It isn't a mystery to some as to why some people become alcoholics. Alcohol use has been normalized in American society for a long time. It's seen in advertisements, shown in the media, and can be bought in most grocery stores. Young Americans are often encouraged to engage in alcohol use. It's reached a point where abstaining from alcohol use is often seen as unusual or the mark of a “boring” person. This is not to mention how alcohol is often used as a way to cope with difficulty.
For some, it's easier to purchase alcohol than it is to seek help for a mental health disorder. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 28.6 million adults ages 18 and older struggled with an alcohol use disorder (AUD) in 2021. That is a lot of people who are struggling, but only a small percentage ever seek help.
With the rise in alcohol addiction comes the need for treatment centers, such as Pathways Wellness Center. Pathways Wellness Center and others like it exist to give those struggling with addiction a safe place to recover. Many people will refuse to get treatment because they fear judgment or ridicule. However, no mental health care professional would ever treat someone seeking treatment so poorly. Those seeking treatment at Pathways Wellness Center can expect compassion, understanding, and quality treatment.
But why do people become alcoholics? To understand that, we must first dive into what alcoholism is.
In a nutshell, alcoholism is the most severe form of alcohol abuse and involves the inability to manage drinking habits. This is due to a physical and emotional/psychological dependence on alcohol. It can also be known as an alcohol addiction, alcohol dependence, or AUD. This can be further broken down into three categories depending on the severity of the symptoms.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) lists 11 symptoms that can determine if someone is struggling with an AUD. Mild AUD has about two to three symptoms present. Moderate AUD has four to six present symptoms. Severe has six or more symptoms present.
These symptoms are:
People who suspect they may be struggling with alcoholism can look at the above symptoms and see if they experience them regularly. If they do, then they may be an alcoholic or have an AUD.
Alcohol is a chemical that affects the brain and body. The brain is a complex organ that controls how our bodies work and how we feel. This is done through the delicate balance of brain cells (neurons) and chemicals (neurotransmitters). These neurotransmitters pass information between the neuron and other cells, telling the body how to function. One important part of the brain is the nerve cells, which are like the wires of the nervous system. Surrounding these nerve cells is myelin, which is a lipid-rich material that insulates these nerve cells so electrical impulses can pass smoothly along the cells.
When people become alcoholics, it wreaks havoc across the brain. Alcohol interacts with the communication pathways in the brain and greatly impacts the parts of the brain that control memory, speech, judgment, and balance. This can cause physical injury as someone with AUD is more likely to engage in dangerous behavior while lacking proper balance. For example, someone may drink alcohol and decide to go swimming. They can then drown as a result of diminished coordination needed for swimming. Someone who shows up to work drunk may end up injuring themselves and other people if they have to operate heavy or dangerous machinery.
Alcohol also shrinks the neurons in the brain and damages the myelin around the nerve cells. When people become alcoholics long-term, it often results in brain and nerve damage.
But then why do people use alcohol if it is so dangerous? The answer is that it's an addictive chemical. When people use alcohol, it bathes the brain in this chemical. Over time, this changes the brain on a physical level. It rewrites the reward systems in our brains. This reward system is a survival trait that gives us pleasure when we engage in certain acts related to survival, such as eating food. However, substances will flood this system and become more desirable than the natural reward.
Over time, the brain becomes used to the chemical, which is known as tolerance. This means more and more doses of the chemical are needed to feel as good as before. The brain will also believe that this is the new state of normal and that not having the substance is a cause for alarm. This is where cravings come from, as it is the brain wanting more of the substance to feel “normal” again. The need for a substance to function is the core of every addiction, including alcoholism.
But is that the only reason why people become alcoholics? The short answer is no. There are other factors that can cause someone to become addicted to alcohol, some of which may be beyond someone's control.
Some people may be genetically more likely to become alcoholics. Genetics are the building blocks of life. They tell the body what color the eyes will be and how much hair a person will have. People inherit these genetics from their parents, who in turn inherit their genetics from their parents. Some genes have been identified that may increase the risk for alcoholism, but no gene outright causes it. Someone may be genetically more likely to become an alcoholic, but other factors besides biology are at work.
When people become alcoholics, it's not because they want to be alcoholics. Instead, it is a direct response to trauma, peer pressure, and stress. Some mental health disorders have a high rate of alcohol use. This is known as a co-occurring mental health disorder or a dual diagnosis. When someone has a co-occurring mental health disorder, it requires treatment alongside the alcohol addiction. Often, AUD can mask the presence of a mental health disorder. It takes the skills of a mental health care professional to make an official diagnosis. Because of this, many people become alcoholics without knowing there is an underlying mental health disorder.
In many cases, people become alcoholics because they are dealing with difficulty, and using alcohol is the only solution they can see. Often, these are people who are living with a mental health disorder and want to mask or lessen their negative symptoms. Sometimes someone may be living with a chronic illness and uses alcohol to numb the pain and discomfort that results from it. Other times these are people who observed family using alcohol to deal with stress and grief.
Children are information sponges who observe the world around them for cues on how they should behave. If they see a parent or a sibling engage in alcohol use to deal with a problem, they may grow up believing that it's how everyone deals with a problem. Childhood trauma is also a common cause of alcoholism in adults.
Environment and culture also is a large factor in why some people become alcoholics. Early alcohol exposure is more likely to result in alcohol use later in life. The role of peer pressure factors in strongly as well, especially when young people are bombarded with portrayals of substance use as being positive instead of negative.
Sometimes specific personality traits may lead to why some people become alcoholics. It's common to hear of someone having an “addictive” personality as a reason to abstain from substance use. While there is truth to that statement, there is more than just a single personality trait. It's a combination of many negative traits, which include the following:
As one can see, there is a large pool of factors that can cause people to become alcoholics. Addiction is not a punishment or a mark of a bad person. People do not “deserve” addiction. It's a complicated issue that can affect anyone at any time.
Addiction manifests in a cycle that completely takes over someone's life. It gets to a point where the only thing a person can think about is getting their next fix. When people become alcoholics, it means doing everything to get that next drink.
Alcoholism begins with its initial use. It's taking that first drink for any number of reasons, even when someone knows they are at risk for addiction. Once that drink is taken, it begins to affect the brain and the body. People may simply be experimenting with alcohol at first. However, even brief experimentation can lead to alcohol abuse.
Then enters the abuse stage, where someone engages in recurring improper use of their substance of choice. For those struggling with alcoholism, they drink often and during times when it is not appropriate.
After that comes the tolerance stage, where the body builds up a tolerance to alcohol. It forces someone to drink more and more to get the same effects as before. They then begin the dependence phase, where they cannot physically or emotionally function without the use of alcohol. After a time, this can turn into an addiction, which is a serious mental health disorder. At this point, an individual will realize they are addicted to alcohol and attempt to stop.
However, without professional help, attempting to stop on one's own can result in a relapse. They begin to start drinking again, which begins the cycle anew.
The longer this cycle continues, the greater the chance of developing serious physical and social problems. Alcohol has numerous effects on the body. Short-term consequences involve blackouts or injuries occurring while under the influence. When people become alcoholics long-term, they often struggle with high blood pressure and heart disease. The liver is especially sensitive to alcohol, and use can result in alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD). Digestive problems also are common, as alcohol can irritate the stomach lining. Perhaps the most serious medical issue faced when people become alcoholics is cancer. Alcohol can cause cancer of the mouth, throat, liver, esophagus, voice box/larynx, breast, and rectum.
When people become alcoholics, they often face social consequences. This can include running afoul of the law, such as driving under the influence or being publicly intoxicated. It can push others away, as people don't want to be harmed by another's alcohol use. Alcohol use can also result in tragic accidents, where one can cost the life of themselves or other people. When people become alcoholics, they can lose their jobs, flunk out of school, or harm their families because of out-of-control alcohol use.
When people are at risk of alcoholism, it's important to remember the warning signs. As discussed earlier, the DSM-5's 11 symptoms of alcohol abuse can indicate when people become alcoholics. Learning to recognize the warning signs and risk factors can help someone change how they approach the topic of addiction. When speaking to someone else about addiction, one should be compassionate and understanding. Always let your loved ones know that you love them and that they deserve to get help when they need it. This alone can help prevent addiction by encouraging someone to seek professional help before an issue becomes too much for them to handle.
Some people become alcoholics, but they don't have to be alcoholics forever. There are several treatment programs a person can enroll in that can help them recover from addiction. Pathways Wellness Center utilizes outpatient treatments, which means clients go to treatment during the day and go home at night. These are the partial hospitalization program (PHP) and the intensive outpatient program (IOP). Both programs utilize various forms of evidence-backed holistic treatments and psychotherapy to help clients overcome their addictions. Pathways Wellness Center also offers medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to help manage withdrawal symptoms so clients can focus on their recovery.
For those specifically struggling with alcohol addiction, one can participate in the 12-Step support program. It's a support group that helps those who struggle with alcoholism find understanding and mentorship.
Anyone can recover from an alcohol addiction. They just need the right treatment plan, support, and the desire for self-improvement. Alcohol addiction can be complicated, but nobody has to struggle alone. All they need to do is reach out for help.
There are many reasons why someone may turn to alcohol. Some want to numb the pain they feel. Others may want to fit in or feel good. However, when it's used too much, it can turn into an addiction known as alcoholism. Luckily, nobody has to stay an alcoholic forever. Recovery is possible for everyone with the right treatment and support. Here at Pathways Wellness Center in Glendora, California, we utilize scientifically backed treatments and understanding, compassionate staff to help our clients succeed. Nobody has to beat their addiction on their own, especially when Pathways Wellness Center can help. To learn how you and your loved ones can recover from alcohol addiction, call us today at (888) 771-0966.