Alcohol use disorder or alcohol addiction is currently recognized as a chronic mental health issue. People cannot overcome alcohol addiction by simply abstaining for a sufficient period of time. Although getting sober is certainly one step in the recovery process, those who live with alcohol use disorder must maintain an ongoing commitment to managing this illness.
Living with alcohol use disorder can look very different from person to person. Some people are functional alcoholics who live seemingly normal lives and others are visibly ravaged by their conditions. Just as alcohol addiction can manifest in many different ways and for many different reasons, there’s no single treatment method that’s guaranteed to work well for everyone. Exploring different rehab options and learning more about the various modalities used for treating alcoholism is an important step towards finding the best and most needs-specific help for you or your loved one.
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism or alcohol use disorder occurs when people no longer have the ability to stop drinking. Most people start drinking alcohol in a purely recreational way. They might drink at parties or at other social events, but they don’t feel the need to drink every day. Daily drinking or regular drinking is the next step on the path to alcohol addiction. When regular drinking creates major behavioral, physical, and emotional changes, it is beginning to evolve into alcohol abuse. When people abuse alcohol, they often continue drinking even though doing so is causing problems in their:
- Personal relationships
- Professional lives
Alcohol abusers drink to excess and regularly put themselves and others in danger as a result.
Alcohol addiction is distinguished from alcohol abuse in that those who are addicted often experience painful and progressive symptoms when they stop drinking. These are known as withdrawal symptoms. For some people, withdrawal symptoms can start manifesting just five to 10 hours after they’ve had their last drink.
In a clinical setting, alcohol use disorder is diagnosed as a brain disease. This reflects the way in which prolonged, heavy drinking impacts the brain and its chemistry. If you’re concerned about an increasing need to drink, you can talk with your general doctor. Your doctor may diagnose you with alcohol use disorder if you feel as though:
- You have to drink in order to maintain a sense of normalcy
- You no longer have the ability to control the amount of alcohol you consume
- You feel physically and emotionally unwell when you’re unable to drink or when you go too long without a drink
All of these things indicate alcohol dependency.
Signs of an Alcohol Problem
Whether a person is abusing alcohol or dealing with full-blown alcohol addiction, they’ll likely exhibit a few tell-tale signs of a drinking problem. These can include:
- Lying about how much they drink
- Engaging in high-risk behaviors
- Frequent mood swings
- Increased aggression
- Bouts of anxiety or depression
- Dramatic changes in their personality and appearance
As people move closer to full-blown alcohol addiction, alcohol use increasingly becomes the most important thing in their lives. Sudden abstinence is both physically and psychological uncomfortable. When people with alcohol use disorder abstain for any extended period of time on their own, doing so can also be dangerous.
Is Alcoholism Treatable?
Alcoholism is treatable in the sense that it can be safely and successfully managed when the right help and support is received. However, recovering addicts must always maintain recovery as their foremost priority. When people stop attending sober meetings or taking advantage of other forms of post-treatment programs or support, their risk of relapsing dramatically increases. For an alcoholic, having even a single drink can result in a rapid return to full-blown addiction. This is even true for recovering alcoholics who’ve successfully abstained for several years.
The start of any successful alcohol addiction treatment is detoxing. Although abstinence alone is not an effective strategy for managing alcohol use disorder, it is a critical part of the process. The goal of detoxing is to safely eliminate alcohol from the body. The longer that you remain sober, the more that your brain and body can heal. The physical symptoms of alcohol detox typically last between 5 and 14 days depending upon a person’s history of use.
What many heavy drinkers and their loved ones do not know is that untreated alcohol use disorder can cause multiple forms of brain damage. Heavy drinking does more than alter the brain’s chemistry. It also alters brain functioning and brain size. Detoxing and maintaining your sobriety can help reverse many of these changes. However, the psychological effects of alcohol use can linger for a year or more. After a person’s initial, physical withdrawal symptoms have abated, they’ll likely experience post-acute withdrawal symptoms (PAWS). PAWS are largely psychological symptoms that include:
- Sleep troubles
To help recovering alcoholics stay the course, rehab professionals offer individual and group counseling, stress management workshops and activities, and other forms of support. In some instances, when people remain unable to control the urge to drink, certain medications may be prescribed. While these medications cannot cure alcohol use disorder, they can be an invaluable tool in the long-term management of this disease.
Treatment Options for Alcoholism
For many people, alcohol use disorder is not a standalone issue. It is often paired with unknown and untreated mental health disorders. Disorders such as major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, and general anxiety disorder among others can actually be catalysts for alcohol addiction. People frequently start drinking as a way to self-treat the emotional discomfort they feel. When this is the case, successful addiction treatment starts with the diagnosis and management of any co-occurring disorders that exist. Dual diagnosis treatment takes a thoughtful, needs-specific approach to manage both problems in a sustainable, healthy way.
Whether or not co-occurring disorders exist, therapy is an important part of alcohol addiction treatment. In rehab, individual and group counseling allow patients to explore the possible underlying causes of their addictions. These can include:
- Unresolved guilt or grief
- Low self-esteem
- Genetic predisposition to alcohol use disorder
As the underlying causes of addiction are identified, healthy coping techniques are taught so that patients learn how to deal with stress and other triggers without drugs or alcohol.
Starting With Your Primary Care Doctor
As with all forms of addiction, one of the hallmarks of alcohol use disorder is denial. In fact, one study suggests that just 14.6 percent of people living with lifetime histories of alcohol abuse or alcohol addiction receive professional treatment. With the help of enabling family members and friends, many people are able to live their lives as functioning alcoholics. Being able to go to work, pay your bills on time, and provide care for dependent family members aren’t sure signs that you aren’t living with addiction. Talking with your doctor about how you feel when you stop drinking, when you limit your drinking, or when you alter your normal drinking schedule will help you learn more about the process of addiction and where you are on this progressive path.
Even if your doctor does not diagnose you with alcohol use disorder, if the signs of alcohol abuse exist, you can receive recommendations for outside help. Working with your general doctor early on will also give you the opportunity to explore your options in medication treatment if these are applicable to your needs.
The most important thing to note about medication treatments for alcohol use disorder in rehab is that they are not cures. They are not guaranteed to be effective on their own, and they always work best when used with other treatment modalities. While taking medication as part of your addiction treatment, you will still be encouraged to:
- Participate in counseling sessions
- Take advantage of behavioral therapies
- Establish a long-term relapse prevention plan
- Take ongoing part in sober meetings
With multi-pronged treatment plans, recovering addicts will have greater support and more tools for dealing with triggers, cravings, temptation, and stress.
There are three drugs that are commonly used as part of professional treatment for alcohol problems. These are:
- Naltrexone (Revia)
- Acamprosate (Campral)
- Disulfiram (Antabuse)
Naltrexone blocks the feelings of elation and euphoria that people get from drinking. When a person drinks alcohol while using Naltrexone, they don’t feel relaxed, “high”, or any better than they did before. Acamprosate is used to minimize cravings and works best for people who’ve lived with untreated alcohol use disorder for an extended period of time and are considered extremely high-risk for relapse during the formative stages of recovery. Disulfiram is designed to cause nausea and vomiting when used with alcohol. Taking Disulfiram creates a negative association with alcohol so that cravings abate and the risk of repeated relapse declines.
Certain medications for alcohol use disorder are believed to be significantly more effective when used before drinking only. For instance, one Finland researcher claimed an 80 percent success rate when prescribing Naltrexone according to this method. Rather than causing sickness when alcohol is consumed, Naltrexone fosters gradual changes in behavior.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is commonly a part of treatment plans for alcohol use disorder. CBT differs from the general talk therapy that’s supplied in many group counseling sessions in that it focuses on identifying negative thought patterns and then replacing these with positive ones. CBT is a short-term therapy that’s usually completed within just 12 weeks. It is an excellent treatment tool for people with low self-esteem, traumatic experiences in their pasts, and a tendency to cave to peer pressure.
CBT has three primary goals:
- Identify and change negative thinking
- Identify and change hurtful or self-destructive behaviors
- Teach new and healthier coping strategies
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) is an alternate form of CBT. While this therapy type shares the same goals, it also focuses on validating the pain, behaviors, and experiences of the individual. In DBT, patients have the opportunity to explore and work through the events or emotions that drive their addictions. DBT is often helpful for people who are struggling with excessive guilt and grief, and for those with traumatic childhoods, post-traumatic stress disorder, or other forms of trauma that have caused them to use alcohol as a coping tool.
Ongoing Care for Alcoholics
Alcohol recovery has a definite beginning but no definite end. It is a lifelong journey. The risk of relapsing always exists. However, the rates of relapse among recovering alcoholics drop significantly as time goes one. To limit the likelihood of relapse and to make recovery both easier and more comfortable, quality rehab programs encourage participants to plan ahead. Before ending your time in any inpatient or outpatient rehab, you’ll take part in:
- Goal-setting activities
- Life-planning workshops
- Relapse prevention planning
and more. Rehab professionals also take steps to help patients establish sustainable lifestyles by providing them with information and access to financial, legal, and housing resources. Many people exiting treatment choose to extend their time in structured treatment by spending several months in sober living homes or halfway houses.
At Mississippi Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, we offer multiple forms of aftercare support. These include ongoing medical maintenance as needed, access to sober living facilities, and both intensive outpatient programs (IOPs) and partial hospitalization programs (PHPs). When the risks of relapse are determined to be high, IOPs and PHPs are both effective options for following up a stay in inpatient rehab.
Do You Have a Drinking Problem?
Have you been having a hard time limiting your alcohol use? Are you drinking causing legal, financial, or professional problems? Has drinking negatively impacted your most meaningful relationships? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, getting help now is the best choice. Whether you’re a functional alcoholic, someone who’s abusing alcohol but not yet chemically dependent, or suffering the ravages of full-blown addiction, we can help. Call us today to speak with one of our admissions counselors.