If you or a loved one finds it hard to stop drinking despite a big effort and a strong will, there may be an explanation. Understanding the properties of alcohol and what it does to our body and mind might provide some insight as to why it's not that simple to just quit drinking.
While drinking alcohol in moderation is achieved by some, drinking habits can easily shift a person from being a social drinker to drinking alcohol out of need.
This is because ethanol, the main alcohol ingested in alcoholic beverages, is a depressant on the central nervous system (CNS) that our bodies become used to. Prolonged exposure to ethanol can make the body reliant on it and can cause a substance use or abuse disorder to develop.
Ethanol inhibits excitatory receptors in our central nervous system while enhancing the inhibitory or GABA receptors. When we stop drinking alcohol, inhibition is taken away and the central nervous system becomes overexcited, resulting in our bodies experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.
Among people in the United States, 28.3 million had an alcohol use disorder in 2020 alone.
Substance abuse and addiction are mental health disorders, that affect our brains and our behaviors. The stigmatized term 'alcoholism', or someone suffering from an alcohol use disorder, is characterized by the inability to stop or control alcohol use despite its negative consequences.
As a disease, alcohol use disorder affects mental and physical health and has negative consequences in social, work, and personal life.
While the causes of alcohol dependence, abuse, and addiction vary from person to person, there are some general, main reasons and factors that contribute to it.
Alcohol consumption changes our brain chemistry, and this is part of what makes us physically dependent on it.
Dopamine plays a very big role in causing alcohol dependency. Alcohol stimulates the release of the neurotransmitter, responsible for feelings of pleasure and reward in our brain, and this causes most people to simply want more. The brain takes time after the absence of alcohol to readjust its pleasure center toward everyday pleasures again, such as exercise, laughing, music, or eating.
When there are constant depressant effects on the brain, it will need alcohol for a person to feel 'normal'. When the effects of alcohol wear off, the brain chemistry has to stabilize, and this is what produces cravings for more.
As one of the causes of a struggle to stop drinking alcohol even over the course of one night, these brain circuits can become established and can make cravings almost impossible to resist long term.
Brain chemistry is also involved in developing tolerance, whereby a person needs more and more alcohol over time to feel the same effect, as the body becomes used to the presence of alcohol. The brain becomes desensitized to the effects of a drug, leading to an ever-increasing amount and frequency of drinking.
Apart from brain chemistry, underlying factors contribute to drinking alcohol too. Genetics and family history, as well as environmental factors, contribute largely to our drinking habits and our ability to stop drinking alcohol.
Social influences, such as friends who always drink, or the availability of and access to alcohol could prompt a person to drink more than they want or need to. The age at which a person uses alcohol for the first time plays a crucial role in the risk of dependency, while family members who abuse alcohol have a detrimental effect on children.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, children of parents with an alcohol use disorder are four times more likely to suffer from the disorder themselves.
Motivation to drink is another factor that can cause addiction to develop. Reinforcement is when a behavior is weakened or strengthened based on a previous experience, and in the case of alcohol, it is usually positive, at least initially.
Alcohol-induced euphoria, relaxation, or increased sociability, as well as a temporary reduction of anxiety, can easily increase a person's alcohol-seeking behavior. Positive reinforcing effects of alcohol generally motivate drinking in the early phases of use or abuse, and it is only later that negative reinforcement may be considered.
Different life experiences and abilities to cope with them mean that some people could drink due to trauma. Often a history of difficult or traumatic life experiences leads to substance abuse, as people attempt to manage hard emotions or challenges through self-medicating.
Another element of trauma is that it may keep someone from recovering. Recovery may mean returning to life before drinking, and if there was no healthy past, alcohol problems are a way of avoiding sober life or a painful past.
Often social drinking, hangovers, or overspending on alcohol on a night out are considered normal, making regular or binge drinking acceptable and even perhaps the thing to do to 'fit in'.
Social stigmas around mental health are many times a reason for people to continue drinking. Despite research proving how alcohol further perpetuates mental health complications, such as worsening depression or anxiety, it is considered 'normal' to drink if a person has mental challenges to carry on their shoulders.
There is also the stigma that is associated with addiction. Social drinkers may be accepted in society, but addiction is very stigmatized. This often causes people to avoid recognition of a problem, or seek the treatment help they need.
It instead promotes a social mask, whereby a person pretends they do not have a serious problem, and may not attempt to drink less in front of others as this could show friends or family that they have an issue.
While some people may believe that quitting drinking is easy, safe, or mind over matter, quitting without medical supervision or cold turkey can lead to very serious health complications, especially in the case of heavy or prolonged drinking.
Willpower and determination may not always be enough to stop drinking, as alcohol addiction means that a person's brain has been hijacked.
In fact, if someone has been drinking very heavily for many years, some brain changes may be permanent. Addiction treatment is the best possible solution if someone wants to quit alcohol, even if they have not been abusing it for a long time.
If alcohol is suddenly removed from the body, such as when a chronic, heavy drinker stops drinking immediately, unpleasant and sometimes dangerous, life-threatening effects of withdrawal will occur.
Depending on the amount and duration of alcohol use or abuse, a person may experience mild, moderate, or severe withdrawal symptoms when attempting to stop drinking.
The first 48 hours following after quitting drinking usually present the most intense symptoms, while other symptoms could keep reoccurring and cause a person to drink again even years after quitting alcohol.
The most common mild symptoms include:
Moderate symptoms could include withdrawal seizures, which typically occur between 12 and 24 hours after cessation. The trouble is that about half of people who have experienced withdrawal seizures will progress to experience a life-threatening psychotic state, known as delirium tremens.
Delirium tremens is the most severe symptom of alcohol withdrawal, and it can alter senses and cause dysfunction of vital functions in the body. Symptoms include hypertension, agitation, excessive sweating, agitation, abnormally high blood pressure, visual hallucinations, and a very fast heart rate. Without proper treatment, it could lead to death.
Any person who is dependent on alcohol or has underlying mental health problems should seek treatment. While some tips could help a person drink less, an alcohol use disorder or addiction requires professional help.
But for others, simply cutting back can reduce their risk for addiction, and trying to stay sober can help prevent the development of a use disorder. Some tips for reducing drinking include:
With altered brain chemistry, an attempt to stop drinking is best done under supervision. At a treatment center, medical staff could use medicines to help manage withdrawal symptoms during detox. As alcohol and its toxins leave the body, a person can obtain a clearer mind and transition into addiction treatment.
Various types of therapies at a treatment center can help a person identify the reasons for starting alcohol use in the first place, as well as any triggers for returning to drinking and how to respond to these healthily.
Addiction is addressed with inpatient treatment, while an outpatient treatment program can expand sober support beyond the treatment center. This can come in the form of group therapy or support groups, ensuring long-term recovery and helping a person to maintain sobriety.
If you or a loved one wants to stop drinking, Vita Recovery can provide you with the right treatment.With an innovative and modern approach, the staff at our world-class facility can design a treatment program tailored to your needs.
With years of experience in alcohol and drug addiction, Vita Recovery can help you start your recovery, today.