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What Makes Alcohol Addictive?

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Do you enjoy drinking occasionally? Although an alcohol-use disorder doesn’t occur after one or two drinks, you should be aware of the risks associated with an alcohol-use disorder. Research indicates you may have a predisposition to addiction if alcohol addiction runs in your family or you begin drinking early in adolescence. So what makes alcohol addictive? Let’s discuss the chemicals in alcohol that contribute to addiction, how the brain responds to alcohol and the physical and psychological components that lead to addiction. 

Are you concerned that you may have an alcohol-use disorder or that your drinking is causing problems? You don’t have to figure this out on your own. At Guardian Recovery, we have over two decades of experienced medical professionals that can help you in your journey toward wellness. When you call, you can speak with a Treatment Advisor. They are ready to answer any questions you may have and help you determine what the appropriate level of care may be. We specialize in alcohol-use disorder and can provide a comprehensive and individualized treatment plan to meet your needs. Please contact us today for more information and begin taking the necessary steps toward recovery. You deserve to prioritize your health and well-being. 

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How Does Alcohol Become Addictive?

Alcohol is composed of the ingredient ethanol or ETOH. This is the primary chemical in alcoholic drinks such as beer, liquor, and wine. Ethanol enters the bloodstream, is sent to the brain, and instantly affects our brain’s chemistry. Neurotransmitters are released, called dopamine and serotonin, and the neurotransmitters increase feelings of pleasure. This begins the process of addiction. We want to feel emotions of joy and happiness repeatedly when our reward center is activated. 

The next part of the addiction cycle occurs when the pleasurable feelings created by alcohol decrease, and withdrawal symptoms start to appear. It can be uncomfortable to feel these withdrawal sensations, and alcohol helps limit or decrease the symptoms, thus repeating the cycle.

Alcohol-use disorder forms gradually over time. It also can run in families and is believed to be triggered by a genetic component. 

How Alcohol Affects The Brain and Leads to Dependence

Alcohol can affect the body quickly. Did you know that alcohol changes the chemistry in your brain within 10 minutes of consumption? 

In addition to dopamine and serotonin being released when alcohol is consumed, the amino acid GABA is also impacted. This is the primary neurotransmitter that affects the central nervous system. Alcohol acts as a brain depressant, similar to the effect of an anesthetic. This is why people may use alcohol as a form of self-medication because of the increased feelings of pleasure activated by dopamine and serotonin and the numbing of emotions caused by the chemical interaction with GABA. 

The neurobiological process of dependence includes a mix of positive and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement consists of the neuroadaptations that lead to the positive feelings the person feels when alcohol is used, such as euphoria. Negative reinforcement motivates alcohol use when neuroadaptations remove the negative emotions a person experiences when alcohol use is stopped, such as withdrawal or hangover symptoms and increased anxiety. These uncomfortable sensations are immediately relieved when alcohol is consumed. 

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Physical and Psychological Addiction to Alcohol

There is a distinction between physical symptoms versus psychological symptoms of addiction. Physical dependence is triggered by tolerance and withdrawal from the drug. Psychological dependence is the belief and behaviors motivating a person’s continued alcohol use. 

Here are the physical and psychological indicators of alcohol-use disorder. 

Physical Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction: 

  • Anxiety.
  • Trembling.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea. 
  • Vomiting.
  • Insomnia.
  • Sweating.

Psychological Symptoms of Alcohol Addiction:

  • Not capable of stopping alcohol use.
  • Abusing alcohol even when health problems occur.
  • Using alcohol to deal with problems.
  • Obsession.
  • Increased risk-taking activities. 
  • An increasing amount of alcohol is used. 

A theory developed by Robert Miller defined the Feeling-State Theory of behavioral and substance addictions. An addiction forms when positive feelings become rigidly linked with specific substances or behavior. The link between emotions and behavior is called the feeling-state. The desire to use alcohol or other addictive substances/behaviors is created when a feeling-state is activated. What motivates the person to continue an addictive behavior is to recreate the feeling-state formed during the first experience. 

Common feeling-states include love, belonging, power and control, and safety. 

For example, a person who began drinking alcohol may have done so during adolescence with other peers. An intense desire to feel like they fit in, or belong, with their peers may have activated the feeling-state of drinking alcohol and the belief of belonging. Each time the person drank with friends, it reinforced the feeling of belonging, and subconsciously this need to feel like they belonged was driving the behavior of drinking alcohol. Over time, the feeling-state becomes more fixed and rigid, which causes the behavior, even when the feeling isn’t there. This is why a person may drink excessively, alone, and despite the consequences that may occur. The person with an alcohol-use disorder is unaware this feeling is motivating the urge to drink. 

To heal the feeling-state that has been activated, a person must go through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) to desensitize the feeling and reprocess traumas associated with the negative belief of not belonging. Examples of traumas that may trigger a core belief of not belonging are abuse, bullying, or rejection from peers. 

Identifying the feeling-state associated with alcohol use and using EMDR can help stop the cycle of using alcohol to feel a positive sense of belonging and help a person struggling with alcohol use feel more power and control. Instead of feeling compelled to drink during triggering moments, they feel a sense of belonging on their own without the use of alcohol. 

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Are you questioning if you or a loved one may be struggling with an alcohol-use disorder? Alcoholism can destroy a person’s life if a person does not recognize the problem early on. It can negatively impact your health and relationships and disrupt a person’s life financially or legally. Loved ones are negatively impacted and often feel powerless in helping their loved one seek help.  If you suspect you have an alcohol-use disorder, you don’t have to wait to seek treatment. If you cannot stop your alcohol use, addressing this problem as soon as possible should be your top priority. Addressing this problem early on can save you from experiencing its adverse effects for years to come. 

At Guardian Recovery, we offer comprehensive, individualized programs designed to address the root causes and effects of alcoholism. Our goal is to provide those we treat with the tools they need to renew their hope for a healthy, alcohol-free life. Please contact us today for a free, no-obligation health insurance benefit check.

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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/AA67/AA67.htm
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4056340/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3860472/
  4. https://www.nm.org/healthbeat/healthy-tips/alcohol-and-the-brain
  5. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4065474/
  6. https://emdrtherapyvolusia.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Feeling-State_Addiction_Protocol.pdf

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave

L.M.H.C.

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.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

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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