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The Psychology of Alcoholism

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According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, there are over 15 million American adults who struggle with the overconsumption of alcohol. This statistic is massive, yet it is dwarfed by the immense genetic, mental and psychological workings that comprise the affliction. 

Let’s focus on the complicated psychology of alcoholism and explore a few facets of this detrimental disease. 

Alcoholism lies with endorphins

People who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction may very well be fighting their own physiology. Namely, they are fighting their own brain’s response to drinking. As a depressant, alcohol is known to lower inhibitions, slow reflexes and impair brain function. However, it is not solely this incapacitation that addicts crave.

According to a 2012 study, alcohol actually stimulates the pleasure centres of the brain. The study neurologically mapped both heavy and light drinkers as they consumed their beverage. Each group’s brain scans revealed a surge of ‘feel good’ opioids rushing through the reward centres of the brain.

Although both drinking groups showed the endorphin response, the heavier drinkers’ brains released a higher concentration of endorphins. Thus, those with the over-responsive pleasure centre received more of a ‘reward’ from drinking. Therefore, they are more likely to drink to a hazardous level in order to gain this release.

Alcoholism can be inherited

It is possible for substance abuse to be inherited by family members. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, children whose parents are alcoholics are four times more likely to develop alcoholism than children whose parents are not alcoholics.

It’s important to note that there is no single ‘alcoholic gene’. Instead, there are many complex factors that can influence a heavy drinker’s disposition.For example, mental illnesses like schizophrenia and depression are normally linked to substance abuse and addiction. Yet, it is mental illnesses that tend to be inherited, not the propensity to overuse.

It’s also important to take into account the argument of nature vs nurture. Even if a child has the genetic makeup of someone who could start drinking, it doesn’t mean they are destined to. It can be avoided by growing up in a trauma-free environment with access to mental health care. However, if a child develops in an environment where addiction is readily apparent, their genetic disposition is more likely to manifest. When you go for an alcohol detox, these factors are taken into consideration.

Alcoholism is a spectrum

Psychologists are well familiar with the idea that mental and emotional disorders can exist on a spectrum. The same is true for alcoholism. In the world of drinking, there is no duality between alcoholics and non-alcoholics. There is no black and white distinction that can classify the world into these two groups. Instead, everything exists in shades of grey.

This is because we live in a world where drinking is inexplicably linked with our culture. Alcohol is everywhere, and our reasons for drinking it are multifaceted. We drink as a bonding experience, as a communal coping mechanism, and for countless other societal reasons.

Since we cannot extract drinking from our culture, we also cannot find the harsh line between ‘societal drinking’ and ‘problematic drinking’. Instead, the best way to approach alcoholism is from a spectrum. On one end, there are those who seldom drink. On the other, there are those who imbibe far past the NIAAA’s (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism) recommended four drinks per day (14 drinks per week).

Alcoholism is individualised

When it comes to alcoholism, everyone’s journey is different. No two breakthroughs are identical, and no two recoveries are the same. Instead, look deeply at your addiction and find what you need to recover.

If your drinking is born out of previous trauma, find therapeutic outlets to emotionally heal. If you are struggling with self-destructive tendencies, you might consider a sober living facility like the community at New Life House. It is through understanding your disease that you can equip yourself with the right tools to fight it.

Wendy Whitehead did her degree in psychology at the University of Edinburgh. She is interested in mental health and well-being.

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