Is Alcohol Addiction a Choice?

Alcohol addiction is a nuanced disorder that affects both the brain and body. The National Institutes of Health defines alcohol addiction as an alcohol use disorder; a chronic disease that can have serious adverse health, social, occupational and familial consequences. Alcohol addiction comes in varying levels of severity, and its treatment options likewise are varied in terms of the level of care. Like many other disorders, there are risk factors that make one more susceptible to suffering from alcohol addiction, including family history, environmental stressors, preexisting health conditions, exposure at an early age and trauma. Alcohol addiction also poses a great risk of relapse.

What are the signs of alcohol addiction?

There are symptoms to look out for, either in yourself or someone you know, that might suggest alcohol addiction. These can range from physical to social to psychological symptoms, including:

  • Feeling embarrassment or regret the day after drinking too much
  • Tremors or shakes, often in the hands
  • Regular binge drinking or drinking 5+ drinks most days
  • Being unable to stop drinking once you have begun
  • Obsession over when your next drink will be, how much you will be able to drink on a certain day, or whether alcohol will be available at an event you are attending
  • Driving under the influence
  • Drinking while at work or school, or arriving drunk
  • Drinking more than intended
  • Trying to quit drinking but eventually beginning again
  • Increased participation in dangerous or risky activities
  • Decreased performance at school, work or other responsibilities
  • Inability to control drinking or behavior while drinking

Is alcohol addiction a choice?

It is important to make the distinction between when something is a choice and when something is a disease; when the option to choose has been taken away. Because it has been classified as a disorder, we can glean that there is a physiological component within alcohol addiction, but it is one that takes time. Drinking alcohol, even casually or only on special occasions, maybe a choice initially. For a while, the individual may not even realize that they are beginning to become addicted to alcohol. Over time, the body grows a tolerance and a dependence when copious amounts of alcohol are regularly consumed. This is where the disease model comes into play – once the body is physically addicted to alcohol, addiction is no longer a choice. It must also be emphasized that no one could possibly choose the detrimental side effects of alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder – financial instability, familial dysfunction and long-term damage to the body are all possibilities.

Why is alcohol addictive?

Alcohol has both stimulant and sedative properties, but it is ultimately a central nervous system depressant. One or two drinks might help a person relax or loosen up, but the sedative effects will begin to take hold once more and more alcohol is consumed. Alcohol’s depressant qualities can slow brain function which in turn can cause slurred speech, drowsiness, impaired judgment, impaired vision, and slowed reaction times.

It is because alcohol easily affects the central nervous system that it has a high risk of addiction and abuse. Over the course of an evening, alcohol will increase the activity of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which leads to sedation, lowered breathing rate and heart rate, memory loss, slowed reflexes and unsteady balance. Alcohol also releases the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain, which increases feelings of pleasure and reward. Increased dopamine can leave a person wanting to drink more in pursuit of that feeling.

Over the course of many months or years of heavy drinking, alcohol can affect the brain’s structure and how neurons and neurotransmitters respond. Alcohol addiction has been known to cause atrophy in the brain, particularly in the areas that control emotions, balance and memory.

These changes in the brain can alter our response to cravings, rewards and emotional swings. Alcohol addiction is a chemical and physical addiction, and the body experiences withdrawal symptoms like tremors, nausea and seizures when periods of heavy drinking are followed by a sudden cessation.

How can alcohol addiction be treated?

Alcohol addiction treatment is effective insofar as the individual is truly ready to be treated. In 2019, 14.5 million adults had been diagnosed with alcohol use disorder but only 7.2% of those individuals had sought any type of treatment. Some individuals struggling with alcohol addiction refuse or delay treatment because of the negative stigma attached to it, and some may truly believe that they don’t have a problem or that they can stop drinking whenever they want to. Because of the long-term ramifications, alcohol addiction must be treated like any other disease would be treated.

Rehab After Work is committed to providing holistic alcohol addiction treatment that, in addition to treating the disorder itself, provides coping skills and techniques to employ throughout recovery. Get help today at 610-644-6464.