Alcohol Addiction: Effects, Mental Health, and Relapse Prevention

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What is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcohol addiction, now known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), occurs when a person excessively drinks on a regular basis. People with this disorder are unable to control their alcohol use despite the negative consequences that come with it.

Someone with an AUD also experiences physical alcohol dependence. Withdrawal symptoms will develop if they suddenly stop drinking, including nausea, shaking, anxiety, and seizures, among others.

Alcohol abuse and addiction can affect anyone at any age. Fortunately, there are ways to prevent alcohol use disorder (AUD), especially in underage drinkers. Prevention tips include talking with children about the dangers of alcohol, monitoring alcoholism behaviors at home, and teaching valuable coping mechanisms.  

Types of Alcoholics

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can affect anyone at any age. There are five different types of alcoholics, including:

  • Young adult alcoholics
  • Young antisocial alcoholics
  • Intermediate familial alcoholics
  • Functional alcoholics
  • Chronic severe alcoholics
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What Causes Alcohol Use Disorder (Addiction)?

When it comes to alcohol use disorder (addiction), every person’s situation is different. There isn’t just one cause of alcohol addiction, but possible causes fall into three categories:

  • Biological
  • Psychological
  • Socio-cultural

Many young people under 21 years of age also look at alcohol as a rite of passage. At this age, people are looking for ways to assert their independence, engage in new experiences, and take risks. As a result, they may turn to alcohol and other substances. The dangers of underage drinking can be severe and even life-threatening if taken too far.

Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (Addiction)

Changes in behavior are usually what cause people to recognize that their loved one has an alcohol addiction. These symptoms include:

  • Inability to limit the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Inability to cut down how much you drink
  • Spending more time drinking or recovering from drinking
  • Experiencing regular cravings for alcohol
  • Building an alcohol tolerance
  • Drinking in unsafe situations, such as drinking and driving
  • Continuing to drink despite medical problems
  • Allowing alcohol to affect personal and professional relationships
  • Losing interest in hobbies or activities you used to enjoy
  • Suffering from withdrawal symptoms when you are unable to drink

Effects of Alcohol Misuse & Addiction

Alcohol misuse and addiction can also have negative effects on your health, such as:

The Harmful Effects of Hangovers

Hangovers are the result of the body’s attempt to recover from heavy alcohol consumption. Heavy drinking leads to frequent urination, which commonly results in dehydration, dry mouth, thirstiness, dizziness, and an electrolyte imbalance, among other symptoms. 

Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal

The symptoms of alcohol withdrawal vary. For some people, they are mild and uncomfortable. In more severe cases, the symptoms of withdrawal can be life-threatening. Symptoms usually peak between 24 to 72 hours and usually settle within a week.

Alcoholic Cardiomyopathy (Alcohol-Induced Heart Disease)

Long-term, heavy alcohol consumption can lead to heart disease. More specifically, alcoholic cardiomyopathy is a type of alcohol-induced heart disease that severely damages the heart muscle. The main cause of alcohol cardiomyopathy is linked to chronic alcohol addiction.

Effects of Alcohol - Cancer

Drinking any amount of alcohol increases a person’s risk of developing certain cancers. However, heavy alcohol consumption and those with a long-term alcohol use disorder (AUD) are most at risk.

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Mental Health Effects of Alcohol

Alcohol and mental health issues share a bidirectional relationship. Alcohol can make other mental health disorders emerge or worsen. Likewise, having a mental health problem can worsen alcohol use disorders as people sometimes drink to cope with their condition.

An individual with social anxiety, for example, may use drinking alcohol as a coping skill to reduce symptoms. However, alcohol does not cure anxiety. It just covers the symptoms of anxiety.

In this case, the anxiety disorder would continue while the alcohol use disorder grows. Or sometimes someone with alcoholism may disrupt usual neurotransmitter flow in the brain, which could lead to new or worsening symptoms of a mental health condition.

Anxiety and Alcohol Abuse

Anxiety disorders are mental health disorders that cause constant fear and worry.

They can range from mild to severe, depending on the person. For many, alcohol provides temporary relief of anxiety symptoms and is a way to self-medicate. However, this cycle can lead to problems later on, such as a dual diagnosis (when a person has both an alcohol use disorder and a mental health disorder).

Depression and Alcohol

Depression is the most common mental health disorder in the U.S., affecting over 16 million American adults. Unfortunately, alcohol abuse is common in people with depression. Many turn to alcohol in order to escape feelings of sadness.

Bipolar Disorder and Alcohol Abuse

Bipolar disorder is a mental health disorder that causes extreme mood swings. Those with bipolar disorder often turn to alcohol to self-medicate and reduce unpleasant symptoms. However, doing so can lead to serious problems later on, such as alcohol addiction.

The Health Effects of Alcohol

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is when men consume five or more alcoholic drinks, or women drink four or more drinks over two hours. Someone who binges drinks sporadically may be able to stop on their own.

However, someone addicted to alcohol may not be able to stop binge drinking without help. In many circumstances, binge drinking can progress into alcoholism.

High-Functioning Alcoholics

There is a class of alcoholism known as high-functioning alcoholism. High-functioning alcoholics can keep their condition from interfering in their professional and personal lives.

High-functioning alcoholics often do not recognize they have a problem until they are met with severe alcohol-related consequences. The danger of high-functioning alcoholics is that they can continue for years without anyone noticing they have a problem.

How Is Alcohol Addiction Diagnosed?

Physicians and mental health experts use visual assessment and interviewing to precisely diagnose alcohol problems, including abuse, dependence, and addiction. In some circumstances, a physical exam may help to identify intoxication or withdrawal.

The formal diagnosis for an individual with a problematic relationship with alcohol is alcohol use disorder.

To diagnose alcohol use disorder, a professional must investigate factors like:

  • Drinking alcohol more often and in more significant amounts than planned
  • Inability to follow through on decisions to stop drinking
  • A large portion of time spent drinking alcohol or being hungover
  • Intense cravings to continue alcohol use
  • Neglect of usual activities
  • Increased conflict and stress in relationships
  • Consuming alcohol even though it is causing physical or mental health issues
  • Drinking in a situation where there is a significant danger, such as while driving
  • Increased physical tolerance to alcohol
  • The occurrence of withdrawal symptoms when alcohol use is stopped

An individual only requires two of these signs and symptoms to receive an alcohol use disorder diagnosis. Having more symptoms could suggest a more severe condition.

While these factors may help diagnose alcohol addiction, an accurate diagnosis depends on the individual’s honesty with their treatment provider. Being honest with a medical professional is essential to understanding if alcohol abuse should be diagnosed.

Outlook for Alcoholism

Alcoholism can negatively impact nearly every area of mental and physical health, leaving long-lasting effects on the individual. Fortunately, if a person can sober up, their body and brain can start the recovery process.

Before the recovery, an individual physically dependent on alcohol must go through detoxification.

During the detox period, a person can expect various withdrawal symptoms, including:

Many of these withdrawal symptoms start within a few hours following last alcohol use and typically last between two to eight days. Some signs, like anxiety and poor sleep, may persist for six months or longer.

While this may be discouraging, people recovering from alcoholism can enjoy a happy and fulfilling life with time and patience.

Updated on December 3, 2021
9 sources cited
  1. “College Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 19 Aug. 2016
  2. Moss, Howard B, et al. “Subtypes of Alcohol Dependence in a Nationally Representative Sample.” Drug and Alcohol Dependence, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Dec. 2007
  3. “Researchers Identify Alcoholism Subtypes.” National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 29 Sept. 2015
  4. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 6 Dec. 2019
  5. Augier, Eric, et al. “A Molecular Mechanism for Choosing Alcohol over an Alternative Reward.” Science, American Association for the Advancement of Science, 22 June 2018
  6. Edenberg, Howard J, and Tatiana Foroud. “Genetics and Alcoholism.” Nature Reviews. Gastroenterology & Hepatology, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2013
  7. “Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 21 Sept. 2018
  8. “Alcohol Use Disorder.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 11 July 2018
  9. “Alcohol Use Disorder.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 4 June 2020

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