What causes someone to become an alcoholic?

Alcoholism is a chronic and debilitating disease of the mind and body caused by a physical and psychological dependence on alcohol. Around 7.2 percent of the adult American population had an alcohol-use disorder in 2012, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Some of the symptoms of alcohol dependence include:

  • Tremors the morning after you’ve drank
  • Alcohol-induced illnesses
  • Memory lapses due to blackouts while drinking
  • Withdrawal symptoms set in if you stop drinking for too long
  • Tolerance to alcohol that requires you to drink more than you used to
  • Failing to meet obligations because of your alcohol use
  • Inability to control how much you drink or stop after you’ve started
  • Finding excuses to drink

Cause and effect

Ever wonder what makes alcohol so addictive? Alcoholism has no one single cause. Rather, it is a detailed combination of genetic markers and environmental precursors all mixed together. There is definitely a hereditary role in the development of alcohol dependence, but no alcohol addiction gene has ever been isolated. Having a parent who is an alcoholic makes you four times more likely to be one yourself, per the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Likewise, environmental factors are part of the mix, too. Growing up in a household where alcohol is prevalent also ups the risk of alcoholism in your future.

Your upbringing contributes via involvement with peers as well, and the age at which you begin drinking. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. reports individuals who first use alcohol before the age of 15 are five times more likely to suffer from alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence than those who first used alcohol beginning at the age of 21 or older. In addition, parents who downplay the use of alcohol are likely contributing to the rates of alcoholism quite a bit.

Mental HealthMental health plays a largely significant role in all forms of substance abuse. Around 29 percent of all mentally ill individuals also engage in substance abuse, per Helpguide. Among alcoholics specifically, 37 percent have at least one serious mental health disorder, such as bipolar disorder, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The mentally ill often self-medicate with alcohol to cover up the symptoms of their disorder, which is often going untreated or undiagnosed altogether. Alcoholism is particularly common among people with schizophrenia. Everyday Health notes that schizophrenics engage in substance abuse nearly four times more than the general population. Booze provides great relief for many of these individuals who are struggling with symptoms of depression, paranoia, anxiety, and more.

Of course, some people have far simpler explanations for their drinking habits. Some will tell you they only drink to fit in with friends. Others will claim to stick with certain types of alcohol, noting they only have a problem with liquor, not beer or wine. Maybe they just don’t drink the hard stuff at all so they can’t possibly have a problem, because alcoholics only abuse whiskey and vodka, right? Some people find it hard to loosen up and have a good time in social situations without a little — or a lot of — liquid courage.

Denying a problem exists

What starts as regular happy hour visits with friends and colleagues can easily segue into something far more dangerous for the budding alcoholic. The NIAAA states 71 percent of adults reported past-year drinking in 2012, and many individuals drink more than is recommended. Per The New York Times, 28 percent of adults in the US drink at levels that place them at risk for alcoholism or alcohol-related problems. The typical college student who binges on booze to let loose on the weekends, the attorney who meets their office employees at the bar after work, and even the mother of two who drinks three or four glasses of wine to unwind in the evening — they may all be alcohol abusers.

Most alcoholics will spend a very long time in denial of their problem. This is especially common in the functional alcoholic who fails to recognize their alcohol abuse as a problem or addiction, because they’re holding down a job, keeping their family together, and meeting their social obligations. Society has long perpetuated the idea that alcoholics must fit some sort of stereotype in which they eventually hit the infamous rock bottom — losing everything that ever meant anything to them. The functional alcoholic often uses this stereotype to their advantage and hides behind it as an excuse to keep drinking.

Treatment for alcohol abuse

In 2008, 1.8 million people sought professional treatment for their substance abuse problem, and 41.4 percent did so for alcohol dependence, either alone or with other drugs, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports. Withdrawing from alcohol is certainly not a pleasant experience. While the process is often accompanied by side effects like nausea, trembling, depression, headaches, and excessive sweating, it can be effectively managed by medical professionals, helping to mitigate discomfort.

Medications can be prescribed to lessen the effects of alcohol withdrawal and to make the entire experience more bearable. These medications include benzodiazepines and anticonvulsants. As alcohol is one of the most commonly used substances, people often take it for granted and assume it isn’t as dangerous as other substances. During detox from alcohol, you can experience life-threatening side effects like delirium tremens, so it’s important that professionals oversee the process.

Complete detox followed by extensive rehab will strengthen your resistance to triggers as you move forward into a sober life. Call us to learn more about how you can leave alcohol behind and take back control of your life.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.