What is Alcoholism? The Pathway from Alcohol Abuse to Alcoholism

What is Alcoholism?

Alcohol, when consumed in excessive amounts, can increase a person’s risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury. A report published by the ABS tells us that nearly 3,000 deaths occur each year in Australia due to excessive alcohol consumption alone. The same report suggests that almost 15 percent of the male population and 12 percent of the female population drink alcohol at risky or high-risk levels. Although alcohol is a popular social ‘lubricant’, it can cause several health problems when consumed regularly and excessively.

Alcoholism Definition

Alcoholism is often described as a person’s inability to manage their drinking habits. Sufferers experience a strong and uncontrollable urge to drink. They generally place drinking above all their other duties and obligations and suffer from withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking.

Any beverage that contains 10 grams of alcohol is considered a standard drink in Australia. According to the NHMRC, healthy men and women should limit their consumption of alcohol to a maximum of 2 standard drinks on any day. This reduces their lifetime risk of harm from alcohol-related injury or disease. Those who regularly consume more than the recommended amount of alcohol, risk developing an addiction over time. Alcoholism is divided into 3 categories—mild, moderate and severe. If it’s not treated in time, it can worsen and cause serious complications. Alcoholism can put people in risky situations and give rise to a wide range of physical, psychological and behavioural issues. With the right treatment though, sufferers can go back to living a healthy, normal, and fulfilling life.

Causes of Alcoholism

Many factors influence alcohol addiction. These factors include genetics, the way the person was raised, their social environment, and their underlying health problems. Those battling mental health issues like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, may be at an even greater risk of suffering from alcoholism because they often tend to depend on alcohol to cope with their health issues.

Since Australia has a popular drinking culture, it’s common for people to drink alcohol at many social and recreational gatherings. Because of this, it’s not always easy to differentiate social drinking from problem drinking.

Why is Alcohol Addictive?

Alcohol carries certain properties that make it very appealing to many individuals. It’s known to temporarily numb the mind in such a way, that it can help people forget about their inhibitions/ troubles. It can also reduce anxiety, induce feelings of happiness and relieve depression. Apart from these behavioural changes that people experience after consuming alcohol, there are also a few chemical changes that occur. These internal chemical alterations can be equally addictive. Scientists suggest that alcohol triggers the release of brain endorphins. These are feel-good chemicals that are associated with pleasure and pain-relief. The higher the levels of endorphins released, the more intoxicated and euphoric drinkers feel.

Apart from triggering the release of endorphins, alcohol also suppresses some portions of the brain that control important functions like decision-making and impulse control. It’s the main reason why people who are under the influence of alcohol tend to drink more, and engage in socially unacceptable behaviours. When alcohol starts turning off portions of the brain involved in decision-making, the dorsal striatum or the part of the brain that controls motivation and habit formation takes over. This eventually contributes to the emergence of habitual behaviours like alcohol abuse. Experts tell us that the brains of heavy drinkers are changed in such a way that they find alcohol pleasant. Their drinking patterns become more severe if the addiction is left untreated.

Alcoholism Signs

It is quite challenging to identify the symptoms of alcoholism as most drinkers tend to be very discreet about their drinking habits and become upset when confronted. These are some of the most common signs that their close friends and family members notice.

  • Sufferers feel ashamed or even guilty about their drinking habits
  • They tend to forget what they were doing or saying while they were consuming alcohol
  • They tend to lie about their drinking patterns
  • They need to drink alcohol to feel calm and relaxed
  • Their friends and close relatives are often concerned about their consumption of alcohol

The Difference Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol abuse, put simply, is drinking excessively too often. People who suffer from alcohol abuse fail to fulfil their personal/job responsibilities. They drink so much alcohol that it could cause them physical harm. This pattern of drinking could ultimately lead to alcohol dependence. Alcohol dependence is a chronic disease. Those suffering from it are so dependent on alcohol, that they experience withdrawal symptoms if they ever stop.

Alcohol Addiction Symptoms

  • Regularly neglecting responsibilities at work or home—neglecting children, not being productive at work, reporting late to work because of a hangover.
  • Consuming alcohol in situations that may be physically dangerous—using alcohol and driving, operating machinery while being intoxicated, drinking despite taking prescription medications.
  • Acting in socially unacceptable ways after consuming alcohol—causing problems with friends and close family members because they don’t approve of their drinking patterns.
  • Drinking to relax, overcome depression or other psychological problems.
  • Drinking after experiencing any stressful situations.
  • Inability to stop drinking regularly.
  • Drinking more to achieve the same level of pleasure/euphoria.
  • Lack of interest in seemingly normal activities.
  • Appearing intoxicated, tired or irritable.
  • Drinking to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal

The Pathway from Alcohol Abuse to Alcoholism

Not all alcohol abusers become full-fledged alcoholics, but many do. Alcoholism may also develop suddenly when the person goes through an extremely stressful situation. Other times, it happens over a period of time, as the person’s tolerance to alcohol increases. Research suggests that those who drink daily or binge drink now and then, significantly increase their chances of developing alcoholism.

Once a person becomes alcohol dependent, they may not be able to cut back on their drinking habits, even if they want to. This is not because the person doesn’t have the willpower to stop, but it’s mostly because the person will experience withdrawal symptoms that warrant medical help.

The Link Between Drinking and Smoking

Researchers have also found a link between drinking and smoking. According to their findings, drinkers are highly likely to also be smokers. That’s because tobacco tends to be associated with drinking and vice versa. Smoking can cause a dryness of the mouth, which in turn can make smokers feel thirsty. They tend to choose alcohol over water after smoking, because their taste buds crave for a drink that’s more pungent or stimulating in nature. This ultimately may create an addiction to both smoking and drinking.

Alcohol Poisoning

Alcohol poisoning happens when a person drinks excessively large amounts of alcohol within a short span of time. This leads to extremely high and often life-threatening BAC levels.

Since the liver can only metabolise one standard drink per hour, people who consume too much alcohol too quickly, experience elevated BAC levels. The higher the BAC, the greater a person’s chance of suffering from alcohol poisoning. BAC levels under such circumstances continue to rise even when the person stops consuming alcohol. That’s because there’s already sufficient alcohol in the stomach and intestines, ready to enter the bloodstream and elevate BAC levels.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

It can be very challenging to address alcoholism, but there are many options for recovery that are available today. Although most sufferers tend to downplay the negative consequences of their drinking or rationalise their drinking habits, the addiction not only affects them but those around them. With prompt medical help and support, patients will find the recovery process a lot easier.

Sufferers can choose from a range of treatment options. If the drinking problem is minimal, the individual may be able to cut back on the alcohol they consume, with the help and guidance of a counsellor.

Patients need to undergo a detoxification process when they’re physically dependent on alcohol. That’s because the body will experience withdrawal symptoms if the sufferer decides to stop consuming alcohol.

Withdrawal Symptoms Include:

  • Anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Trembling Hands
  • Headache
  • Sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Faster Heart Rate

Treatment Options


Patients undergoing detoxification may need to take medication to relieve their withdrawal symptoms. After detoxification, they should work on improving other areas of their life in order to stay sober into the future. This includes learning how to cope with work and family life and dealing with any other problems that are causing them to depend on alcohol. For most patients, recovery is a long-drawn-out process. The treatment is not only about stopping alcohol consumption, but also about addressing stress issues and other problems that may exist in the sufferer’s life, that makes them want to drink.

Acceptance and commitment therapy is key to helping people overcome their drinking problems. It’s an effective mindfulness-based therapy that gives people the psychological skills they need to cope with negative thoughts and feelings, that otherwise fuel their cravings for alcohol. This values-oriented behavioural therapy helps patients become more aware of their “physical and mental self.” It motivates them to lead more meaningful and fulfilling lives.


Depending on the severity of the alcohol addiction, the individual may have to either enrol in an inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation program. Inpatient rehabilitation programs are for those who need to check into the centre for a set period. This could vary from one to three months or more. Outpatient rehabilitation programs are for those who are able to continue with their daily life and to attend recovery programs on the side.

At Riverside Clinic, Melbourne alcohol addicts, have the opportunity to find a way out of alcoholism. They can restore themselves physically, spiritually and emotionally, and overcome the physical and mental ailments that stop them from living meaningful lives. Since the treatment is multi-faceted and holistic, patients receive the tools and skills they need, to set out on the road to recovery. From psychosocial assessments to one-on-one counselling, art therapy to personal training, patients receive the best-individualised treatments in a stable, home environment.

The clinicians also offer a structured intervention program to help, not only those dependent on alcohol, but their families as well. They educate those involved in the person’s life and encourage them to offer the person the right kind of support they need.

Living Life Alcohol-Free

Upon completion of the rehab program, most patients need ongoing therapy to maintain sobriety. They also benefit from participating in support groups. Support groups encourage alcoholics to talk openly about their fears or concerns. It helps them stay focused and brings about positive changes that impact their lifestyle.

Teens and Alcohol Abuse

Statistics reveal that those between 18 and 29 years of age are more likely to consume excessive amounts of alcohol, than people from other age groups. Underage drinking is a big problem for the entire family. Parents of children who regularly consume alcohol excessively, need to express their concerns from a place of love, so that the teen doesn’t end up feeling rejected or low in self-esteem. With the right clinical intervention program, teenage drinkers can overcome their drinking problems and address the real issues that are causing them to depend on alcohol. The earlier they get medical help, the faster they will recover from their addiction.

Riverside Clinic, Melbourne, runs several Family Education Programs to help families that are affected by their loved one’s addiction to alcohol and other substances. Through these programs, families receive the knowledge and support they need to help their loved ones combat their drinking problems.

Although alcoholism can severely affect a person’s personal, social and work life, there are many individually tailored treatment options available to those who need help.

New medications and behavioural therapies can help patients cope with their drinking habits and prevent relapses. Continued recovery depends on whether the patient learns the right coping strategies and deals with life’s challenges in an appropriate way. Clinicians also work with patients to identify and treat underlying problems like depression and stress that can cause them to fall back into their old drinking patterns, when times get tough.

For more practical advice on overcoming alcohol addiction, get in touch with the Clinicians at Riverside Clinic, Melbourne. Call 03 9699 7529 to find out more.