Although the terms alcohol addiction and alcohol dependence are often used interchangeably, the two are actually quite different. With dependence, people are still capable of making conscious decisions about their drinking. With addiction, drinking is an uncontrollable habit and one that affects every corner of the individual’s life.
Despite this distinction, both can have serious consequences. People who drink heavily and often usually have a hard time staying on top of their personal responsibilities, maintaining their relationships, and managing their careers. Regular and prolonged alcohol use can also take a serious toll on a person’s health. Whether dependent or addicted, someone who drinks heavily has a higher likelihood of developing problems such as:
- Liver disease
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
Thus, when considering alcohol dependence vs addiction, it’s important to note that there’s never a bad time to seek help. Addiction doesn’t happen overnight and usually takes place in distinct, progressive stages. Dependence is just one small move away from addiction, and its effects can be just as disastrous.
With any form of a substance use disorder, dependence can be considered abuse. When people are dependent upon or abusing alcohol, they have exceeded the bounds of what is considered normal, social use, and they’ve likely been experiencing problems as a result.
A dependent person, however, can usually make reasonable assessments of the drawbacks and consequences of drinking and can choose to limit consumption or stop it outright. People who are dependent may be able to pull themselves away from oncoming problems with addiction on their own. Conversely, those who are addicted do not think rationally about alcohol and its consequences, and they are rarely able to help themselves become sober and stay that way.
Inappropriate Alcohol Use and Choosing to Stop
At its simplest, the difference between alcohol dependence vs alcohol addiction is the power of choice. Even with highly inappropriate use and regular, excessive consumption, a dependent person possesses the power to walk themselves back to a balanced state of functioning.
This, however, has less to do with willpower and more to do with changes that have or have yet to occur within the brain, and within the central nervous system (CNS) functioning. The more and the longer that a person drinks; the more likely adverse CNS changes become. With even just a single alcoholic beverage, brain functioning changes. Drinking temporarily blocks chemical signals between neurons within the brain thereby creating short-term symptoms of intoxication including:
- Impulsive behavior or loss of impulse control
- Slurred speech
- Decreased memory and cognitive functioning
- Poor reflexes and reduced reaction times
These symptoms gradually abate as the body processes the alcohol, and as blood alcohol levels slowly decrease. When heavy drinking becomes routine, however, the brain invariably adapts to its new way of functioning. Rather than working to fix or restore blocked signals, it increases its response to chemicals called neurotransmitters.
Once full-blown addiction occurs, the brain will continue over-activating neurotransmitters as a means of adaptation, even when a person isn’t actively drinking or isn’t intoxicated. It is this very activity that leads to painful and potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms when people attempt to abstain on their own. These are the symptoms that eliminate the power of choice, and that serves as a hallmark of full-blown addiction.
If you or someone you love is drinking alcohol inappropriately, determining whether or not addiction exists can be extremely difficult. That’s because one of the common characteristics of addiction is denial. Most addicts believe that they can stop drinking or stop using substances any time they want to. They think that quitting is as simple as mustering up and leveraging enough willpower for successfully navigating the detox process.
In reality, however, although most withdrawal symptoms will naturally abate approximately 24 to 72 hours after a professional or self-managed detox has been started, there is always more work to do before the risk of relapse becomes sufficiently low. It takes time for the brain to heal from alcohol addiction, and time for neurological functioning to completely return to normal.
Moreover, the people who tend to be most successful in their recovery efforts are those who receive multi-pronged therapies for understanding the underlying causes of their addictions. They learn new coping strategies and establish healthy and ultimately sustainable lifestyles.
A person who thinks that they can quit drinking at any time may be in for a big surprise once they begin detoxing. Detoxing without the right medical support can actually leave a person at risk of suffering long-term physical harm.
When someone is addicted to alcohol, unmitigated symptoms of withdrawal can become quite severe. In addition to the mild headaches, slight nausea, and general digestive upset that come as part of mild detox symptoms, people are also at risk of developing delirium tremens. When this occurs, a person may begin to hallucinate, experience severe and whole-body tremors, or have seizures. Delirium tremens can also lead to rapid and significant changes in key vital signs including:
- Blood glucose levels
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate
At Mississippi Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, we offer comprehensive support for people recovering from alcohol addiction. Our medically assisted treatment is designed to mitigate, minimize, and even prevent some of the most common and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Our team understands the difference between alcoholism and alcohol dependence and is well-versed in leveraging the right strategies for making detox easier on each patient, irrespective of how severe, long-running, or detrimental their alcohol use has been.
Detox and Post-Acute Withdrawal Symptoms
With detox for addiction, recovering alcoholics must additionally be prepared for the onset of PAWS. These are post-acute withdrawal symptoms and they occur after the body has physically recovered from the ravages of abstinence, and just as people are ready to move on to more in-depth aspects of addiction treatment.
With PAWS, people can struggle with insomnia, anxiety, depression, frustration, and general malaise among many other things. Whether taking part in our intensive outpatient program, our inpatient program, or our medically assisted detox, our clients consistently receive dynamic, needs-specific support for staying on track, and for ensuring their physical and mental well-being.
If you or someone you love is in need of treatment for alcohol use disorder, we can help. Call Mississippi Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center today at 855-334-6120.