Alcohol is one of the most common addictions in the United States. It is sold in grocery stores, convenience stores and restaurants and is one of the easiest addictive substances to access. Most adult social gatherings include alcohol and many people use alcohol socially on a regular basis without developing an addiction to it. The line between social drinking and alcohol dependence can be crossed with little warning. It is important to understand the physical impact of alcohol use on the body and the brain as well as the warning signs of addiction. It is also important to understand how difficult it can be for someone addicted to alcohol to seek treatment and what form that treatment will take once they do decide to ask for help. Despite its social acceptance, alcohol abuse can lead to a spiral of addiction that has a serious impact on the body and the mind.
Alcohol can take many forms, including beer, wine and different varieties of liquor. Alcohol is a byproduct of the interaction of yeast and sugar in the fermentation process. In spite of its addictive properties, the DEA does not classify alcohol as a controlled substance. Alcohol serves to suppress the central nervous system. At lower dosages, alcohol acts as a stimulant. In higher dosages, alcohol also acts as a sedative. In higher levels is causes diminished reactions of the central nervous system. Alcohol is considered a socially accepted way for people to “let loose” or relax. “Happy hour” is generally regarded as a time to use alcohol to de-stress from the workday and socialize with friends.
Alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream. The liver is designed to metabolized alcohol, but it can only handle a small amount of alcohol at a time (typically the equivalent of one drink per hour). The remainder of the alcohol in the body is absorbed into the bloodstream where it impacts the central nervous system. This manifests is slurred speech, difficulty with walking and coordination, and slower reaction times. At extremely high dosages, alcohol can impact the respiratory system and the individual’s breathing, which can lead to death. Over time, excessive alcohol use can cause brain damage, cirrhosis of the liver, pancreatitis, or even certain cancers. Women who drink alcohol while pregnant risk delivering a baby who is addicted to alcohol at birth.
Alcohol acts as a stimulant in the brain. As a stimulant, alcohol causes feelings of euphoria, increased sociability, and decreased inhibitions. At higher doses, the suppression of the central nervous system causes drowsiness. At extremely high doses, alcohol can cause a blackout, resulting in a total loss of short-term memory or even a coma. As with all drugs, once the alcohol leaves the bloodstream, the individual “crashes,” experiencing severe fatigue and headaches. Over time, the human brain is remarkably adaptable. The more alcohol a user drinks, the more the brain adapts to the presence of alcohol in the bloodstream. This adaptation requires the user to increase their alcohol use over time to maintain their high, which can lead to addiction.
The most common sign of alcohol addiction is the inability to stop drinking. Individuals who are addicted to alcohol may feel a sense of powerlessness and a feeling that their alcohol use is out of their control. They may also feel depressed when they aren’t drinking, as that is when they are faced with an often-unpleasant reality. Individuals with an addiction to alcohol require numerous drinks in order to function on a daily basis. In addition to the increased alcohol tolerance, the central nervous system might react to a lack of alcohol by causing the body to shake uncontrollably.
For those around the user, there are signs to look for that should clue them in that something isn’t right. Alcoholics may hide their drinking and get annoyed when others criticize their drinking. Conversely, they may flaunt their drinking and publicly engage in risky behavior or otherwise act out of character. They may get traffic tickets or even get arrested for driving under the influence. They may also struggle to keep their job or maintain healthy relationships. Some other things to look out for include frequently missing work or other important life events, financial problems, depression, lack of interest in things that previously brought them joy, and mood swings.
The decision to get treatment for alcohol abuse can be one of the most difficult decisions to make. Sometimes the individual makes that decision for themselves. Other times the decision is made for them by family, friends, or even law enforcement. The biggest barrier to seeking treatment is the belief that the alcohol addiction cannot be cured. The word “cured” is often a misnomer, because people recovering from addiction often remain in the recovery phase for the rest of their lives. It is more accurate to say that addiction can be managed very successfully, allowing the individual to lead a stable, healthy and productive life filled with love and friendships.
The decision to seek treatment can be even more difficult if the user has tried treatment in the past and relapsed. At that point it is easy to feel like treatment doesn’t work for you. But a relapse does not mean that recovery has failed. A relapse means that the treatment plan isn’t yet right for you. If a person with cancer doesn’t get optimal results from one cancer treatment, they don’t give up. They try another cancer treatment, and maybe even another, until they find the treatment that works for them. The human body is a complex machine and each brain has unique properties. The treatment for addiction must be highly specialized to the individual and it is not uncommon for the treatment team to try several different options before finding the right treatment for the individual.
Deciding to seek treatment for alcohol addiction is also difficult becomes it requires a moment of clarity that is unclouded by alcohol use. Often the user uses alcohol to hide from their reality and to mask fear, anxiety or other painful emotions. Finding that moment of clarity can be hard and is one of the reasons why alcohol users wait so long before seeking treatment. Too often, that moment of clarity comes after a life-changing incident, possibly one in which they’ve harmed or nearly themselves or someone else. The term “rock bottom” refers to this type of event; the kind of incident that you can’t ignore and one that jolts you into the realization that life cannot continue this way.
In some cases, the individual has a severe addiction and cannot find that moment of clarity in which they realize that they need help. In those cases, it might be up to the individual’s friends and family to help them see that they need help to manage their addiction. While treatment is proven to be more effective when an individual enters voluntarily, in the case of a severe addiction, the most important thing is to get them treatment, regardless of how they get there. However, if it is possible to convince the individual to enter voluntarily, the treatment will typically be more effective in the long term.
Some of the hesitance toward treatment could be caused by the fear of the withdrawal process. While it is true that the withdrawal process can be unpleasant, it will look different for each person that goes through it. Just like there is no “one size fits all” treatment process, there is also no one withdrawal journey. Each individual will experience withdrawal differently. How withdrawal symptoms manifest will depend on a variety of factors, such as the severity of the alcohol use before treatment, the overall mental state of the individual, and the person’s tolerance for pain and discomfort. What one person would describe as “excruciating,” another may escribe as “uncomfortable.” It is also important to remember that, although it can be intense and uncomfortable, withdrawal is temporary.
Withdrawal is a common term for the process of ridding the body of external chemical substances. When a person is addicted to an external chemical (often referred to as chemically dependent), the body adapts to function with the chemical and feels the absence of the chemical when it is withheld. A common example is that of caffeine. The three cup a day coffee drinker will feel sluggish and suffer from headaches if they suddenly give up their daily coffee. The body has adapted to function with a daily influx of caffeine. The absence of it causes the brain to send signals to the body to restore what it considers to be the balance.
In the case of alcohol withdrawal, individuals might experience numerous physical and mental symptoms. The body might experience nausea, vomiting, and shaking. Individuals going through alcohol withdrawal may also experience a loss of appetite, headaches, and insomnia. Mental symptoms of withdrawal from alcohol include anxiety, irritability, and depression. More serious symptoms include seizures and thoughts of suicide or self-harm. The brain of the alcoholic has become adapted to the regular presence of alcohol in the bloodstream. Once that regular alcohol “fix” is removed, the brain will begin to send the body signals in an attempt to restore that balance. The detoxification process is the process of teaching the body to recognize a new, healthier balance, without dependence on alcohol.
While in the withdrawal process, the individual may also feel a variety of physical and emotional symptoms. The first and most difficult to manage is the craving for alcohol. These cravings can take two forms. First; the body will crave alcohol as a way to minimize the other physical symptoms of withdrawal. Second, the brain misses the “high” that the alcohol brought with it and wishes to re-enter that state. In addition, since alcohol impacts the user’s central nervous system, those going through withdrawal may experience uncontrollable shaking as the body attempts to work without the artificial influence of alcohol. Withdrawal from alcohol can also cause changes in your mood. Due to the decrease in dopamine in the brain, depression is a common withdrawal symptom. This depression can become serious, even leading to suicidal thoughts.
How long the withdrawal period lasts can depend on a variety of factors, including the severity of the addiction, and the physical health and mental state of the individual. Typically, the detoxification process lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Even after the body has completed the process of ridding the body and brain of any dependence on alcohol, the individual will likely need to undergo additional treatment to address the reasons for their addiction as well as to learn coping mechanisms to learn to handle daily life without alcohol. The detoxification process, therefore, is the first step in a long treatment process.
Individuals with a mild dependence on alcohol might be able to wean themselves off without residential treatment. However, even people who detox at home should do so under the care and supervision of a physician. Detoxification can cause physical and emotional trauma. At a minimum the individual should seek support from a trusted friend or family member who can monitor the process and be on the lookout for warning signals that might require medical attention. For individuals with a more severe alcohol addiction, or those who don’t have a support system at home to assist them, the detoxification process should be monitored by both medical and mental health professionals in a controlled treatment setting. This can be in a hospital or a residential treatment center.
A residential treatment center offers many benefits to the individual who is facing the detox process. First, and most importantly, the center will be staffed with medical professionals that are specially trained to monitor and manage the withdrawal process. In some cases, there are medications the medical staff can provide to help minimize the more negative symptoms of alcohol withdrawal. For severe alcohol withdrawal symptoms, medications such as benzodiazepines to help treat symptoms like anxiety and insomnia. Medical supervision may also be necessary to monitor other withdrawal symptoms like high blood pressure, seizures or hallucinations.
How long the detoxification period lasts can depend on a variety of factors, including the severity of the addiction, and the physical health and mental state of the individual. Typically, the detoxification process lasts anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Even after the body has completed the process of ridding the body and brain of any dependence on alcohol, the individual will likely need to undergo additional treatment to address the reasons for their addiction to alcohol as well as to learn coping mechanisms to learn to handle daily life without alcohol. The detoxification process, therefore, is the first step in a long treatment process.
Once the detoxification process is complete, or at least well underway, the individual should start working with counselors and therapists to figure out a plan for moving forward in life without the aid of alcohol. The brain has been used to overcompensating for the depressive effects of alcohol on the brain and nervous system. It will take time for the brain to be retrained to function normally without the presence of alcohol. Mental health counseling is the cornerstone of any residential treatment program and can help those who used alcohol as a way to hide from painful feelings or situations. Counseling can also help the recovering addict process and move forward through the guilt that they feel about their alcohol use. Counseling can help to free the individual from that guilt and also help them to rebuild their relationships.
Residential treatment facilities provide a variety of different therapies to help individuals through the recovery process. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a therapy that challenges the thoughts, beliefs and attitudes that led to drug addiction. CBT is considered a problem-focused therapy in that it addresses current issues and helps to establish strategies to deal with those issues. A similar approach, dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) uses CBT techniques combined with mindfulness. In DBT, the individual learns about their tolerance for stress and the triggers that can cause an emotional reaction. They learn coping skills that can be used to avoid a negative spiral that could lead to relapse.
One of the most important benefits of residential treatment is the ability to interact with other people who are recovering from drug addiction. One of the therapies that residential treatment provides is group therapy. Group therapy allows individuals to hear other addiction journeys and to understand that they are not alone. Group therapy also gives individuals the opportunity to support others who are recovering. Whether it be an opinion on how to cope with a potential trigger, or just a kind word of encouragement, the power of peer support cannot be overstated. Another type of group therapy comes in the form of 12-step programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Even inside residential therapy, the 12-step mindset and road map can be extremely beneficial to someone struggling with recovery. It can provide some much-needed structure to a life that has been without structure during addiction.
Often residential treatment facilities provide some sort of alternative therapies as well. These can take many different forms and are often viewed by the residents of the facility as extra-curricular activities. While they can be fun activities, they also provide a therapeutic benefit. Art therapy, for example, can assist the individual in expressing emotions through art that they have been unable to express with words. Art is seen as a “safe” form of expression. An art therapist can then work with the individual to unpack the elements of their art and begin to work through the emotions that are reflected in the piece.
Another useful alternative therapy is equine therapy. Horses are beneficial in a therapy setting because they are seen as non-judgmental and are good at mirroring the emotions and attitudes of the people who care for them. If the individual is stressed or scared, the horse will reflect that stress or fear. Equine therapy encourages the individual to be in a calm, relaxed state while caring for the horse. The ability to choose to be calm is a powerful tool in the recovery toolbox.
At some point, the recovering individual needs to re-enter their daily life. The detoxification process and residential treatment should go a long way toward preparing the individual for this transition. At some point in the recovery process, the care team in residential facility will begin to prepare the individual to leave residential treatment. They will review triggers and coping mechanisms, discuss options for handling work, family and social obligations. They will either schedule regular visits back to the facility for outpatient treatment or pair the individual with a counselor in their area for regular visits.
Because alcohol is so prevalent throughout our society, and because drinking is common in social situations, people who suffer from an alcohol addiction need to remain vigilant with their coping mechanisms. A single drink doesn’t necessarily signal a relapse but could be the start of a slide back into alcohol use. Typically, recovering alcoholics continually need to practice abstinence from alcohol and are often hesitant to put themselves into situations where alcohol is present for fear of relapse. However, even if a person does relapse and begin using alcohol again, that doesn’t mean that their treatment has been a failure.
If an individual relapses and re-enters treatment, the chances are high that they will end up in long term recovery. Some warning signs of alcohol relapse include isolating themselves from others, re-establishing relationships with previous “drinking buddies,” missing meetings or therapy sessions, and talking fondly of alcohol or their drinking days.
Unlike narcotics or prescription drugs, alcohol can be purchased by anyone over the age of 21 without a prescription or permission. Because of the ease of access, alcohol requires a high level of self-control in order to maintain a healthy level of usage. Because drinking so often takes place in social situations, overuse can be gradual and hard to recognize. If you or someone you love is suffering from alcohol addiction, contact a treatment facility. They will have trained professionals to talk you through the admissions process and make sure all of your questions are answered. As the saying goes, the first step is admitting you need help. Once you take that first step, there will be a team on your side to help you be successful in your new future.