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What Is Alcoholism?

By Robert Vaux
eHow Contributing Writer

Many people think of alcoholism as drinking to excess. In truth, it differs significantly. Drinking to excess constitutes alcohol abuse. Alcoholism, on the other hand, is a chronic disease constituting a physical and psychological compulsion to drink. Alcoholics have no control over their drinking, and quitting becomes more than a matter of simple willpower. The good news is that patients can recover from alcoholism, provided they understand its effects on their lives and resolve to confront it directly.


Symptoms

1. The pattern of drinking can help define an alcoholic. Many drink alone or in secret, hiding evidence of their drinking or making up lies to disguise it. Once they start drinking, they cannot stop and they often drink to excess just to feel "normal." They often expect drinks at set points in the day and become irritable when they can't get one. Many of them experience blackouts and have no memory of things they've done and said. All of this has a devastating impact on their personal and professional lives, which, ironically, may cause them to turn to alcohol even more readily.


Addiction
2. An addiction to alcohol doesn't come overnight. The patient's body gradually builds up a tolerance as more and more is imbibed, requiring greater amounts in order to feel intoxicated. At the same time, alcohol creates physiological changes in the brain: raising levels of dopamine and similar biochemicals. Over time, that essentially addicts the body to the alcohol, causing the patient to drink more and more to avoid feeling awful.


Causes
3. Causes of alcoholism vary by individual, but are generally broken down into three or four basic categories. The Mayo Clinc and other reputable organizations believe that biological factors make some people more vulnerable to alcoholism. Other people turn to alcohol because of prolonged stress, through psychological factors relating to childhood traumas and the like, or through cultural factors such as collegiate atmospheres that are tolerant of excessive drinking. In many cases, a combination of these factors will be present in a single individual.


Treatment
4. The treatment of alcoholism can begin only when the patient admits the extent of the problem and resolves to get help. Treatment options vary, but generally begin with getting the alcohol out of the patient's system and mitigating the withdrawal symptoms safely. The patient can then be medically assessed and a treatment program can begin to break the cravings which may cause the patient to relapse. This can involve a stay in a rehab center, sessions with a therapist, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and even the use of medical deterrents such as Antabuse.



A Process
5. Alcoholism remains with the patient in some form or another for the rest of his life. Most recovering alcoholics stress that it is an ongoing process--taken one day at a time--and that the urge to relapse is always present. But the more one builds upon the little steps, the easier it becomes and the stronger the patient feels as a result.

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