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What Does Alcohol Abuse Really Look Like?

Mental Health

Alcohol is a liquid that contains ethanol and is produced from the fermentation of grains, fruits, or other sources of sugar. Though it might seem like a modern and trendy substance, alcohol has actually been around for millenia. 

In fact, we have evidence of alcoholic drinks being made and enjoyed as far back as 7,000 BCE in China. Since then, alcohol has had a significant presence in our society, so much so that full eras of American life can be marked by the outlawing of alcohol(Prohibition), early morning whiskeys before noon, and nationwide campaigns meant to curtail drinking among groups like teenagers and pregnant women.

Indeed, you can’t attend a wedding, party, or even some work functions without spirits being readily available. When enjoyed responsibly, alcohol can be a tasty addition to any setting, but it’s also addictive and can be toxic to our bodies. But this isn’t news to most of us—alcohol abuse affects millions of people every year, whether as victims of abuse or as people affected by those struggling with an alcohol addiction. 

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 140,000 people die annually from alcohol misuse, making it one of the leading causes of preventable deaths. It is also linked to more than 200 disease and injury-related conditions, putting a significant strain on the healthcare industry as well as loss of productivity and quality of life.

Today we’ll explore the signs and effects of alcohol abuse and how you can guard yourself against it.

What is Alcohol Abuse?

Alcohol abuse, also known as alcohol addiction, alcohol use disorder (AUD), or alcoholism is a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. This kind of abuse steps from a ‘psychological addiction’ to alcohol, but, over time, heavy drinking can lead to a physical addiction, where the body craves alcohol.

Why Is Alcohol Abuse Harmful?

Alcohol is classified as a drug and can affect the way your body functions. Small amounts of alcohol can make you feel more relaxed or happy, but the substance is actually a depressant, meaning it slows down the messages that travel between your brain and your body and affects the way you think, feel, and behave.

What Does Alcohol Abuse Look Like?

For the CDC, moderation refers to a limit of two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women assuming the following drink standards are met:

While we suggest following the above recommendation, we know that the amount of alcohol consumed between casual drinking and abuse can feel like a blurry space for many. Some people are able to control their alcohol intake and stay sober after drinking 5 cocktails during a party. Others may not be able to say no to a second beer, even after realizing that their judgment is impaired. 

We encourage you to understand your personal limit of drinks that crosses you over into alcohol abuse, and to also understand the five stages of alcohol abuse/alcoholism. Many find themselves caught in the early stages of alcoholism without even realizing it so we want to help you better understand when excessive drinking crosses the line into alcoholism.

Stage One: Binge Drinking

Binge drinking occurs when someone has drunk so much alcohol that their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) is 0.08% or more. These amounts will be different between men and women, as men’s bodies can usually filter alcohol quicker than women’s.In general, binge drinking for men is five or more drinks in a few hours, while it’s four or more drinks for women. Individuals in this stage tend to be experimenting with alcohol and discovering the limits of how much their bodies can handle without going overboard. This is a common stage and challenging to identify as problematic.

Stage Two: Increased Drinking

Drinking without the company of others is stigmatized but it’s important to know if someone is drinking alone because this habit might be a telltale sign that they are in stage two: Increased drinking. This stage is characterized by someone drinking more frequently, like drinking alone after work or more frequently on weekends, instead of binge drinking once in a while or only with friends. This pattern may feel like a stress reliever or coping mechanism for the person but may actually lead to the next stage

Stage Three: Problem Drinking

By stage three, someone’s drinking is excessive enough that it’s noticeable by others and impacting their daily life. Someone struggling with this stage may be in denial that they have a problem but feel a deep sense of anxiety and depression from the consequences their drinking is having on their life. They may try to hide their drinking but it’s clear from their unhealthy, risky behaviors such as drunk driving or agitation in their relationships that their drinking is taking an incredible toll on them.

Stage Four: Dependence

During this stage, the person is not fully addicted to alcohol but when they stop drinking, will experience physical symptoms such as tremors, sleep problems, sweating, nausea, irritability, and rapid heartbeat when they decrease alcohol consumption. The individual is likely drinking large quantities, increasing their tolerance and requiring more alcohol to achieve the same effects as usual. Tolerance can lead to further physical and mental health consequences in the body and the potential of leading to addiction.

Stage Five: Addiction 

Individuals in this stage are both physically and psychologically addicted to alcohol. They need alcohol to get through the day, even if they no longer enjoy the act of drinking itself. Because of this addiction, the person is likely to be drawn to other addictive substances and is likely experiencing a number of harmful consequences of their addiction such as relationship, financial, and reputation loss. This is the most difficult stage of alcohol abuse and the hardest place to quit drinking. At this stage, a rehabilitation center is one of the most effective solutions, whereas therapy or abstinence might have curtailed alcohol abuse at earlier stages.

Alcohol Abuse Risk Factors

But alcohol abuse rarely develops quickly. Instead, it usually forms slowly over along period of time. It normally occurs as a result of a combination of factors:

Life Stressors

Life can throw some pretty stressful situations our way, and when that happens, alcohol may feel like a good distraction. Losing your job, a loved one, an accident, health issue, financial problem, or relationship trouble can lead to self-medication using alcohol. This self-medication may develop into alcohol abuse if left unchecked.

Coping With Trauma

If you’ve experienced trauma and never developed healthy ways of processing through what happened, you may develop unhealthy coping mechanisms like alcohol abuse. According to the National Library of Medicine, early-childhood trauma is strongly associated with developing alcohol dependence later in life. 

Home Environment and Genetics

Studies show that genetics can account for up to half of the risk for developing an alcohol use disorder, but environmental factors make up the rest of that risk. So someone with a family history of alcoholism will be at a higher risk of abusing alcohol themselves, however, avoiding environments that encourage overdrinking can help lower those risks. At the end of the day, genetics aside, if you have family members around you who abuse alcohol around you, this behavior may become normalized, encouraging the development of unhealthy alcohol use yourself.

Social Pressure

No matter your age range, you have peers who are doing things you’re not doing. Whether overtly or subtlety, you may feel pressure from them to do something you’d otherwise avoid. The same goes with alcohol use. Alcohol use in the US often occurs in social settings like social gatherings and work events. So when your significant other, friends, or colleagues drink regularly and encourage you to join them, it’s natural for you to want to join in. Drinking that’s coerced can quickly turn into abusive habits, especially if your social circle drinks multiple times a week in your presence.

Early-Aged Drinking

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), the younger the age of drinking onset, the greater the chance of you developing an alcohol use disorder in the future. The Institute found that young people who began drinking before the age of 15 were four times more likely to develop alcohol addiction than people who started drinking at the legal age.

All of the above factors can subtly lead to what’s known as ‘positive reinforcement’ over time. Positive reinforcement encourages certain patterns of behavior to form by offering a perceived ‘reward’ for that behavior.

When it comes to alcohol abuse, drinking can cause you to experience ‘positive’ outcomes such as feeling confident, relaxed and carefree. As a result, you’ll want to keep drinking in order to feel the same effects.

Consequences of Alcohol Abuse

Abuse and misuse of anything can cause harm, but prolonged alcohol abuse can especially lead to a range of negative consequences, some listed above. 

Among the many consequences of alcohol abuse are alcohol-related deaths. According to ReThinking Drinking, alcohol is a factor in about 30 percent of suicides, about 40 percent of fatal burn injuries, about 50 percent of fatal drownings and of homicides, and about 65 percent of fatal falls. Around 29 percent of all motor vehicle traffic fatalities involve drinking. 

Between 2006 and 2014, the rate of alcohol-related emergency department visits increased by nearly 50%, and about one-third of injuries treated at trauma centers are alcohol related. In addition, a significant number of sexual assaults involve alcohol use.

Violence, including homicide, suicide, and domestic abuse is a huge consequence of alcohol abuse. Because alcohol alters the mental state of individuals, including emotional processing and rational thinking, users often become unpredictable and dangerous. In fact, according to The World Health Organization (WHO) approximately 55% of domestic abuse perpetrators were drinking alcohol prior to assault.

When it comes to the physical body, drinking comes with a number of poor health outcomes. Alcohol abuse is often associated with risky sexual behaviors, including unprotected sex or sex with multiple partners. These behaviors can result in unintended pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections as well as miscarriages and stillbirths.

Alcohol can lead to problems managing conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, pain, and sleep disorders or trigger new problems like liver disease. Half of liver disease deaths in the United States are caused by alcohol. 

Women have an increased risk of developing breast cancer with increased alcohol use. In fact, research has shown that for each 10 grams of alcohol consumed (less than 1 standard drink) on an average daily basis, a woman’s chance of developing postmenopausal breast cancer increases by around 9 percent. Across the board, drinking increases the risk of cancers of the rectum, larynx, oral cavity, esophagus, pharynx, and colon. 

Heading a little further up the body, the consequences of alcohol abuse on the brain can be dire. Those struggling with alcoholism can suffer from learning and memory problems, including dementia and poor school performance as well as mental health problems, including depression and anxiety. These conditions can lead to issues within interpersonal relationships. In extreme cases, mental health problems stemming from alcohol abuse can lead to job and reputation loss, divorce, or estrangement from friends and family.

Aside from the human costs, the US lost $249 billion in 2010, or about $2.05 per drink with most of the loss occurring as a result of binge drinking. When it comes down to it, everyone loses when alcohol is abused—the individual, their family and friends, and society at large.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Alcohol abuse is common and affects so many people across our city, but we can slow its devastating progress through people’s lives and families. If you suspect that your or someone you know suffers from alcohol use disorder, know that there is no shame in an addiction, even if culture stigmatizes it. 

We encourage you to find the courage you need to get help. We recommend the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; they offer a wealth of resources for those suffering with substance abuse and the issues that accompany it. We’re also here for you—our professional counselors can help you get the help you need and offer free support to keep you grounded and moving toward a healthier relationship with alcohol. Click the button below to schedule a visit with one of our counselors today!


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