What Are the Causes of Alcoholism

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Alcohol use disorder, commonly referred to as alcoholism, is a potentially severe condition influenced by biological, psychological, and social risk factors. Although alcohol is a highly addictive substance, this is not the only cause of alcoholism. And it is not sufficient to explain why some people develop a dependency while others can drink in moderation. 

Addiction professionals believe certain risk factors can play a role in alcohol use disorders. Those identified are commonly present in the lives of many people who have developed alcohol dependence and addiction. Although these factors do not guarantee that a person will develop an alcohol use disorder, it’s essential to be mindful of the circumstances that can contribute to it. 

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Symptoms of Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence is a chronic health disorder that often includes a current or past history of heavy drinking, intense alcohol cravings, and an inability to control alcohol use. Excessive drinkers dependent on alcohol often need long-term, intensive treatment to change their behaviors and how they cope with their emotions and the stress of daily life.

Dependence is a condition that occurs when the body becomes physically reliant on drugs or alcohol to maintain its current state. For this reason, people with alcohol dependence will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when they try to stop drinking for a significant amount of time. These occur as the body struggles to adapt to alcohol’s absence when it has become used to its presence.

While withdrawal symptoms are a certainty when it comes to dependence, there are many other signs that you have developed an alcohol use disorder, including the following:

Signs of Alcohol Dependency Include:

  • Neglecting activities and hobbies in exchange for drinking
  • Wanting to quit or reduce drinking but failing to do so despite attempts
  • Engaging in high-risk situations while drinking, such as driving, fighting, having risky or impulsive activity, etc.
  • Devoting substantial time to drinking or recovering
  • Developing a tolerance in which more alcohol is needed to achieve the desired effects
  • Having problems in essential areas of life, such as at work, home, or school.
  • Having financial or legal issues, such as being unable to pay bills or being arrested for drunk driving
  • Having a “hair of the dog” the next day after drinking to stave off withdrawal symptoms

Mild-Moderate Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms Include:

  • Headache
  • Hand tremors or shakiness
  • Rapid heart rate and increased blood pressure
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Sweating and hyperthermia
  • Appetite loss
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety and agitation
  • Restlessness and irritability
  • Mood swings
  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances

Severe Symptoms of Alcohol Withdrawal or Delirium Tremens (DTs):

  • Seizures
  • Visual and auditory hallucinations and delusions
  • Severe confusion and disorientation
  • Increased blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing difficulties
  • Uncontrollable restlessness 

Delirium Tremens is a severe form of alcohol withdrawal that is a life-threatening medical emergency. It has predicted more than a one-third (37%) mortality rate without medical intervention. However, the survival rate is much higher among those who receive treatment.

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The Risk Factors & Causes of Alcoholism

Alcohol dependence wouldn’t be a concern if alcohol weren’t addictive. Alcohol’s impact on brain function is self-reinforcing and tends to become more intense over time. Among the chemicals linked to alcohol’s reinforcing effects are feel-good chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and glutamate. These cause your brain to associate positive feelings with drinking and motivate you to drink more.

The following risk factors can also make you more vulnerable to alcohol addiction: 

Psychological Factors

Many people with alcohol use disorders also commonly experience psychiatric conditions, such as anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, etc. For example, approximately 50% of people with severe mental health disorders are affected by substance use. Also, 37% of alcohol abusers and 53% of drug abusers have at least one serious mental illness.

One of the many reasons people with mental health conditions use alcohol to self-medicate is to cope with their emotional symptoms. Those not correctly diagnosed or treated effectively might turn to substance abuse. Without professional help, undiagnosed mental health disorders will likely worsen. While alcohol use may initially help with some emotional distress, it aggravates it in the long run. This means that an increasing amount of alcohol will be required to address ever-progressing mental health issues.

Personality Factors

Specific personality characteristics may make a person more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder than others. For example, those prone to being impulsive or less inhibited may be more inclined to engage in excessive drinking.

In addition to impulsivity, research has suggested that other personality traits may contribute to alcoholism. For example, extroverts and those with low conscientiousness have been associated with “high and increasing alcohol consumption.” People prone to neuroticism, which includes anxiety, poor emotional stability, and sensitivity to adverse emotions, may also be more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder.

The expectations that an individual has about alcohol also play a crucial role. For instance, people who anticipate that alcohol’s effects will yield positive results are more likely to develop a drinking problem than those with lower expectations about alcohol use.

Drinking History Factors

A person’s drinking history substantially increases the odds they will become alcohol-dependent. Individuals with a lengthy drinking history are more susceptible to becoming an alcoholic than those who have consumed alcohol for less time. This is because alcohol use rewires the brain to crave and depend on it, compounding its effects over time. Also, if you consumed alcohol before age 15, you may be four times as likely to experience an alcohol use disorder later in life.

Genetic Factors

Modern studies have found that no single factor influences whether or not an individual becomes an alcoholic as much as their genetic profile. The genetic factors contributing to alcoholism are complicated, and numerous genes are involved and interrelated.  

Researchers have found at least 566 variants in 406 locations in the human genome that could influence the extent that a person may suffer from alcoholism. Genes related to alcohol metabolism, particularly ADH1B and ALDH2, appear to be the closest related to problem drinking. Research has also suggested that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for an alcohol use disorder.

Familial Factors

An individual’s family life may significantly influence whether a person becomes an alcoholic. Growing up in a heavy-drinking family provides greater access to alcohol, and growing up in a relatively affluent family makes alcohol more affordable. As a result, economic stability limits the financial distress excessive drinking can cause. 

According to one study, 78% of those residing in households with a yearly income of $75,000 or more reported past week drinking. Also, they were more than twice as likely to be regular drinkers than those who earned less than $10,000 annually.

Social & Cultural Factors

Social and cultural factors play a vital role in exposing individuals to drinking and reinforcing it as a regular practice. For example, in countries where alcohol use is illicit or discouraged for religious or spiritual reasons, it will be less accessible because businesses will refuse to sell it or are not legally allowed to do so. In some cases, the social cost of drinking may overshadow any perceived benefits.

Denying That Alcoholism Exists

Alcoholics may embrace denial as a defense mechanism for several reasons. Initially, it might be as simple as not recognizing the problem or its severity. But as drinking progresses, adverse effects will accumulate to a point where it is apparent to both the alcoholic and those close to them. After that, there may be some feelings of guilt or shame, but eventually, the active continuation of the disorder is going to be driven by the fear of change. 

Denial is one of the most challenging aspects of addiction to get past. But once it’s acknowledged, you can take the steps needed to get treatment and begin to imagine a better life without the need for alcohol.

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Medical detox followed by alcoholism treatment can help strengthen your resistance to triggers as you move forward into a sober life. When you reach out to us for help, we will put you in contact with an experienced Treatment Advisor who can answer your questions and get you started with our streamlined admissions process. During your initial consultation, we provide a brief pre-assessment, which helps us determine the level of care most suitable for you. 

At Guardian Recovery, our top priority is ensuring effective treatment options are available to those who need them most. There is no better time to dedicate yourself to an addiction treatment program and begin your personal journey of substance use recovery. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation benefits check and discover how we can help you break the chains of alcohol addiction and reclaim your life.


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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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