Alcoholism: Definition, Symptoms, Traits, Causes, Treatment

is alcoholism a mental illness

It affects 12.1% of males 12 and older and 9.1% of females in the same age group. Compounding the problem already experienced by those facing alcoholism is the progressive nature of the disease. In the early stages of alcoholism, one or two drinks may be all it takes to get the “song” to stop.

By Buddy TBuddy T is a writer and founding member of the Online Al-Anon Outreach Committee with decades of experience writing about alcoholism. Because he is a member of a support group that stresses the importance of anonymity at the public level, he does not use his photograph or his real name on this website. John C. Umhau, MD, MPH, CPE is board-certified in addiction medicine and preventative medicine. For over 20 years Dr. Umhau was a senior clinical investigator at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

If you think you might have an alcohol use disorder or if you are worried that your alcohol consumption has become problematic, it is important to talk to your doctor to discuss your treatment options. AUD, once known as alcoholism, is a medical diagnosis and mental health condition. The DSM-5-TR defines a mental health condition as a collection of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral symptoms caused by physical, mental, or developmental dysfunction. Not only does AUD affect the health of the person with the disease, but it also impacts the lives of those around them. Medications, behavioral therapies, and social support groups are among the strategies to combat this disorder. As harmful and debilitating as AUD can be for both the person with the disease and their loved ones, there are many approaches that you can take to manage the condition.

Most people will feel better in a couple weeks, and the depression will get better. If you still have depression after 4 weeks of not drinking, talk to your doctor. For some people, alcohol dependence can also cause social problems such as homelessness, joblessness, divorce, and domestic abuse. When healthcare providers screen for AUD, they look at drinking behavior patterns within the last year to determine a diagnosis. They use 11 criteria established by the DSM-5 to assess alcohol use severity. There are effective ways to treat this disease and steps you can take to help a loved one enter recovery.

Somewhere down the road, the only time the song stops is when the person is passed out. Several evidence-based treatment approaches are available for AUD. One size does not fit all and a treatment approach that may work for one person may not work for another.

When the drinkers were still relatively healthy, they could control their impulse to drink because the judgment and decision-making circuits of their prefrontal cortex would balance out those impulses. But, once addicted, substance use also disrupts prefrontal circuits. While the brain’s dopamine transmitters drive us to seek pleasure, the stress neurotransmitters found in the extended amygdala region of the brain drive us to avoid pain and unpleasant experiences. When so many things in life become reminders of drinking, it becomes more and more difficult for people to not think about drinking.

Alcohol Use Disorder Symptoms (and Signs in Other People)

Other pursuits in life that once brought pleasure and balanced out the lows no longer do so. With continued use of alcohol or drugs, nerve cells in the basal ganglia “scale back” their sensitivity to dopamine, reducing alcohol’s ability to produce the same “high” it once produced. This is how one builds a tolerance to alcohol, which causes people to consume substance dependence larger amounts to feel the same euphoria they once did. When the drinking “song” starts playing in the mind of an alcoholic, they are powerless. The alcoholic didn’t put or want the thought there, the only way to get it to stop is to have another drink. Too much alcohol affects your speech, muscle coordination and vital centers of your brain.

is alcoholism a mental illness

Mindfulness may also help address depression and trauma conditions that co-occur with AUD. CBT works by helping you explore how your thought patterns affect your reactions and do you genuinely like the feeling of being drunk behaviors so you can learn new ways of responding to emotions. Mental health conditions cause distress or setbacks socially, at work, and in other meaningful activities.

What Increases the Risk for Alcohol Use Disorder?

A heavy drinking binge may even cause a life-threatening coma or death. This is of particular concern when you’re taking certain medications that also depress the brain’s function. To learn more about alcohol treatment options and search for quality care near you, please visit the NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator. In the DSM-5, alcohol use disorder is further classified into categories of mild, moderate, and severe.

  1. Alcohol use disorder includes a level of drinking that’s sometimes called alcoholism.
  2. Mutual-support groups provide peer support for stopping or reducing drinking.
  3. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other 12-step programs can offer that social support.
  4. You might not recognize how much you drink or how many problems in your life are related to alcohol use.

As you drink more, you become intoxicated and unsteady, and you might do or say things you normally won’t. Knowing that others are going through what you are can help with the loneliness and stigma and support you when you’re struggling. Take a look at the Alcohol Abuse Screening Quiz to see how symptoms compare. The progression of the disease is subtle, and usually takes place over such an extended period, that even the alcoholic themselves fails to notice the point at which they lost control and alcohol took over their life.

Support for People With Alcoholism

Noticing these moments can help you make a plan for different ways to cope. ‌Drinking alcohol excessively can also get in the way of other activities, your relationships, and your self-esteem, which can further affect your mental health. Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other 12-step programs can offer that social support. Binge drinking is when you drink enough alcohol to raise your blood alcohol content (BAC) to 0.08% or higher. For men, that typically is about five standard alcoholic drinks within a few hours; for women, this is four alcoholic drinks within the same period. Alcohol use can progress to a point where the only thing that can relieve the withdrawal symptoms is more alcohol.

Steps to Treating Alcohol Use Disorder

As a mental health condition, AUD refers to alcohol use that feels distressing or beyond your control. Many mental health-centered treatments for AUD can help recovery, from motivational interviewing to mindfulness training. If you or a loved one is struggling alcohol withdrawal symptoms with AUD, make an appointment with a primary care provider such as a medical doctor or nurse practitioner. People with severe AUD who have used alcohol long-term may experience severe withdrawal symptoms that require medical evaluation and treatment.

At this stage, the person is no longer drinking to experience pleasure. In fact, drinking may not even bring any feeling of pleasure anymore. The drinker is drinking to avoid pain, not to get those feelings of euphoria. A health care provider might ask the following questions to assess a person’s symptoms. Other early signs of alcoholism include blackout drinking or a drastic change in demeanor while drinking, such as consistently becoming angry or violent. You can search for an empathetic mental health professional using our Healthline FindCare tool to get more information and help finding the right treatment for you.

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