, a genetic predisposition may be the reason. Biological differences also impact how your body metabolises (i.e., breaks down and processes) alcohol. Biological variances also play a role in how one person’s brain responds to alcohol compared to another’s, making some people more susceptible to alcoholism. As mentioned, alcohol also alters brain chemistry by affecting neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, reinforcing addictive behaviours. Another biological factor that affects addiction is differences in brain structure or function. For example, abnormalities in the reward pathway or the prefrontal cortex could contribute to alcoholism. Comorbid mental health disorders like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder can often coexist with alcoholism, and both conditions may be impacted by biological factors. If alcohol exposure occurs during critical periods of brain development (e.g., adolescence), alcoholism may develop in later life. Furthermore, changes in gene expression or function (i.e., epigenetic mechanisms) can be influenced by the environment, possibly impacting biological vulnerability to alcoholism.

Psychological Factors

Addiction to alcohol causes are also impacted by psychological factors. Preventing alcoholism is not so easy to do if one is unaware of one’s psychological vulnerability to alcoholism. For example, some people associate alcohol with release so use it as a way to de-stress, or avoid emotional pain and trauma. This indicates that alcohol has become a coping mechanism, which makes one more at risk if there exist co-occurring mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people seek comfort in alcohol; it can help them avoid confronting their low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, or lack of direction, purpose, or meaning in life. Alcoholism psychological factors can also be influenced by peer pressure or societal norms that promote heavy drinking. Causes of alcohol dependence can also develop if you have certain personality traits like impulsivity, sensation-seeking, or emotion dysregulation. In addition, childhood experiences may play a role in the later development of alcoholism if, for example, you witnessed signs of alcohol abuse in parents or dysfunctional family dynamics. So the addiction to alcohol causes are many and we will now discuss each in more detail.

Environmental Factors

When considering what causes alcohol addiction we have to consider the many causes of alcohol addiction that can be found in one’s environment. Wider cultural attitudes and norms about alcohol can also impact how you perceive and behave when it comes to drinking. Peer pressure and societal ones also contribute to that high tolerance and need for more if one succumbs to them. If alcohol has become a coping mechanism for life stressors, then life and living are risk factors. This is why those who suffer socioeconomically due to things like poverty, unemployment, or lack of access to resources and support, are at risk. But, conversely, if alcohol is easily availed and afforded, there is a higher risk too, especially because of marketing and advertising of alcohol, which can encourage drinking via suggestibility and glamorisation. Addiction to alcohol causes also relates to family dynamics as mentioned. This is because parental alcoholism or dysfunctional family relationships can create an environment conducive to alcohol abuse and addiction. So if alcohol was normalised in your family and made available to you, it could seem like a benign, harmless thing.

Social and Cultural Factors

The causes of alcohol dependence can be significantly affected by social and cultural factors. This is because of how these shape attitudes, behaviours, and patterns of alcohol consumption. Taking alcohol is, for example, impacted by how acceptable and prevalent alcohol is in cultural traditions, which vary widely. For example, in some cultures drinking socially is the norm, whereas in others it’s restricted and even forbidden. Socialising with particular people in one’s social group can encourage drinking because alcohol becomes linked with social interactions and bonding. Income and education level can intersect with social and cultural influences, also affecting how alcohol is present in one’s social circles and life. Another social and cultural factor is family. For example, dynamics and cultural expectations about gender roles can influence how alcohol is used within households, contributing to alcohol problems which can be difficult to spot and admit to due to cultural beliefs and the stigma associated with alcoholism. Young adults and vulnerable people can be more easily influenced by alcohol availability and marketing tactics.

Personality Factors

Preventing alcoholism is more challenging when personality traits such as impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and risk-taking are at work because these often co-occur with problematic drinking patterns. If someone is affected by certain conditions like low self-esteem, a sense of inadequacy, or problems managing their emotions, they may turn to alcohol to cope with stress or difficult emotions. Some people are sensitive to reward or sensation-seeking behaviour, making them seek out the pleasurable effects of alcohol, leading to increased risk. Certain personality disorders, like antisocial personality or borderline personality disorder, can exacerbate the risk and symptoms of alcoholism as well. Genetic predispositions may interact with personality to influence alcohol use and dependence. Furthermore, personality traits can also make response to treatment, recovery efforts, and sobriety more challenging.

Alcoholism Risk Factors

Drinking at an Early Age

Causes of alcoholism are significantly impacted by drinking at an early age, leading to significant risk. One reason is that early alcohol use can disrupt brain development, particularly in regions involved in decision-making and impulse control, this increases vulnerability to addiction. Those who start drinking before the age of 15 are also more likely to develop alcohol dependence later in life. This is in part because brain chemistry is altered during adolescence, which increases the chances of developing tolerance and dependence. Causes of alcohol addiction in adolescents also include peer pressure and social influences which can cause early initiation of alcohol use, especially because of the need for acceptance and social belonging at this stage in development. Family dynamics, parental alcohol use, and modelling behaviour also influence when young people start drinking and the risk of alcoholism in later life.

Family History

So let’s review how addiction to alcohol causes relates to one’s family of origin. When people witness signs of alcohol abuse in their parents or close relatives they are at higher risk of developing AUD because they develop within an environment in which they see drinking behaviours modelled, which is one way children learn how to behave. Indeed, children of alcoholics can perceive alcohol as normal and acceptable because it is a constant in their lives. For example, witnessing parents deal with stress by using alcohol can create a belief that this is how to deal with stress. Causes of alcohol dependence may also be influenced by genetics as mentioned, making the condition of AUD inheritable, when combined with modelling behaviours. Preventing alcoholism is helped by early recognition of family history as a risk factor for alcoholism, as this informs tailored treatment.

Stress

Signs of alcohol abuse are often linked to stress, which is a risk factor for alcoholism when this becomes the usual way to “take the edge off” or “wind down after a hard day”. This risk factor can be subtle when alcohol use becomes a part of one’s normal lifestyle. Individuals begin to use alcohol as a way of coping with or relieving tension and stress. Chronic stress can have a dysregulating effect on the body’s anxiety response system which can also create vulnerability to AUD. Problematic associations with alcohol can develop and become worsened by stressful life events, like trauma, loss, or financial problems because of the numbing effect of alcohol. This offers relief for a short time but creates the potential for long-term dependence because individuals are unable to learn to tolerate or work through their emotional challenges. This can be exacerbated if there is a comorbid mental health disorder, such as depression or anxiety. So treating and preventing alcoholism can be helped by learning healthier coping strategies for managing stress.

Peer Pressure

Many social groups normalise the use of alcohol as a means of socialising, celebrating, or bonding so social influences in the form of peer pressure are a significant contributor to the development of alcoholism. Peer pressure does not have to be overt; it can also be subtle. For example, in certain social settings, people may feel more pressured to drink alcohol due to a need to fit in, feel accepted, and avoid social exclusion. This can be especially true for younger people, for whom the question of “What is alcoholism?” may never have crossed their mind or lips, as easily as alcohol does. Drinking behaviours can become normalised and shaped at this time due to a need for approval and the pressure of expectations around drinking. This kind of peer pressure can encourage heavy alcohol consumption in the form of binge drinking, in which individuals drink beyond their limits. Due to the complexities surrounding social influences, and pressures from within and without, it is important for individuals to develop resistance skills and assertiveness techniques. These can help them to make healthier choices regarding alcohol consumption.

Mental Health

Signs of being an alcoholic are often indicators that something deeper is going on. For example, people who feel depressed, anxious, or experience other mood disorders like bipolar, or anxiety disorders like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), as well as personality disorders, often experience issues with alcohol or other drugs. Trauma, abuse, or adverse childhood experiences can also play a role in the development of mental health disorders and alcoholism which becomes a way to relieve symptoms in the shorter term but often aggravates underlying issues. This also creates dependency because alcohol becomes a form of self-medicating and a coping mechanism. A further complication for those with mental health problems is the potential to mix alcohol with psychotropic medication they may be prescribed for their mental health. Alcohol can interfere with the function of the medication and worsen mental health symptoms which makes recovery harder. When there are co-occurring problems like mental health problems and alcoholism, integrated therapy can help to address both.

Traumatic Experiences

Addiction to alcohol causes can often be traced back to traumatic experiences which create significant risk. People who have experienced trauma might use alcohol to cope because it can numb their emotional pain. This means that people who have experienced any kind of trauma, including physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, combat trauma, natural disasters, or accidents, are at increased risk of developing AUD. The unfortunate outcome of this strategy is it creates a catch-22. For example, someone with PTSD or other trauma-related mental health issues might want to minimise their anxiety by taking alcohol but this creates a dependency and addiction that worsens their symptoms in the longer term due to the effect alcohol has on the production of mood-regulating and stress hormones, causing the need for more alcohol in the misguided attempt to self-soothe. Indeed, trauma itself can disrupt brain chemistry and functioning, increasing vulnerability to addictive behaviours and maladaptive coping strategies but alcohol also adversely affects brain chemistry. Again, integrated treatment is required for trauma and alcoholism to address both the underlying trauma and substance use. Trauma-informed care recognises the impact of trauma on individuals and emphasises safety, trust, and empowerment.

Self-Esteem Issues

The list of the causes of alcohol dependence would not be complete without the mention of self-esteem. When people do not feel adequate or worthwhile, they may resort to drugs like alcohol to cope with unpleasant thoughts and feelings about themselves. To complicate matters further, people with low self-esteem can be more vulnerable to peer pressure due to a need to please. They may also use alcohol in social situations when they feel anxious and unconfident due to their experience of low self-esteem. As understandable as this may be, it is a short-sighted strategy which leads to reliance on alcohol to bolster self-esteem in tough situations, causing dependence over time. Furthermore, when people are affected by alcohol, judgement becomes impaired, affecting decision-making too. This can further harm self-esteem due to the risky behaviours that might occur when under the influence. When working with the co-morbidity of low self-esteem and alcoholism, it is helpful to address the cause (low self-esteem), and the impact (alcoholism). This can help nurture healthier ways of coping to enhance self-esteem, and confidence via positive self-talk, self-care, compassion, and self-acceptance.

Personal Choice

As much as it is true that alcoholism is a disease and a mental health struggle, it is also important to consider personal choice. At some point, before a person becomes dependent and addicted to alcohol, they experience the symptoms and signs of alcohol abuse. They notice the problems, if for example, someone has brought it to their attention, or because they’re drinking covertly and ignoring their conflicting feelings about it. Ultimately, they decide whether to drink alcohol, how much, and how often. Things like upbringing, values, beliefs, and attitudes towards alcohol influence personal choices when it comes to drinking. And although people have agency in their decisions, they are often influenced by the things already mentioned, like peer pressure, societal norms, and environmental factors. It should also be remembered that genetic, biological, psychological, and social factors also interact with personal choice due to the vulnerability to alcoholism. Notwithstanding, acknowledging one’s responsibility and agency in decisions that relate to alcohol is an important aspect of prevention and recovery. This can lead to a sense of control and empowerment, such that informed choices about alcohol use are made, due to the development of healthier alternatives toward responsible drinking or abstinence.

Taking Alcohol With Medication

Mixing alcohol with medication can have serious and harmful consequences. Interaction effects mean that the medication’s effectiveness might be altered, side effects could increase, or dangerous reactions could occur. With some medications, like antidepressants, antipsychotics, sedatives, and painkillers, the medication’s effects can be increased leading to drowsiness, impaired coordination, or respiratory depression. The metabolism and absorption of certain medications can also be impacted when mixed with alcohol, affecting potency and duration of action. Chronic alcohol also damages the liver and other organs. This reduces the body’s ability to safely metabolise medication. Due to these reasons, it is often recommended that individuals do not mix medication and alcohol, especially if the medication’s patient information leaflet states this.

Frequent Alcohol Consumption Over Time

Taking alcohol often causes a significant risk for the development of alcoholism. As discussed, drinking heavily regularly builds alcohol tolerance, necessitating larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same “buzz”. Chronically using alcohol can create physical dependence. This means the body has adapted and experiences withdrawal symptoms if alcohol intake reduces or stops. Psychological dependence can also develop from frequent drinking, this is when individuals rely on alcohol to cope with stress, difficult emotions, or social situations. Habitual use can lead to the deterioration of physical health, including liver damage, cardiovascular problems, and increased risk of cancer over time. Signs of alcohol abuse also include impaired cognitive function, memory, and decision-making abilities. These affect various aspects of daily life and functioning like social, occupational, and interpersonal consequences, leading to strained relationships, financial difficulties, and legal issues. When people still cannot stop drinking even though they are impacted in real-world ways, this is a sure sign of being an alcoholic.

Preventing Alcoholism Via Therapy

So there are many reasons for preventing alcoholism. In therapy, this can be done in different ways. For example, if you’re concerned about your use of alcohol and wish to make changes to your relationship with it, therapy can play a key role in preventing alcoholism by addressing the underlying psychological, emotional, and behavioural aspects at work. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) can help identify and challenge unhealthy thought patterns and behaviours that relate to the use of alcohol. Motivational interviewing is another technique that can increase the readiness to change and commitment to reducing or abstaining from alcohol. Therapy also provides a supportive environment for exploring and resolving issues such as trauma, stress, or low self-esteem that might be contributing to the problem. Another form of therapy that can help is family therapy. This helps address family dynamics and relationships that could be enabling or exacerbating alcohol misuse.

Therapy aims to equip individuals with coping skills and relapse-prevention strategies to manage triggers and cravings for alcohol. It also supports and creates a sense of accountability. Therapists work with individuals to offer holistic care for alcoholism and any co-occurring mental health problems. It is important to seek help as soon as possible as early intervention offers a preventive element to therapy, helping to develop healthier coping mechanisms and behaviours before alcoholism becomes entrenched.

Find Treatment For Alcoholism

We have looked at what is alcoholism and the various factors that underpin this serious and insidious problem. At Phinity Therapy, we specialise in providing evidence-based therapy for anyone struggling with alcoholism. Our therapists are experienced in addressing alcohol addiction causes and effects, including underlying psychological, emotional, and behavioural factors, as described in this article. By exploring the causes of alcohol dependence for you, we will offer a personally tailored treatment plan to meet your specific needs and goals. Alongside alternatives, we also offer cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and family therapy. Regardless of the approach, we provide a supportive and non-judgmental environment to explore your relationship with alcohol, develop coping skills, and work toward recovery. So, if you wondered what is alcoholism, hopefully now you have a better idea. Feel free to get in touch if you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism, we are here to help. Contact us today to schedule a confidential consultation and take the first step towards a healthier, more fulfilling, and more conscious lifestyle – where you feel in control again.

Table Of Contents
What Causes Alcohol Addiction?
What Is Alcoholism?
Signs And Symptoms Of Alcoholism
Why Is Alcohol Addictive?
Causes Of Alcoholism
Alcoholism Risk Factors
Preventing Alcoholism Via Therapy
Find Treatment For Alcoholism
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Rehanna Kauser Private Therapist
About The Author
Rehanna Kauser, Psychologist
Rehanna has studied Psychology and Counselling Psychology at four UK universities. She enjoys working with individuals, couples, and families, and also loves learning, and writing. Having always been fascinated with the human mind and behaviour, her interests marry well with her naturally caring disposition, and affinity toward helping people.
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