If you remember your very first sip of alcohol, you probably recall its pungent smell, and its sharp, acrid-seeming taste. On its own, alcohol is rarely appealing to the palate, especially for those who are just experimenting with it.
Because of this, consumers and bartenders have devised countless ways for softening, refining, and even concealing the distinctively intense flavor. Despite this quality, many people cannot seem to get enough of it. In fact, some people can’t stop drinking alcohol even though it’s wreaking absolute havoc on every aspect of their lives.
What makes alcohol so addictive? Alcohol may give people a sense of false confidence, and may even temporarily alleviate their depression, anxiety, or other physical or emotional pain. Alcohol addiction has far less to do with how it makes people feel, and more to do with how they feel without it.
Alcohol Effects on the Brain
Although alcohol is widely consumed, there’s one critical point that few people know about. When someone drinks heavily for an extended period of time, alcohol is capable of causing three forms of brain damage. As this damage occurs and progresses, it invariably takes away the power of choice.
Thus, when people are addicted to alcohol, they aren’t drinking it for its taste or for any short-term term feelings of elation. Instead, they’re drinking to stave off excruciating, dangerous, and incredibly severe symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, given that their bodies no longer know how to function without it.
When it comes to alcohol addiction and its causes, there are definite arguments for the “feel good” sensations that drinking provides. After all, drinking alcohol incites the release of “feel good” chemicals within the brain such as endorphins and dopamine.
When people are genetically predisposed to alcohol use disorder, their brains react differently to alcohol consumption. The neurological response to alcohol within the bloodstream results in a greater release of endorphins and dopamine, and significantly heightened feelings of confidence, relaxation, and general euphoria. This elevated response makes them more likely to turn to alcohol when needing or simply seeking an emotional boost.
If you ask an alcoholic, “Why is alcohol addictive?”, they’ll likely respond by simply stating that it makes them feel good. Sadly, it also makes them more prone to developing problems with alcohol dependence. Alcohol dependence occurs when the brain’s normal functioning has undergone considerable and potentially long-term changes as the result of alcohol use.
These changes include:
- The over-activation of neurotransmitters to compensate for alcohol’s ongoing effects on basic brain functions
- “Burn-out” due to prolonged misfiring or over-activated neurotransmitter response
- Measurable losses in actual brain matter
As a person’s brain changes due to alcohol use, the body becomes increasingly unable to maintain a sense of equilibrium during long periods of abstinence. In fact, after just six to eight hours of abstinence, an alcoholic can experience dramatic fluctuations in their blood sugar, blood pressure, and heart rate. Nearly every system within the body responds to prolonged abstinence with extreme distress.
For an addicted individual, abstinence can quickly lead to sweating, tremors, nausea, memory loss, and even hallucinations and seizures. Although someone who’s merely abusing alcohol has the power to make the conscious decision to stop, dependence or actual addiction frequently makes it physically and psychologically impossible for alcoholics to change their behaviors without professional help.
The Psychological Factors That Drive Alcohol Use Disorder
Being addicted to alcohol is the same as being physically and chemically dependent upon it. However, understanding the factors that increase the likelihood of dependence is important. The line between alcohol abuse and addiction is a very fine one indeed.
With a better understanding of why they’re more predisposed to heavy drinking, people can make the conscious decision to abstain while they still have the power to do so. More importantly, this understanding is also a critical part of the addiction recovery process.
Being addicted to alcohol is not a personal shortcoming or a sign of weakness. Instead, it is a disease. When people know the factors that cause and exacerbate their disease, they are less likely to convince themselves that having “just one drink” will be unproblematic.
With genetic predisposition, certain physiological factors alter how the brain responds chemically to alcohol use. For those who are genetically predisposed, the desire to drink and the appeal of alcohol itself are largely defined by the tremendous feelings of well-being and happiness that are incited by imbibing.
However, for other people, the risk factors for addiction are largely psychological in nature. For instance, some people drink due to low self-esteem and an overwhelming desire to fit in. This is a common catalyst for alcoholism among young adults, and among those who have experienced substantial physical, emotional, or even sexual abuse during their formative years of life.
Whether young or old, for those who live with addiction as the result of low self-worth, one of the major challenges in accepting and receiving treatment is recognizing their value. Recovering addicts must believe themselves worthy of getting fresh starts, and worthy of leading normal, healthy, and ultimately happy lives.
Addiction to alcohol can also be due to unresolved trauma, or unresolved feelings of shame, guilt, or grief. For example, people who have experienced severe trauma or are currently experiencing trauma may be using alcohol as a coping tool. With this manner of alcohol addiction, alcohol is used by people to self-medicate or as a form of comfort.
With prolonged use, short and long-term changes in brain chemistry make it difficult to stop. As ever, once the body becomes dependent, people will continue using alcohol even when it is no longer an effective means for alleviating their emotional pain.
There are also many co-occurring disorders or comorbidities that can make people more predisposed to addiction. Those who live with undiagnosed and untreated anxiety disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder are at a higher risk of both alcohol use disorder and substance use disorder.
Much like unresolved emotional pain, untreated mental health issues cause people to use substances as a means of self-treatment. As such, in addition to the major changes in brain functioning that invariably present with long-term alcohol use, the answer to “Why is alcohol addictive?” can actually vary quite a bit from one person to the next.
Treatment for Alcohol Addiction in Mississippi
At Mississippi Drug and Alcohol Treatment Center, we understand alcoholism as a painful, progressive, and incredibly challenging disease. Our intensive outpatient and inpatient programs provide people with access to a diverse range of tools for overcoming their addictions. These include medically assisted detox services, group and individual counseling, cognitive behavioral therapy, and more. If you believe that you’re addicted to alcohol and want help in finding your way back to sobriety and good health, we’re always available to provide it. Call us now at 855-334-6120.