Alcohol Abuse Treatment, Symptoms, Effects, Recovery

By The Fix staff 12/13/14

In our time, alcohol abuse is one of those really sneaky, insidious activities that can wreak havoc in any social or economic environment.

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Alcohol in one form or another has been part of human life for at least the past two thousand years, probably longer. Before water purification, drinking alcoholic beverages was one of the few ways to consume liquids free of disease-causing agents. Back then, though, the amount of alcohol in a drink was much lower than what is in an alcoholic beverage today.

In our time, alcohol abuse is one of those really sneaky, insidious activities that can wreak havoc in any social or economic environment. Drinking alcohol in and of itself does not mean abuse is inevitable. However, the number of alcoholic drinks a person consumes per occasion can increase so gradually they don't even notice. Suddenly, they have become a problem drinker. However, abuse is not about sheer quantity of alcohol taken in, it's more about a person's state of mind and the consequences that result from drinking.

Alcohol abuse is not necessarily alcoholism, but alcoholism is the severest form of alcohol abuse. The major distinction between the two is that alcoholism includes physical dependence on alcohol to function.

How It Often Starts

One drink won't hurt. For most people, this is true. The question of abuse arises when the reason for drinking changes from a "nice-to-do" to a "have-to-do" and the drinking gets out of control. This change usually centers around coping with:

1. Sudden change in circumstances, like a layoff from work, death, serious illness of self or a loved one, a move to a different place, or any unexpected event.

2. Feelings of inadequacy, which can occur all at once or gradually.

3. Feeling the need to keep up with others.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institute of Health, an estimated 17 million adults ages 18 and older had an alcohol-use disorder in 2012. This is not an alcoholism statistic, it reflects the large number of people who drink more alcohol than the definition of moderate drinking.

Different Types of Alcohol Abuse

There are two basic types of alcohol abuse:

1. Building up a tolerance to where it takes more drinks to gain the same effect as previously. A person ends up drinking more alcohol. This is actually a physical consequence of abusing alcohol.

2. A person doesn't drink any alcohol for a while (days, weeks, or even months), then consumes a large quantity at one time. Often, this individual does not think they have a problem because of the amount of time between drinking bouts. Binge drinking occurs when more than five drinks are consumed on one occasion.

Signs and Symptoms

Alcohol abuse, as mentioned before, is a function of the underlying reasons for drinking. The first occasion may occur because of curiosity or peer pressure, but continuing to drink alcohol after that usually stems from some kind of emotional or psychological reason. If this kind of drinking continues long enough, physical dependence and severe abuse can occur.

Some of the warning signs are cited by Helpguide.org: Some indications that alcohol use has slid into alcohol abuse are:

1. Neglecting on a regular basis what needs to be done at home, work, or school because of drinking, especially when a hangover is involved. Any kind of physical consequence, in fact, especially when it happens repeatedly, is a warning that abuse is going on.

2. Using alcohol in risky situations, such as drinking and driving, or operating machinery when enough alcohol is on board to cause distorted perception, is a red flag for an alcohol drinker. Mixing alcohol with prescription medications (even when the prescribing professional or pharmacist declares such behavior is not safe) is another warning sign of alcohol abuse.

3. Accumulating legal problems on account of consuming alcohol, like DWIs or drunk and disorderly conduct. Legal issues can also directly affect a person's financial health. Fines and legal fees can destroy savings or a budget.

4. Drinking as a way to relax or de-stress. If the first reaction to a bad day or an argument with a loved one results in reaching for a bottle of any kind of alcohol, that is a warning that coping skills need to be expanded. There are more productive ways to deal with stress, but because alcohol is perceived as a quick and easy fix, people often turn to it before trying other things.

Consequences

Physical Health

Anyone who has drunk too much alcohol, whether by accident or design, has experienced being drunk. Effects of drinking too much (a different amount for each person) include, but are not limited to, losing inhibitions, dizziness, dehydration, balance and speech issues, unclear thinking, and uncoordinated movements. Often, these sensations are mildly pleasurable. One occurrence of drunkenness is not usually a problem, but when it happens on a frequent or regular basis, negative consequences ensue. Many, MANY physical problems are scientifically proven to be caused or aggravated by alcohol. A short list includes cirrhosis of the liver, endocrine system derangements, liver failure, and neurological issues.

The most dramatic physical consequence, however, is what alcohol abuse does to the physical brain. Not to put too fine a point on it, the brain controls everything living things do. Everything. The brain directs everything from taking the next breath to falling in love. So, here is what's damaged most when the brain is routinely bombarded by alcohol:

Prefrontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for planning, decision-making, critical thinking, social skills, emotional recognition, and judgment.

Temporal lobe – the part of the brain involved in making and keeping visual memories, processing sensory input, understanding language, storing new memories, expressing emotion, and interpreting meaning.

Hippocampus – the part of the brain that plays a major role in converting short-term memory to long-term memory and in spatial navigation. Being able to move around without bumping into things, finding short cuts and alternate routes, and helping the brain remember things on the whole are major components of functioning successfully in the world.

Mental Health

When alcohol is abused, the circumstances of which have a unique component for each individual, a number of aspects of the problem must be factored in. A person's mental health, which is now routinely considered the biggest part of a person's overall health, affects how effectively anyone navigates life. Alcohol abuse impairs brain function, which has a domino effect on every part of a person's life. It is impossible to deal well with family, friends, work, play, school, financial affairs, spiritual undertakings, relationships with others, or almost anything else when brain function is compromised.

A large part of brain health is mental health, which is mostly invisible. A healthy mind gives a person optimal ability to receive, interpret, prioritize, and respond to what is going on around them. Because humans are physical beings, a large component of mental health is the physical working of the brain. Anything that compromises the physical health of the brain compromises the ability of the person to function.

Complicating Factors

1. Genetic predisposition – having the gene(s) that make it easier to develop a condition. The advances in biological technology have made it possible to learn very specific things about a person's individual makeup. Researchers have even discovered a gene that, when active, can cause a person to be more susceptible to developing an addiction problem. Having an addiction gene, however, does not mean a person will automatically become addicted to alcohol. Environmental and emotional factors play a large role in the overall picture.

2. Pre-existing condition – sometimes, a physiological condition (like a weak digestive system or a depressed immune system) exists that makes it easier for the body to suffer the consequences of alcohol use. Actual quantities may fall into the moderate or social categories, but because of the pre-existing physiological condition, the effects are more severe.

3. Mental illness – a person who may have a mental (and therefore invisible) illness may experience brain damage from alcohol use over and above what is already there. Because the brain is not routinely looked at in cases of psychiatric or psychological issues, this damage may not be discovered. Primary evidence of a problem is visible behavior and responses to questions asked by a mental health professional. Treatments for mental illnesses are medications, psychotherapy, or both. A brain made even less functional by alcohol cannot work accurately or optimally.

Luckily, recent research has found the brain to be capable of changing. Doctors and scientists call this plasticity. It is possible to reverse, or minimize, the ill effects of alcohol abuse on the brain once a person stops drinking alcohol (abstinence) or reduces alcohol consumption to a level that is not harmful to the individual (harm reduction). Seeking any kind of help when alcohol abuse is suspected has unique aspects for each person and must be treated on a case-by-case basis. There are as many reasons for drinking and sliding into abusing alcohol as there are individuals who drink. Solutions to the issues involved must be equally as unique.

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