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Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

10 minute read

Alcohol is an addictive substance and one of the most abused substances in the world. While anyone can become addicted to alcohol over time, some people are more susceptible to alcohol addiction. The properties of alcohol already make it addictive, but certain biological and environmental factors can greatly increase the risk of addiction in some people.

Despite its social acceptance, alcohol is highly addictive and the cause of millions of deaths every year. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reports that in just one year, 15 million Americans met the diagnostic criteria for an alcohol use disorder (AUD). Alcohol is often misused to:

  • Feel comfortable in social situations
  • Cope with stress
  • Escape from difficult emotions
  • Aid sleep or relax in general
  • Soothe anxiety
  • Fit in with peers

What Makes Alcohol Addictive?

There are several reasons why alcohol is addictive. The quick answer is that with continued alcohol abuse, your brain thinks you need alcohol to survive. This makes it feel nearly impossible to resist a drink.

Getting to this point of addiction is a complex process that involves physical and psychological factors. On a purely physical level, alcohol is addictive because of the way it changes your brain. Alcohol and other addictive substances affect your brain’s reward center. This is the part of the brain that helps ensure your survival. The brain’s reward system supports the continuation of humans and other living species. It accomplishes this by sending pleasurable feelings when you do things that support life like:

  • Sleeping
  • Having sex
  • Eating
  • Drinking water
  • Connecting with others

The way the brain rewards you for these behaviors motivates you to continue doing them. Alcohol works on the same “feel-good” brain chemicals that reward you for those “human survival” activities, but alcohol releases more of them. With repeated alcohol abuse your brain starts prioritizing drinking right up there with eating, sleeping, sex, etc. It begins sending you messages that you need to drink alcohol “to survive.” These strong neurological associations with alcohol can make you do about anything to get alcohol or continue drinking.

Alcohol abuse interferes with your brain’s natural production of chemicals like dopamine. Dopamine is the main brain chemical tied to reward. It’s involved in functions like:

  • Motivation
  • Mood
  • Memory
  • Movement

Your brain starts relying on alcohol to do the work of releasing and regulating these chemicals. When you’ve reached this point of alcohol addiction, you experience alcohol withdrawal symptoms when you quit drinking. This is your body’s way of trying to re-establish equilibrium without the alcohol it has become to depend on for normal functioning.

With continued alcohol use, your brain starts firing neurotransmitters even when you anticipate drinking alcohol. You begin to receive pleasure signals just by thinking about drinking or being in a situation or around people that remind you of drinking. This is a key reason why it’s so hard to resist alcohol once you have a problem.

Why You Have an Alcohol Addiction

Certain physical and psychological factors put you at higher risk for developing alcohol addiction. These include:

1. Your Biology

Several alcohol research studies have shown that substance abuse has genetic components. Your genes contribute to around half your risk for addiction. So, for example, if one of your parents or siblings has an alcohol use disorder, you have twice the risk of alcohol abuse than people without that genetic tie. Researchers have also discovered that people who have substance use disorders have similar gene groups — ones not found in those who don’t abuse alcohol and drugs.

Having a genetic predisposition to alcohol addiction doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll become an alcoholic, but it can make you more susceptible to environmental triggers to abuse substances.

2. Your Environment

Your environment can play a big role in alcohol consumption. For instance:

  • If your parents were heavy drinkers and normalized alcohol use, you’re at greater risk for addiction.
  • If your friend group as a teenager drank alcohol, you’re also more likely to drink.
  • Studies show that socioeconomic factors like poverty play a role in drinking alcohol.
  • Chronic stress from work or family and relationship issues are also environmental triggers for alcohol misuse.

3. Your Mental Health

There’s a clear link between alcohol abuse and mental illness. Around half of people with substance use disorders also have co-occurring mental health disorders. Mental health and alcohol addiction influence each other in a couple of ways. People with conditions like depression, anxiety, trauma, or bipolar disorder may use alcohol to cope with their psychiatric symptoms.

For example, people with anxiety may like the way the sedating effects of alcohol temporarily ease their symptoms. The problem is, in the long run, heavy alcohol use actually exacerbates anxiety. Since alcohol is addictive, the cycle keeps going.

Alcohol and drug addiction can also cause or intensify mental health symptoms. For example, alcohol has a sedating effect and can deplete certain brain chemicals, which can cause depression symptoms.

Why is Alcohol Addictive: Signs You May Have a Problem

Casual drinking habits can quickly turn into alcoholism under certain circumstances. The social acceptance of alcohol can mask an alcohol problem for a while. In the early stages of alcohol abuse, you may be able to hide excessive drinking from loved ones, friends, and coworkers, but it becomes harder and harder to hide the problem.

Signs of alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction include:

Prioritizing Drinking

If you’re constantly thinking about when, where, and how you’ll have your next drink, you may have a substance use disorder. You may turn down invitations if you know there won’t be alcohol. You may miss important events or obligations so you can drink. If alcohol is your preferred companion, it’s time to take a closer look at your drinking habits.

Lack of Control Over Drinking

Another sign you may have an addiction to alcohol is feeling like you can’t decrease or stop drinking. You may have tried to cut back or quit without success. Turning down a drink when offered feels nearly impossible and you may drink even when you intend to stay sober. It’s difficult to keep alcohol in the house without drinking all of it and once you start drinking, it’s extremely hard to quit until the day is over.

Developing an Alcohol Tolerance

A key sign of alcohol abuse and addiction is developing a tolerance to its effects. Like with other substances, alcohol is addictive and you may be chasing that original drunk.

When your previous amount of alcohol consumption doesn’t cut it anymore and you need to drink increasing amounts of alcohol to feel drunk, you have a problem.

Neglecting Responsibilities

Alcohol addiction and drug abuse can cause you to start neglecting important areas in your life. Your performance at work might suffer. You might even lose your job. Family obligations fall by the wayside. Bills go unpaid. Friendships suffer. A way alcohol abuse becomes addiction is when drinking is more important than any other part of your life.

Dishonesty About Drinking

Hiding or lying about your drinking habits is a sign of addiction. You may lie to family and friends and even your doctor about your alcohol consumption. You may stash alcohol around the house so you can take a nip here or there. You’re dishonest about the amount of alcohol you drink when loved ones ask. If you’re feeling the need to cover up how much you drink, there’s a good chance you’re drinking much more than you should.

Having Physical Signs of Alcoholism

Drinking heavily can lead to a number of physical symptoms. Some of these occur because of the amount of alcohol in your system, others are alcohol withdrawal symptoms between drinking sessions.

  • Poor coordination
  • Falls
  • Unexplained bruises
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Trembling hands
  • Slurred speech
  • Digestive problems
  • Flushed skin and broken facial capillaries
  • Hoarse or husky voice
  • Blackouts
  • Seizures / delirium tremens

Self-Medicating With Alcohol

If alcohol is your solution to disappointments, bad moods, emotional pain, boredom and other issues, you’re at risk for alcoholism. Alcoholics self-medicate with alcohol for a variety of reasons. These may include behavioral health issues like:

  • Unaddressed trauma and other emotional pain
  • Mental health disorder symptoms (depression, anxiety, personality disorders, and other psychiatric issues)
  • Sadness and grief
  • Feelings of low self-worth
  • Social anxiety

Having Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms

Another physical sign of alcoholism is going into alcohol withdrawal when you quit drinking. Alcohol dependence develops when you rely on alcohol to function physically and psychologically. When you have a physical dependence on alcohol, you may experience withdrawal symptoms when you don’t drink like:

  • Vomiting
  • Agitation
  • Seizures / delirium tremens
  • Convulsions
  • High heart rate
  • Anxiety
  • Sleep issues
  • Sweating
  • Shakiness
  • Confusion

Drinking Despite Negative Consequences

Abusing alcohol even though it’s negatively affecting you and your life is a key sign of addiction. All of the above symptoms and signs of alcoholism are negative effects of drinking. If you’re drinking despite these warning signs, you have a problem. It’s time to seek help.

Thinking You Have a Problem

If you think you have a problem with alcohol, you probably do. Casual drinkers don’t worry about how much they’re drinking. Most times they have one or two drinks at a social event without thinking about it. If they had to quit drinking, they wouldn’t have a problem doing so. If you think you’re drinking too much, if you’ve wondered if you need addiction treatment, you should talk to an addiction specialist.

How Do You Treat Alcohol Addiction?

The type of treatment for alcohol addiction depends on factors like:

  • How long you’ve been abusing alcohol
  • How much alcohol you’ve been drinking
  • If you’re abusing drugs as well
  • If you have co-occurring disorders like medical conditions or mental illness
  • Your support system

Some people do best in an inpatient treatment program. In this type of treatment, you live at an addiction treatment center, attend programming during the day, and participate in recovery activities in the evenings. This provides 24/7 recovery support and distance from triggers to drink.

Other people begin recovery in an outpatient program. Outpatient programming includes:

Many people choose to live in a sober living residence with other people in recovery while attending outpatient treatment. This setting can be more supportive to sobriety than living at home.

Medically Assisted Alcohol Detox

Whether you start with a residential program or outpatient program, you should never try to stop heavy drinking without medical help. Alcohol withdrawal can be painful and dangerous for people with a dependency and addiction. In severe cases, people have died during alcohol withdrawal.

Medical detox from alcohol involves staying at a treatment center throughout alcohol withdrawal. You receive 24/7 care from medical staff who monitor your vital signs and attend to any medical emergencies. You’re also provided medications to ease symptoms of alcohol withdrawal so you’re as comfortable as possible.

Behavioral Therapies and Relapse Prevention

After you detox from alcohol, you need to discover the reasons why you use alcohol so you can learn to cope with challenges without substance abuse. Treating alcohol addiction with evidence-based and holistic therapies and building a sober support system are key components of alcohol rehab.

At an addiction treatment center like Footprints to Recovery, you’ll participate in individual and group counseling. Trained and credentialed addiction professionals will help you identify the role alcohol is playing in your life and why. These often include:

  • Trauma
  • Excessive stress
  • Mental health disorders like depression and anxiety
  • Grief and loss
  • Relationships
  • Poor self-esteem and stress management

You’ll engage in specialized behavioral therapies that help you address and better manage these difficulties. You’ll also learn healthy coping skills that may prevent relapse after you leave treatment.

Common components of an addiction treatment program include:

  • Individual, group, and family therapy
  • Mental health treatment for dual diagnosis/co-occurring disorders
  • Therapeutic models like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT)
  • Trauma-focused therapies like EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing)
  • Holistic therapies like yoga, art therapy, and music therapy
  • Introduction to support groups like 12-step groups or SMART Recovery groups

Continuing Care

Recovery is something you’ll always work on. Following alcohol addiction treatment, you’ll want to have resources in place that support long-term recovery. Your treatment staff will help create an aftercare plan that will do just that.

Aftercare recovery resources may include:

  • Counseling
  • Psychiatry appointments
  • Alumni meetings and events
  • Transitioning into a sober-living residence
  • Self-care plan that includes nutrition, fitness, and enjoyable activities
  • 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)

Get Help

Alcohol addiction doesn’t get better on its own. Entering an addiction treatment center is never an easy decision, but it’s the right one if you are struggling with alcohol addiction. We understand what you and your loved ones are going through, and we can help. Footprints to Recovery offers evidence-based alcoholism treatment programs tailored to your needs, as well as a full continuum of care that includes:

  • Alcohol detox
  • Drug detox
  • Inpatient rehab
  • Intensive outpatient program (IOP)
  • Outpatient treatment
  • Sober-living residences

Our recovery centers are home-like and welcoming. Footprints’ treatment teams are highly experienced addiction professionals who are passionate about their work and your recovery.

Don’t wait to get the alcohol addiction treatment you need to take back your life. Help is one call away and addiction recovery is better than you can imagine.


Sarah Schapmann
Laurie Woodard
Medically Reviewed by Laurie Woodard, MA, LAC, LPC
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