Differentiating Between Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence


Moderate alcohol consumption by adults is normal, but abuse or alcohol dependence is a major problem. High alcohol intake disrupts the central nervous system and brain function. It affects perception, coordination and thinking. It also alters decision making process, increases aggression and reduces inhibitions. Those who abuse alcohol have higher probability than others to take greater risks, thoughtless decision, or violent behavior.

Alcoholism is a term frequently used to define the medical and physical disorder of alcohol addiction. Many health care professionals prefer more accurate definition to describe the distinction between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence.

Alcohol dependence is a disorder with these four likely features:

• Physical addiction with apparent withdrawal signs that can only be relieved by immediate alcohol intake (e.g., drinking in the morning during hangover) or by taking other drugs.

• Physiological tolerance, so that alcohol is increasingly necessary to bring out the desired effects.

• Difficulty in controlling the amount of alcohol consumed once drinking is begun.

• Even a negligible alcohol intake can cause a relapse if the person is already trying to abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages.

Many abusers are not actually have physical addiction to alcohol, but they tend to develop problems due to alcohol consumption and lack of view, lack of understanding of the risks, or unaware about harm that can be caused to themselves or others. Because they are not drug addicts themselves, abusers can still control their behaviors and can adjust their consumption habits in response to the warnings and explanations.

There are two common signs of alcohol abuse:

• Occasionally have excessive alcohol consumption which causes or aggravates problems at school and at work.

• Use alcohol repeatedly under certain circumstances that can increase physical risks like driving under intoxication. Some people who abuse alcohol regularly can eventually become dependent on alcohol.

The presence of one of the following indicators suggests that an individual can have a serious drinking problem or high risk of developing one. Every single indicator is not a conclusive proof for the presence of a serious problem, but circumstantial evidence is usually relevant and should be considered during a treatment.

• Drinking is exacerbated by persistent or recurrent work, school, legal, financial, or health problems. This is the heart of many alcohol problems.

• The person has tried in vain to reduce the extent of alcohol consumption, because when he tries to drink a little, he starts to lose control of the amount consumed.

These are common signs of increasing alcohol dependence:

o The person usually drinks alone regularly. Drinking is considered as a private activity instead of a social one. It indicates likely future alcohol dependence.

o Drinking alone to relax before a big event (a wedding, for example), in comparison with the consumption of alcohol during a social event.

o Drinking in the morning as a way to provide motivation or to get rid of a hangover. This is also a strong indicator of future addiction.

o The person claims to have a high alcohol tolerance, for example, he can make statements like “I can drink a lot tonight without getting any noticeable effect, so let’s do it!” High tolerance is an indicator of increasing alcohol dependence.

o Individual consumption of alcohol as a means to cope with problems in life. This indicates possible emotional or psychological problems, and increases the chance that alcohol dependence already sets in. But then, if drinking is just a form of experimentation, peer pressure and adolescent rebellion, it isn’t necessarily indicates a future certainty.

o There is an increasing trend on drinking quantity. A disposition for having high alcohol consumption may point to the existence of other relevant problems.

o There is a recorded family history of alcohol abuse. Some genetic studies show that alcoholism may run in families due to genetic factors. The disturbance of family life within an alcoholic home also has a role in creating exposure to alcoholism on children in the future. However, many children respond to parental alcoholism by cautiously avoiding alcohol themselves. Based on one study, the likelihood that a teen will follow in the footsteps of their parents will depend partly on whether the alcoholic parent is the father or the mother and the nature of the relationship with that particular parent. Children of alcoholic mothers have a much higher risk of developing alcohol dependence than those with alcoholic fathers.

Most people who abuse alcoholic and are addicted to alcohol often deny of having a problem. As they become addicted to alcohol, they also develop “tunnel vision”, a defense mechanism that allows them to temporarily ignore even a serious problem. These people want to blame their present problems on a seemingly related situation or someone else, like bad luck, misunderstanding with parents/spouse, an oppressive supervisor, etc.

Recognizing and accepting the existence of an alcohol problem is the first step towards solving the situation. If you’re concerned about a friend or relative who has a potential alcohol problem, you should share your thoughts with that person.

If you have a drinking problem, it is important to note the following points:

• Alcoholism is an unfortunately common disorder, it is not a moral weakness. Self-blame, blaming others or feel ashamed about drinking problem are all obstacles that can hamper proper treatment.

• You are not alone. It is estimated that 14 million Americans, eight percent of the population are alcoholics or abuse alcohols regularly. Each year, approximately 600,000 patients entering treatment for alcoholism.

• Do not kill the messengers. Those who complain or worry about your drinking problem may be a key to your recovery. They often do care about your situation and may offer their supports.

• The earlier a problem is treated, the more successful a treatment can be. Do not wait until the effects are irreversible, which may cause you to fail at school or work, or divorce.

• Excessive consumption of alcohol has serious health consequences. It increases risk of cancer and cause liver damage, brain damage, immune system disorders, and infant deformities. It can also cause accidents and some mental health problems.

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Gary Wickman

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  • A very important component of alcohol dependence or abuse is hypoglycaemia. This should be mentioned in the article.

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Gary Wickman