According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIH), approximately 16 million people in the United States suffer from alcohol use disorder (AUD). An estimated 88,000 people die from alcohol-related causes every year, making the irresponsible use of alcohol the leading cause of preventable death in the nation.

Not only does excessive alcohol intake increase the risk of injury and death as a result of an accident, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that persistent users are also more susceptible to certain cancers, chronic diseases, learning problems, and issues with memory. Additionally, too much alcohol has adverse effects on many organs, often causing irreparable damage the liver and brain. Those who struggle with alcohol are also prone to developing mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety.

It’s important to note, however, that not everyone who drinks has AUD. A single drink a day for adult women and up to two drinks a day for adult men is considered an acceptable amount. Any more than this, on the other hand, constitutes heavy drinking. Consuming more than four (for women) or five (for men) drinks over a two hour period is considered binge drinking, which is extremely dangerous. It’s when drinking like this becomes a source of distress and harm to self and others that there’s cause for real alarm.

AUD is an indiscriminate disease that causes compulsive alcohol use and an inability to control intake, as well as negative emotional and physical dependencies. As a chronic relapsing brain disease, symptom classifications can range from mild, moderate, to severe. When diagnosed with AUD, the need to drink regularly, coupled with the incapacity to stop, will often lead to a seemingly higher alcohol tolerance. Those who experience this will often continue to drink more and more overtime and will go through mental and physical withdrawals when alcohol isn’t available. Even those who aren’t physically dependent can still suffer from alcohol addiction. If the uncontrolled use of alcohol negatively impacts life at home, work, or school, or if it results in risky behaviors, then AUD is a potential diagnosis.

You can informally assess the risk of AUD for yourself or a loved one by considering the following questions. In the past year, have you:

  • Drank more, or for a longer duration, than you originally planned?
  • Tried to limit or cease your alcohol intake but failed?
  • Spent significant time drinking or recovering from drinking?
  • Experienced a strong urge to drink?
  • Noticed that drinking, or recovering from drinking, negatively impacted time at home, work, or school?
  • Continued drinking despite its negative impact on relationships with family and friends?
  • Opted to discontinue activities you once enjoyed in order to drink instead?
  • Put yourself and, or others at risk (unsafe driving, unprotected sex, etc.) as a result of drinking too much?
  • Persisted in drinking despite it causing feelings of depression and anxiety, or negatively impacting your health?
  • Increased the amount of alcohol you consumed in order to feel its effects?
  • Experienced symptoms of withdrawal after a period of time without alcohol – i.e. difficulty sleeping, moodiness, anxiety, depression, agitation, shakiness, nausea, or sweating?

Answering yes to any of the questions above may indicate an alcohol abuse problem. If you’re concerned that you or a loved one may have AUD, you should seek an official diagnosis from a health practitioner right away. Regardless of the severely of the addiction, seeking and receiving treatment can assist in overcoming AUD.

Causes of Alcohol Addiction

Identifying the cause of alcohol addiction is tricky. AUD doesn’t result from a specific set of circumstances, but rather from a variety of factors that differ from person to person. Just as alcohol impacts everyone differently, varying life experiences and biology effect the predisposition for addiction. There is also no set way to predict how AUD will present itself. For some, symptoms develop quickly and aggressively, while it may take years for signs to show in others.

It is clear, however, that everyone is susceptible to AUD, despite age, gender, ethnicity, body type, and personal beliefs. Alcohol abuse problems persist because the brain begins to rely on alcohol for the production of certain chemicals. This can happen to anyone and is ultimately why withdrawal symptoms occur and quitting becomes so difficult.

While the cause of addiction can’t be narrowed down to a single factor, there are a number of common influences that impact the development of alcohol problems.

Biological Influences

Research on alcohol use and addiction indicates that biology is linked to alcoholism. In fact, genetics play a large role, accounting for approximately 50 percent of the risk for AUD. There are a number of genes associated with alcohol dependency and these can be passed down from generation to generation. As a result, children of addicts are more likely to develop an addiction to alcohol as well. It’s important to realize, however, that a history of AUD in your family doesn’t guarantee you or your children will become alcoholics. While you and your loved ones may be at greater risk, it’s also possible you never struggle with addiction at all.

Social Influences

People receive far more than just genes from their parents. It’s quite clear that upbringing also impacts a person’s predisposition to alcoholism. While individuals from every culture, religion, and family background can be diagnosed with AUD, these factors do influence opinions about, and reactions to, alcohol. Likewise, some research shows that income, exposure to alcohol manufacturer ads, and even proximity to liquor stores can affect the outlook on alcohol use.

The most important social factor is family. Early and consistent exposure to alcohol abuse at home can result in the development of similarly dangerous drinking habits in the future. Again, however, a troubled family history or home life doesn’t necessarily mean you possess alcoholic tendencies. Avoiding underage drinking and practicing moderation as an adult can lower the impact of these influences.

Psychological Influences

Everyone has different emotional coping mechanisms, especially in the face of high-stress situations and traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, alcohol often serves as a means of escape, providing a source of temporary relief. Those who suffer from anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions are sometimes more vulnerable to AUD because this type of avoidance is “easier.” Overtime, the body becomes reliant on the use of alcohol to ease emotional turmoil and feelings of hardship; once started, it can become difficult to break the resulting cycle of dependency.

Remember, though, that not everyone diagnosed with anxiety or depression will have alcohol addiction problems. Psychological conditions may increase the risk of alcoholism, but they are not always a predetermining factor.

Common Risk Factors

Are you or someone you know at a higher risk of developing an alcohol addiction? Knowing the risk factors associated with AUD can often assist in its prevention. Here are several common risk factors you should be aware of:

  • Family history of alcohol addiction
  • Witnessing excessive drinking as a child
  • Participation in drinking as an adolescent
  • Excessive drinking, or binge drinking as an adult
  • Peer pressure from a romantic partner, close friend, group at school, orcoworkers
  • High-stress career, such as doctor, rescue worker, lawyer, or stock broker
  • Frequent use of alcohol over an extended period of time
  • Personal history of low self-esteem, anxiety and, or depression
  • Past trauma, such as physical or sexual abuse

Regardless of whether one or several of the above-mentioned risks apply to you or a loved one, it isn’t definite that a drinking problem will develop. Speaking with a professional about your potential susceptibility may be worthwhile, however. If you or someone you know is at greater risk of AUD, being familiar with the signs can help you proactively address the situation. At the very least, this awareness can serve as incentive to practice moderation when drinking.

Why Do People Relapse?

It isn’t easy to recover from AUD. Reestablishing a healthy lifestyle and maintaining sobriety requires significant time, unyielding dedication, and a strong support system. Complete recovery is possible, but relapses can occur as well. Physical, emotional, or social triggers are generally the most common causes of a relapse. While seeking familiar company, circumstances, and influences may seem ideal, some of these comforts can actually be detrimental to your recovery. Potential relapse triggers include, but are not limited to:

  • Increased stress or anxiety
  • Social pressure from others
  • Mental strain
  • Emotional trauma or instability
  • Anger or frustration
  • Temptation to feel drunk
  • Return of old habits

Having and being aware of individual triggers actually assists in the recovery process. Not only do they help identify the people and situations that should be avoided, but exposure to a specific trigger can serve as an indication that additional professional assistance may be necessary.

To reiterate, overcoming alcohol addiction is hard. If it weren’t, no one would be an alcoholic. When relapse occurs, don’t assume the fight is over. Relapsing doesn’t mean failure and it certainly doesn’t mean beating alcoholism is impossible; it’s simply a bump in the road that will eventually lead to recovery.

How to Get Help

AUD is an extremely difficult and complex disease to live with. Just as it’s impossible to pinpoint a single cause for the condition, no one treatment plan cures it. What is clear, however, is that everyone who seeks and receives alcohol addiction treatment benefits from it, regardless of the severity of their diagnosis. On-going treatment drastically increases the chance of long-term recovery.

Admitting there’s a problem and pursuing assistance are the first steps to overcoming AUD. Discussing your specific situation with a primary healthcare physician will allow for an official diagnosis and subsequent personalized recovery plan, complete with actionable and measurable goals. Treatment plans vary, but often consist of therapy, medical prescriptions, and attendance at mutual-support group sessions. A well-balanced combination of these strategies can assist in altering drinking behavior, reducing cravings, and propery managing potential triggers.

If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol abuse or addiction, help easy to find. Don’t wait until it’s too late to get help.