How addictive is alcohol?

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upset man sitting alone at a bar with a glass of whiskey in front of him
Alcohol addiction
The Hader Clinic
The Hader Clinic
November 24, 2020
minute read

Understanding the physiological appeal of alcoholic beverages

Alcohol is the most prevalent mind-altering substance in Australian society today. You'll find alcoholic beverages at the centre of every event and gathering, from baby showers to corporate mixers. Simply put, alcohol is everywhere. Its presence is inescapable.

Alcohol isn't just omnipresent — it's also the most harmful substance facing the nation. Ranked against 22 other substances, alcohol was determined to be the most damaging to users due to its contribution to illness, death, violence, relationship breakdown, and economic hardship.

So, just how addictive is alcohol? How does it get to work on the brain? Is it considered to be more addictive because of its presence in society? In this article, we'll be taking a look at some of these questions and what they mean for you.

The Hader Clinic is a leading alcohol addiction treatment facility. We offer safe detoxing and clinical in-patient treatment programs to help addicts overcome their addictions and find a way forward, free from drinking.

How does alcohol work on the brain?

Compared to designer drugs of today, alcohol is a fairly simple, almost primitive substance. Although it is easy to produce, it has many complex effects on the brain. The most noticeable effect of alcohol abuse is the blocking of certain receptors to the brain. This can lead to a range of behaviours at the time of consumption, including:

  • Impulsive behaviour free from inhibitions
  • Slurred speech and slowed reflexes
  • Poor memory and cognitive reasoning

As negative as these effects seem, they can manifest as positive experiences for the drinker. Alcohol affects neurotransmitters — the chemicals of the brain — acting to slow them down. On a chemical level, alcohol intoxication lessens feelings of stress and pain, making the substance an addictive crutch to deal with personal, professional, and family problems in day to day life.

Physical dependence on alcohol

silhouette of person drinking behind bottles of alcohol

The more the brain is subjected to heavy drinking, the more it needs to restructure itself to changes in chemistry. When the brain is denied alcohol, it still expects to receive it eventually. This manifests in physical dependence on alcohol — where the brain cannot function normally without the substance.

There are a number of signs of physical dependence on alcohol that drinkers and their loved ones should be aware of:

  • Nausea, sweating, shaking, and anxiety when not drinking
  • Blackouts, or lapses in memory from drinking
  • Needing to drink more to get the same feeling
  • Intense cravings for alcohol at all times

Physically, alcohol is incredibly addictive. The brain works hard to deal with its presence and will change its structure to welcome it back time and time again.

Psychological dependence on alcohol

The high prevalence of alcohol in society means that the brain comes to associate certain settings with its effects. For example, when Friday afternoon rolls around, your brain might start mentally preparing for knock-off drinks at the pub. Your stressful week at work was the trial. The reward is a few pints or an extended drinking session.

Psychological dependence on alcohol may arise in a variety of ways, including:

  • Having a strong urge to drink or get drunk
  • Losing control of how much one drinks
  • Drinking alone, or hiding drinking from loved ones
  • Struggling with work and family relationships for no reason

Psychologically, alcohol is very addictive. We associate alcohol with pleasure, good times, and celebration. Breaking this cycle is incredibly difficult, especially when we are surrounded by drinking in every facet of our lives.

Ongoing dependence on alcohol

As drinking habits evolve and progress, the brain adapts to more dramatic changes in neurotransmitters. Prolonged problem drinking can permanently restructure the brain to facilitate the constant influx of alcohol, leading to permanent behavioural changes. Some examples of long-term cognitive impairment include:

  • Issues with verbal fluency and learning
  • Poor processing speed
  • Failing memory and lapses in attention
  • Underdeveloped problem solving
  • Damaged spatial processing skills
  • Increased impulsivity

In fact, alcohol is attributed to playing a part in 29% of all dementia cases. Ongoing alcohol addiction can be incredibly harmful to not just drinkers, but their families and friends as well.

Breaking the cycle of addiction

Like all types of substance addiction, alcohol dependence can be incredibly hard to break away from. The substance is damaging and it is everywhere, making relapse a very high probability. Thankfully, with The Hader Clinic, you can begin recovery in safety and seclusion.

We begin treating alcohol addiction by helping alcoholics safely detox and manage withdrawals. Following this initial 28-day treatment, patients will transfer to our 60 to 90-day inpatient treatment facility, where they will learn to live without alcohol. Finally, upon successful treatment of this process, we offer outpatient programs to help patients avoid relapsing. We also offer a range of support programs for patients and their families following treatment.

As addictive as alcohol is, it is important to understand that it can be treated. All addicts have hope for freedom from addiction. A willingness to seek help is the first step towards recovery.

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