Alcohol addiction can begin in many different ways. For many alcoholics, problem drinking started as casual drinking with friends, often during high school or college.
This does not mean that everyone who drinks socially is an alcoholic. What happens to alcoholics is that we lose the ability to stop drinking. While a social drinker may have two or three beers, an alcoholic finds themselves having six, eight, or ten.
Because alcohol is addictive, problem social drinking can lead a person to experience feelings of anxiety when they’re not able to drink. This can lead to drinking at inappropriate times, such as drinking on the job, drinking and driving, or getting drunk at family functions.
For some people, heavy drinking was frequent in the home when they were growing up. Some studies indicate that children of alcoholics are 50 percent more likely to become alcoholics than children of non-alcoholics, so there are genetic risk factors as well.
According to the Mayo Clinic, other major risk factors for addiction include starting drinking at a young age, people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, and having a history of psychological trauma. People with these disorders are at risk of using alcohol to self-medicate, which can lead to addiction. Another risk factor is taking alcohol with other drugs or medication, which can often cause fatal side effects.
Dopamine And Addiction
One reason people become addicted to alcohol is that alcohol stimulates dopamine production in the brain. This can be extremely pleasurable and is what accounts for the warm, fuzzy feeling people get from drinking. Unfortunately, dopamine is part of the brain’s natural reward system.
This reward system is the reason we enjoy everyday activities. Things like eating, sex, and making money are all good for our survival, so they cause our brains to release dopamine naturally. Other parts of our minds remember the dopamine release and learn to associate food, sex, and money with feeling good.
Alcohol, particularly in large quantities, floods the brain with far more dopamine than it ever receives from normal activities. Because the brain is constantly trying to stay in balance, it will begin lowering natural dopamine production to compensate.
Alcohol is also a tolerance-building chemical, which means the body will process it more efficiently when a person abuses it regularly.
When this happens, individuals may begin drinking more to get the same amount of dopamine they’re used to. This further reinforces our brains’ association between alcohol and dopamine and causes addiction.
When Addiction Takes Hold
Eventually, addicted individuals will produce so little dopamine that they will feel like they need alcohol to have normal, healthy brains. Sobriety can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as nervousness, tremors, depression, and severe anxiety.
This is the point where alcoholics may make poor life decisions, like driving under the influence, which may have long-term negative consequences.
Alcohol recovery becomes more difficult the longer a person has been addicted. For parents of teens, and for anyone who thinks a friend or family member may be an alcoholic, early intervention can improve their chances of recovery.