Different Terms and Definitions
There are many different terms to describe an addiction to alcohol. Alcohol abuse means bingeing, but not necessarily being addicted. Bingeing is defined as having a Blood Alcohol Concentration of 0.8 g/dl or above. This usually happens when people consume more than four drinks in two hours.
Alcoholism or alcohol dependency is when a person is psychologically or physically dependent on alcohol. Alcohol dependency is a progressive condition, which means it gets worse over time.
The American Medical Association states that alcohol addiction is a disease that has specific symptoms and requires special treatment. However people define themselves; if a person cannot stop drinking, they should seek professional help, and the first step towards recovery is recognizing that there is a problem.
“Acceptance is the answer to all my problems today.” Alcoholics Anonymous
How Alcohol Works
Alcohol has both stimulant and depressant effects. When a person drinks a small amount, the alcohol causes a release of dopamine. This produces feelings of pleasure, which can be highly addictive and is responsible for the giddy, elated feeling when you first drink.
However, we are hardwired to want to recreate experiences we enjoy, as our survival instinct assumes it is something that helps us.
As we drink more, alcohol’s depressant effects start to kick in. This means that it slows down the Central Nervous System (CNS) by enhancing the effects of the chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This produces a feeling of calmness, sedation, and confidence. It also lowers the heart and breathing rate.
Alcohol also lowers brain activity and neural functioning. Drinking more than the bodies’ tolerance level or drinking heavily over time can increase the depressant effects of alcohol.
Over time, the more serious effects on your Central Nervous System can include:
- Slurred speech
- Unsteady movement
- Slow reactions
- Cognitive impairment
- Memory loss
- In severe cases: respiratory failure, coma, or death
Common Symptoms of Alcoholism:
- Having a compulsive desire to drink
- Thinking or worrying about where your next drink will come from
- Planning social arrangements or your diary around drinking
- Not being able to stop drinking once you have started
- Feeling the urge to drink as soon as you wake up
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking alcohol
When we drink for an extended period, our brain gets used to alcohol, and our nervous system ‘overfires’ to compensate to bring us back to equilibrium. However, our nervous system and brain take time to adjust, and stopping can be a massive shock to the system.
When the nervous system overfires, it causes a wide range of physical and emotional withdrawal symptoms.
Typically, when people start to experience withdrawal symptoms, they will want to drink more to avoid them. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms can range from mild to severe. Experiencing any of the following symptoms could indicate that you have a problem.
Common Withdrawal Symptoms:
- Anxiety or nervousness
- Feelings of depression or being ‘down.’
- Mood swings
Serious Withdrawal Symptoms:
- Delerium Tremens (the DTs)
- High blood pressure
- Seizures (both mild and severe)
- Heart problems, including irregular heartbeat
Without medical intervention, alcohol withdrawal is very uncomfortable and can be fatal. Professionals can help ease the effects of withdrawal with medication and therapy.