You may understand what alcoholism is, but how does it start? Why do people become alcoholics? Is it because of a genetic predisposition? Nature vs. nurture? Unfortunately, the answer isn’t that simple. As a Heartland treatment center that’s helped numerous people recover from chronic drinking, we have experience with the many causes of alcohol addiction, and we’re covering some of the most common ones below.
What Is Alcoholism?
In case you aren’t familiar with it, alcoholism is a chronic condition characterized by a problematic and severe pattern of drinking, which can lead to a range of physical, psychological, social, and interpersonal problems. Also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD) or alcohol addiction, common signs of alcoholism include difficulty controlling one’s drinking, drinking despite the resulting negative consequences, and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when drinking is stopped.
Individuals with alcoholism may also display symptoms like drinking more than intended, unsuccessful attempts to quit or cut back, spending a significant amount of time obtaining alcohol or recovering from alcohol consumption, and neglecting responsibilities due to drinking. Physical symptoms may also occur as a result of heavy drinking, such as liver disease, high blood pressure, and neurological damage.
The good news is that alcoholism is treatable. Care usually involves a combination of medication-assisted treatment like alcohol detox and psychotherapy programs like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to support the individual in physical and psychological recovery. There are also aftercare programs to support the individual in ongoing recovery and even family services designed to help mend relationships and promote individual healing within the family unit.
Why Do People Get Addicted to Alcohol?
The causes of alcoholism are complex, including genetic, environmental, and social factors. Since everyone is different, one person with alcoholism may have started drinking for different reasons than another person. What’s more, while some people may become more predisposed to alcoholism due to genetic factors, others may have been more heavily influenced by environmental or social factors.
Let’s dive further into it and explore some of the most common reasons why people become alcoholics.
Genetic Predisposition & Family History
It’s highly common for individuals with mental health disorders like depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or anxiety to turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication. In fact, alcoholism often co-occurs with mental illness, meaning individuals with mental health disorders are more likely to turn to drugs or alcohol to self-medicate.
Many of these individuals begin to rely on alcohol to alleviate their symptoms or cope with their mental illness's impact on their lives. However, as time passes and drinking continues, the individual may become dependent on alcohol to feel “normal.” This ultimately results in heavier drinking, which can develop into alcoholism.
Trauma and/or Mental Illness
Trauma refers to exposure to an incident or series of emotionally disturbing or life-threatening events with lasting effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. Examples of traumatic events include sexual assault, natural disasters, car accidents and crashes, and childhood abuse. People with a history of emotional, sexual, or physical trauma are also at risk of developing alcohol addiction, as those who have experienced trauma are more likely to start drinking to cope with their symptoms.
Fortunately, it's possible to heal from trauma with the right kind of care and support. For individuals who have developed a co-occurring alcohol use disorder, receiving mental health treatment can make recovery from drinking somewhat easier.
Genetic and Environmental Causes
Other common reasons for alcohol addiction include environmental factors, such as growing up in a home or family where close relatives have alcohol use disorder. This increases the younger generation’s risk of developing a drinking problem.
Being raised in a home with alcoholics also increases the individual’s chances of being exposed to trauma or abuse or falling into bad habits. At the same time, many studies have suggested a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, as we previously mentioned. In fact, it’s estimated that more than 50% of alcohol use disorders are linked to genetic factors that affect areas of the brain associated with reward and motivation.
Underage drinking or drinking at an early age is another common cause of alcoholism. Not only can drinking become a habit very easily, but underage drinking can also increase the body’s tolerance to alcohol. This requires the individual to increase their consumption to experience the same effects.
Because tolerance contributes to heavier drinking, it usually gives way to the development of physical dependence, which is when a person requires alcohol to function normally. At this stage, quitting alcohol without the support of medically-assisted detox can be challenging and even life-threatening, to the point where addicts would prefer to keep drinking despite the consequences.
Everyone experiences stress from time to time, but some people experience it more often than others. While it’s a completely normal reaction that can help people cope with difficult situations, chronic stress can lead to various self-destructive behaviors, such as heavy drinking.
This is often the case for individuals with stressful jobs, such as first responders, doctors, nurses, and military personnel. However, stress is also common for the busy mom who manages a household and several children or the executive who always seems to be on call. As stress is such a common issue, it’s no wonder it’s one of the most common reasons why people become alcoholics.
Our Illinois Addiction Recovery for Alcoholism
Recovery from alcoholism is a lifelong process that requires ongoing effort, support, and care. While relapse is possible, it's important for individuals in recovery from alcohol addiction to continue to seek support. On that note, if you or someone you care about is battling a drinking problem, we’re here to help.
Our Heartland drug rehab offers alcoholism treatment that incorporates medically assisted care and psychotherapy to support the individual in their physical and mental recovery. We also offer family therapy to help spouses, children, and parents heal from the impact of addiction and learn how to best support their loved ones.
- NIH - Genetics and Alcoholism