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Recognizing the Signs of Alcohol Abuse & Dependence

April 17th, 2024


Alcohol is a very prevalent part of our culture, and many cultures around the world. Drinking can start at a young age, and the younger some individuals begin, the more issues it can potentially create. Drinking continuously can lead to an alcohol addiction and this can be difficult to manage, but fortunately not impossible.

Recognizing the signs of alcohol addiction early on is key to managing and overcoming it. Alcohol addiction not only affects the individual but also their families and communities. With the right support systems, strategies, and resources, recovery and maintaining sobriety are achievable goals. This blog aims to shed light on the subtle and overt signs of alcohol abuse, and provide guidance on the steps one can take towards a healthier, alcohol-free lifestyle. Let’s get started!

What Is Alcohol Abuse & Dependence?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5) defines alcohol use disorder (AUD) as "a problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, and is diagnosed as mild, moderate, or severe based on the number of symptoms, out of a possible 11, in the past 12 months”.

A person must meet at least 4 of these criteria to be considered dependent. Someone meeting less than 4 of these criteria may have alcohol abuse rather than alcohol dependence. Recognizing alcohol abuse is just as important as it can develop into dependence if not caught and treated in time

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence symptoms can include withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, such as tremors (hands shaking), irritability, anxiety, and depression, spending large amounts of time thinking about, planning, and obtaining alcohol, neglecting responsibilities due to drinking or being hungover from drinking, continuing to drink despite negative consequences (i.e. work/family issues due to drinking), drinking in dangerous situations such as drinking and driving, and building a tolerance to alcohol meaning that the person need more alcohol over time to achieve the same level of intoxication as previously able.

  • Compulsion to Drink: Feeling a strong, often uncontrollable desire to drink alcohol.
  • Physical Dependence: Experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as sweating, shaking, and nausea when not drinking.
  • Tolerance Buildup: Needing increasingly larger amounts of alcohol to feel its effects.
  • Loss of Interest: Losing interest in activities and hobbies that were once enjoyable.
  • Continued Use Despite Harm: Drinking even when it's causing physical health problems like liver damage or high blood pressure.
  • Unsuccessful Attempts to Cut Down: Making efforts to reduce alcohol consumption but failing to do so.
  • Time Consumption: Spending a significant amount of time obtaining alcohol, drinking, or recovering from its effects.
  • Neglecting Major Roles: Failing to meet responsibilities at home, work, or school because of drinking habits.
  • Withdrawal Relief: Drinking to relieve or avoid withdrawal symptoms.
  • Using More Than Intended: Frequently drinking more alcohol, or for a longer duration, than intended.
  • Social Isolation: Isolating oneself from family and friends to drink.
  • Psychological Dependence: Relying on alcohol to cope with stress, anxiety, or other mental health issues.

Signs and Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse

A few signs of alcohol abuse include drinking larger amounts or drinking for a longer amount of time than intended, craving alcohol when not drinking, and inability to cut down or stop drinking. Alcohol addiction warning signs range from mild to severe and include other symptoms in addition to the ones listed. Here is a list of some of the most common signs of alcohol addiction and abuse.

  • Increased Tolerance: Needing more alcohol to feel its effects.
  • Withdrawal Symptoms: Experiencing physical symptoms like shaking, sweating, nausea, or anxiety when not drinking.
  • Loss of Control: Drinking more alcohol or for a longer period than intended.
  • Neglecting Responsibilities: Failing to fulfill work, school, or home duties due to drinking.
  • Continued Use Despite Problems: Continuing to drink even when it causes or exacerbates health, social, or legal problems.
  • Social or Recreational Sacrifices: Giving up or reducing social and work activities and hobbies.
  • Spending a Lot of Time Obtaining, Using, or Recovering from Alcohol: This includes long periods of drinking or recovering from its effects.
  • Cravings: Strong desires or urges to drink alcohol.
  • Risky Use: Drinking in unsafe situations, such as driving or operating machinery.
  • Deteriorating Physical Health: Experiencing health issues like liver disease, stomach problems, or heart disease related to alcohol consumption.
  • Mood Swings and Irritability: Experiencing frequent emotional changes or increased irritability due to drinking.
  • Denial: Insisting that there is no problem, despite clear signs of alcohol abuse.

Do I Have an Alcohol Problem?

There are many individual factors that play into the disease of addiction. For example, someone who does not drink during the week but drinks all weekend may still meet the criteria for alcohol dependency. Additionally, so can someone who still makes it to work, pays their bills, and keeps up with social and family obligations, yet drinks to excess.

It's important to recognize that alcohol dependency isn't solely about how often you drink, but how you manage your life around alcohol and its impact on your health and wellbeing.

Some key questions to consider include: Do you feel a need to drink to start or end your day? Do you find yourself thinking about your next drink frequently? Are you drinking to cope with stress, anxiety, or depression? Have you tried to cut back on your drinking unsuccessfully?

These questions can help identify potential problems with alcohol, even if you appear to be managing your daily responsibilities. It's crucial to remember that alcohol dependency can manifest differently in everyone, and understanding your relationship with alcohol is the first step toward addressing potential issues.

The Impact of Alcohol Dependence on Mental Health

Mental health repercussions of alcohol dependence include memory issues, concentration impairment, and emotion regulation difficulties. Symptoms of anxiety and depression also often develop or increase as time goes on and the disease of addiction continues. Many people also experience brain fog, being “in a haze”. In addition, some experience an increase in stress, feeling numb or overreacting, shame, guilt, and ruminating thoughts.

It is important to note that pre-existing mental health illnesses can also be exacerbated by prolonged alcohol use. Many people with mental health issues will self-medicate with alcohol to manage their mental health symptoms, not realizing that their alcohol use may exacerbate their symptoms.

Longstanding drinking can also worsen psychotic symptoms, such as audio and visual hallucinations, paranoia and depression. Trauma survivors may also suffer from heightened isolation and retreat from the world around them when drinking heavily.

Alcohol Addiction Treatment

There are many treatment options for alcohol addiction. Treatment options include residential treatment, where the person resides at a treatment facility for a longer-term basis. Inpatient hospitalization is typically a 15-30-day stay at a psychiatric hospital and outpatient options can allow for individuals to remain at home and even continue to work while seeking treatment.

Outpatient options include Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP), Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) and OP (outpatient program). PHP programs typically include attending group therapy five days a week for four hours a day. IOP programs are three to five days a week for three hours at a time. OP is the lowest level of care and may not include groups at all, but just individual therapy once or twice a week. In individual therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Motivational Interviewing (MI) are very useful therapeutic techniques that can help in achieving and sustaining sobriety.

Medications can also be a great implementation in treating addiction as these can assist in alleviating withdrawal symptoms and curbing cravings. Another treatment option is attending Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) meetings facilitated by those in recovery from alcohol.

How Alcohol Addiction Affects Those Around You

Alcohol addiction does not only affect the person who is in active addiction but also everyone around them. This is a long journey and can be a challenge for all involved. Supporting loved ones with alcohol addiction is very difficult, as there is a fine line between helping and enabling. You can support your loved one by assisting them in navigating resources and treatment options. Education and support groups are vital for all involved in the recovery process.

  • Emotional Distress: Family members and friends often experience anxiety, depression, and stress due to their loved one's drinking habits.
  • Financial Strain: Alcohol addiction can lead to significant financial problems, impacting not only the individual but also their family's financial stability.
  • Social Isolation: Families may isolate themselves from social circles due to embarrassment or shame associated with the addiction.
  • Relationship Conflicts: Alcohol addiction can strain relationships, leading to arguments, mistrust, and breakdowns in communication.
  • Neglect of Responsibilities: The responsibilities of the addicted individual can fall to other family members, leading to additional stress and burden.
  • Health Risks: Families may face health risks related to stress or even direct exposure to harmful behaviors.
  • Enabling Behavior: Distinguishing between support and enabling can be difficult, and families often struggle with not enabling the addiction.
  • Legal and Safety Concerns: Alcohol addiction can lead to legal issues or unsafe situations, affecting the entire family.
  • Emotional Abuse or Violence: Alcohol can increase the likelihood of emotional or physical abuse within the home, affecting all members of the family.
  • Impact on Children: Children in such environments may experience emotional and developmental challenges.
  • Need for Support: Families often require their own support and resources to cope with the challenges of a loved one's addiction.
  • Education and Awareness: Learning about addiction as a disease helps families and friends provide appropriate support and navigate recovery options effectively.

Mental Health Services For Alcohol Addictions

If you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol addiction, it's crucial to seek professional help. At Clarity Clinic, located in the Chicago Loop, River North, Evanston, Mokena, Lakeview-Belmont, Lakeview-Broadway, and Arlington Heights, Illinois, we provide comprehensive mental health services tailored to support individuals facing alcohol addiction.

Our expert team of therapists and psychiatrists are trained not only in addiction but also in a broad range of mental health disorders. We are proud to offer the best Partial Hospitalization Programs (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) in Chicago.

Take the first step towards a clearer, healthier future. Contact Clarity Clinic today to discover how we can help you on your journey to recovery.

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Alcohol Dependence & Abuse: Commonly Asked Questions


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