How Do You Know if You Have a Problem with Alcohol?

Do you drink alone? Do you have a glass of wine every night with dinner? If so, people may tell you these are warning signs for problems with alcohol. Are they correct? Maybe, maybe not. Read on to learn about how issues with alcohol are not necessarily related to the quantity consumed or situations in which people drink, but the reasons they imbibe in the first place and the effect alcohol has on their lives. Learn the signs of alcohol abuse and alcoholism (they are not the same thing) and what to do if you or a loved one may need treatment for alcohol problems.

Alcohol in Western Culture

Alcoholic beverages have been a major element of Western culture for thousands of years and may have played a large role in the development of agriculture. Many social occasions include or even revolve around the consumption of alcohol. For some groups, such as much of France and Italy, this generally does not pose a significant problem. In those countries, the amount of alcohol consumed is high, but the percentage of drinking problems is low, compared with places like Ireland and the UK. Why is this?

Mediterranean culture generally views alcohol as a pleasant adjunct to meals and social occasions, whereas northern European countries often use alcohol more as a carousing behavior or a means of dealing with life’s negative events by getting drunk. Drinking in some of these nations also more often results in loud, destructive behavior and difficulties with relationships and work. Drinking in the United States is more like the negative experience in northern Europe, especially with young males. Unfortunately, that type of drinking culture is making its way south to places like Spain as well, one of the downsides of the new global interconnectedness.

According to the US National Institutes of Health, underage drinking and alcohol abuse in the entire population have reached near epidemic proportions, with some startling statistics:

  • 3.4% of adolescents aged 12-17 had an alcohol use disorder in 2012.
  • Roughly 88,000 people die annually from alcohol-related causes.
  • More than 10% of kids in the US live with a parent with an alcohol problem.
  • Costs related to alcohol misuse cost the US more than $200 billion annually.

So how do you sort out what is unhealthy drinking from what is an acceptable social or gastronomic practice? When is that solitary glass of wine with dinner or beer with the guys a warning that something is amiss?

Early Signs of Drinking Problems

Sometimes there are early signs that drinking is being used for the wrong reasons and is not just an accompaniment to a fine meal or a shared treat between friends. Look for these warnings that alcohol use is veering out of control:

  • hiding alcohol use from friends, family and coworkers
  • feeling guilty about drinking
  • drinking more than is intended
  • drinking to relax or feel better
  • needing a drink to deal with certain situations

When alcohol is being used as a crutch or to self-medicate feelings of anger, frustration or depression, it is in danger of being abused.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

When alcohol starts to become abused, it begins having a wider ripple effect on the drinker’s life. Work or school deadlines may be missed, and social events or appointments get put off due to being hungover. Alcohol abusers may engage in risk-taking behaviors, such as driving while intoxicated, operating dangerous machinery while drunk or having unsafe sex. Children may be neglected, or family conflicts become heightened and more frequent. Sometimes alcohol is consumed in spite of doctors orders, causing harmful interactions with prescription drugs or damage to the liver, stomach and esophagus.

When Alcohol Abuse Turns into Alcoholism

Alcohol abuse is a huge risk factor for full-blown alcoholism. Other risk factors include family history of alcoholism, ethnic predisposition (e.g., Native Americans and Native Alaskans), geographic location with long winter days (e.g., Scandinavia and Russia) and mental health comorbidities (depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, etc.).

While alcohol abusers still have some ability to limit their consumption, alcoholics do not. Alcoholics are physically dependent on alcohol and experience symptoms of withdrawal when they cannot drink. These include

  • shaking
  • sweating
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • insomnia
  • headache
  • irritability
  • loss of appetite
  • hallucinations
  • seizures

Often alcoholics want to quit drinking but they can’t. Or they may be in denial about how much they drink or how it is affecting their lives. They may be rationalizing their behavior or blaming their drinking problems on other people and situations (e.g., a spouse, a teacher or a stressful job).

Why the Overconsumption of Alcohol is So Destructive

Reading the above you may have started to realize why alcohol abuse is so destructive. Marital and parental relationships suffer, people lose their jobs and teens flunk out of school. People who drive while under the influence can lose their drivers licenses, spend time in jail and sometimes live with the horrifying consequences of having injured or killed someone in a motor vehicle accident.

Alcoholics lose pleasure in their hobbies and are not healthy enough to enjoy athletics. They often fall into financial ruin, because they make vital decisions while inebriated or can’t keep a job. Sometimes their addiction to alcohol can fuel other addictions, such as gambling, smoking or drugs. Long-term overconsumption of alcohol can damage virtually every organ in the body, including the brain. Pregnant women who drink too much can give birth to children with fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause brain damage and alcohol addiction in infancy.

Treatment for Alcohol Abuse

Fortunately, there are options if you or someone you know is showing any of the signs described above. It is best to seek treatment at the first notice of alcohol problems, rather than waiting until the abuse progresses and becomes harder to treat. Inpatient rehabilitation centers are usually best for a number of reasons:

  • they are able to treat people who have a physical addiction to alcohol.
  • prevent the abuser from putting themselves in situations that trigger drinking.
  • they can focus on holistic aspects of treatment, including diet and exercise.
  • free from outside distractions, and residents are able to focus on recovery.

The best rehab centers work not just on getting residents to stop drinking but to tackle the underlying causes for their alcohol problems in the first place. One of the most successful ways to do this is through cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

How Cognitive Behavior Therapy Can Help

CBT connects feelings, thoughts and behaviors, rather than seeing them as separate entities. It helps patients identify self-sabotaging actions and create new thought patterns to eliminate them. The CBT therapist and patient work as a team in a goal-oriented manner to catch destructive thoughts and reactions and redirect them in a more positive way.

Cognitive behavior therapy actually improves brain function and can help patients deal with problems like depression and poor sleep. It addresses issues that precipitate alcohol abuse, such as inability to manage stress, depression, anxiety and previous trauma or abuse. It could be seen as the mental equivalent of making a lifestyle change, versus simply going on a crash diet, for someone who needs to lose weight. CBT works for a wide variety of concerns related to alcohol abuse, regardless of age.

If you or a loved one is being challenged by alcohol, now is the time to take action. Don’t wait for a tragedy or a court-ordered trip to rehab. If you are the one who needs help, congratulations on taking the first step in recognizing your problem. If someone else in your life needs to stop drinking, offer to support them in getting the help they need. Every new journey begins with a first step.

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