Alcohol Abuse FAQs

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What’s the difference between alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction?

Alcohol abuse is frequent excessive drinking, whereas alcohol addiction is one’s inability to stop drinking. Alcohol abuse is a destructive pattern of drinking that disrupts one’s ability to fully function at work, school or home. Failure to perform and fulfill responsibilities often lead to job loss, poor academic performance, failed relationships, loss of friendships, and risky/dangerous behaviors such as drunk driving and unprotected sex.

Alcohol addiction is a sign of physical dependence on alcohol, characterized by persistent use despite increasingly harmful consequences. An individual who has developed an addiction to alcohol has developed somatic tolerance for alcohol, requiring increasing amounts of it in order to achieve the same effect. The person experiences uncontrollable psychological cravings for alcohol, and despite multiple attempts to quit on one’s own, the individual continues to drink larger amounts and longer than intended. Should the person decide to stop drinking, his or her body will experience withdrawal symptoms so unpleasant that the person will start drinking again to avoid the negative withdrawal experience.

My significant other is becoming more violent, and I noticed they’ve been drinking more. Am I at risk for intimate partner violence?

Alcohol is strongly correlated with domestic violence. In the United States, victims of intimate partner violence, or domestic violence, believed that their significant others have been drinking prior to a physical assault in 55% of cases. In Australia, about 36% of homicides were connected to alcohol. In South Africa, approximately 65% of married women reported that their spouse either sometimes or always drank alcohol before physically assaulting them. These data were published in the World Health Organization report.

You may be at risk for intimate partner violence if you have noticed signs of heavier drinking patterns or alcohol abuse, especially if your significant other attempts to conceal his or her drinking habits. Other risk factors for domestic violence may include your partner’s past history of family alcoholism, level of education, past history of juvenile delinquency and aggression, depression, traumatic victimization, low self-esteem, and desire for power and control in relationships.

Why do some get drunk and violent while others get “happy”?

Stereotypes about “happy” and “angry” drunks are rooted in the biochemical changes that occur from alcohol’s effects on the central nervous system. Alcohol intoxication is known to decrease inhibition and amplify emotion; it has anxiety- and stress-reducing properties, which have been found to increase with dose and context. The more one drinks, the more one will feel relaxed (less anxious) and uninhibited (prone to uncontrolled expressions of joy or anger, depending on whatever emotion the person is feeling at the time of consumption) (Winograd, Steinley, Lane & Sher, 2017). The context in which the person is drinking — such as the people in the room, the environment, one’s social role, and time of day – can influence the personality expression of the drinker (Winograd et al., 2017).

Is there scientific evidence that substantiates the popular belief that different “types of drunks” exist? Evidence suggests that alcohol intoxication affects some more dramatically than others, and depending on the nature and magnitude of the changes, intoxication could lead to serious consequences (Winograd, Steinley & Sher, 2016). Researchers used the Five-Factor Model of Personality to describe aspects of one’s personality, such as (1) openness to experience, (2) conscientiousness, (3) extraversion, (4) agreeableness and (5) neuroticism. Alcohol either increases or decreases the levels of these factors during intoxication. The first personality cluster, “Hemingway,” changes the least compared to other personality types when under the influence of alcohol. In other words, people with “Hemingway” drunk personalities act roughly the same as when they are sober with little effect on their personality. People who are naturally congenial when sober tend to fall into the “Mary Poppins” cluster. Alcohol brings out the sweetness in their personality and the drinkers tend to feel happier. Even if they do act a bit recklessly, they are still agreeable and nice to be around. The “Nutty Professor” personality comes “alive” with alcohol. Naturally quiet and introverted, “nutty professors” become the life of the party once the alcohol starts flowing. The fourth personality type is “Mr. Hyde,” known for hostility and aggression when drunk. Their levels of conscientiousness, agreeableness and intellect drop significantly.

If you drink heavily and often, does that mean you’re an alcoholic?

Being an alcoholic means that you meet the DSM-V diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD). However, being a heavy drinker doesn’t necessarily mean you’re an alcoholic. Persistent patterns of heavy drinking will lead to the development of AUD if you don’t take the necessary steps to quit drinking.

How long does it take for someone to become dependent on alcohol?

The road to alcoholism is strictly subjective. It depends on your gender, genetics, drinking behaviors, environment, age and circumstances. The younger you start drinking, the more you will experience the adverse effects of alcohol, as it hinders your brain development during your formative years. Youth and adolescents are much more likely to become alcoholics by the time they reach adulthood than those who initiate alcohol use as adults. Some adults who practice responsible drinking behaviors may become alcoholics in a short period of time after experiencing hardship such as divorce or loss of a career. And for some, all it takes is one drink to ignite a spark toward alcoholism because of one’s biological make-up.

If you have a family history of alcoholism, does that mean you will become an alcoholic?

Not necessarily. Some children who grow up in alcoholic households make promises to themselves to be the opposite of their primary caregivers when they grow up. They have witnessed the destruction of alcoholism and swear they would never touch a drink. However, if adverse childhood experiences relating to alcohol abuse are not dealt with, unresolved trauma can inadvertently lead to alcoholism, especially when adult children of alcoholics are ill-equipped to deal with life’s stressors.

What do adult children of alcoholics struggle with if they do not become alcoholics?

Adult children of alcoholics tend to be workaholics, overcompensating for a parent’s lack of responsibility or lack of familial support. Even if they do not become alcoholics, they may struggle with anger, depression, anxiety, hostility, fear, and low self-esteem. Many of them share common personality traits, which are described as follows:

Need to be in control
Having grown up in a toxic and tumultuous household, children of alcoholics are accustomed to chaos. They never knew what to expect growing up, so taking control became a coping mechanism to survive an environment of unpredictability. While this may have worked in survival mode during childhood, exerting one’s control over people and situations in adulthood would damage relationships. Surrendering control would be very difficult, and losing control would make them feel insecure, uncertain, and anxious. They tend to exert control by nagging, bullying, manipulating, or giving ultimatums.

Difficulty expressing emotions
Repression of one’s feelings during childhood makes it hard for adult children of alcoholics to feel or express negative and positive emotions. When parents don’t properly acknowledge the child’s feelings or shuns them, parents essentially are sending a message to the children that their feelings don’t matter. The child learns that it would be better to stay silent than to speak up, and they become disconnected from their own emotions as they emerge into adulthood.

Conflict Avoider
Conflict makes them very uneasy. As children, they learned that conflict was often arbitrary, depending on the mood of the parent when their mother or father came home. They most likely witnessed the adults deal with conflict in very unhealthy ways such as verbal or physical assault, or the children may have experienced serious physical, sexual and emotional abuse as a result of these conflicts. Having only learned maladaptive patterns of coping, these children grow up to fear conflict and will do anything to escape or avoid situations that might potentially rock the boat.

People-pleasing tendencies
They seek validation and approval by catering to people’s wishes and demands, even if it means violating their own boundaries. Their drive behind approval-seeking behaviors stem from the lack of love and nurturing they received from their emotionally unavailable parents or primary caregivers when they were growing up.

Perfectionist
The need to be perfect stems from the desire to avoid criticism, to seek approval, and to find validation of self-worth. Children of adult alcoholics are often harshly (and unreasonably) criticized, so one way to avoid criticism is to do everything perfectly right the first time. Not only would that garner praise and approval, but it would validate one’s sense of self-worth, even though the drive for perfection never seems to satisfy the feeling of being good enough.

Harsh self-criticalness
Having a low sense of self-worth, adult children of alcoholics tend to take the blame for everything, even if it’s not their fault. When they make a mistake, they feel like a failure rather than seeing the error as a human mistake. In other words, they attach their identity to their mistakes, saying, “I am a failure” instead of “I made a mistake.”

Afraid to take risks
Perfectionism combined with low sense of self-worth produces fear of taking risks. Taking risks is essential for growth, but the perfectionist within is already deathly afraid of making mistakes, so the best course of action would be no action at all. Making mistakes might invite personal criticism, which can feel very overwhelming because the adult child is already self-critical. As a result, the adult child may appear stubborn, close-minded, rigid and stagnant.

Being too responsible or irresponsible
The pendulum can swing to either extreme. Having lost one’s childhood, adult children of alcoholics had to learn very early on how to cook, clean, pay the bills, and take on other adult responsibilities that their parents neglected. If they had younger siblings, the over-responsible sibling took on the parental role of raising them as well. They easily put others’ welfare before their own, oftentimes running themselves to the ground before they rise to the surface and breathe. Conversely, the child may imitate the alcoholic parent’s behavior and mimic irresponsible behavior to escape feelings of depression, anxiety and other unsettling emotions arising from the toxic effects of alcohol on the family dynamics.

Extremely (undeservingly) loyal
Having experienced chaos and instability, adult children of alcoholics may have abandonment issues that cause them to latch onto relationships, even those that are clearly dysfunctional. The pain of abandonment feels more unbearable than losing the relationship, so the individual may pour excessive effort into making a relationship work even if the other person is apathetic or abusive. They can put up with unsatisfying relationships because that’s what they’re accustomed to. They don’t ask for something better because they don’t think they can or deserve it.

References

1 Winograd, R. P., Steinley, D., Lane, S. P., & Sher, K. J. (2017). An Experimental Investigation of Drunk Personality Using Self and Observer Reports. Clinical psychological science : a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 5(3), 439–456. doi:10.1177/2167702616689780

2 Winograd, R. P., Steinley, D., & Sher, K. (2016). Searching for Mr. Hyde: A Five-Factor Approach to Characterizing “Types of Drunks”. Addiction research & theory, 24(1), 1–8. doi:10.3109/16066359.2015.1029920

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