Alcoholism, or alcohol dependency, is made up of two elements; the chemical and the psychological.
In respect of the chemical side, alcohol is a sedative. This means it inhibits, or depresses nerve activity. The human brain reacts to this by becoming hypersensitive so it can still operate while under the sedating effects of the alcohol. The alcohol wears off but this hypersensitivity remains for a period. During this period we feel anxious, jittery, and unable to sleep or relax. This is why drinkers wake up in the middle of the night (usually approximately 5 hours after their last drink) and are unable to go back to sleep, no matter how exhausted they are. This is, in effect, alcohol withdrawal. It’s an unpleasant feeling we get when the dose of alcohol wears off and can most effectively be dealt with by taking another drink (after all the best way to counter this hypersensitivity is to take something to sedate it).
Over time your brain becomes more and more proficient in countering the sedating effects of the alcohol and it is able to counter increasing amounts of it. The effects of this are threefold:
- We need to drink more to get the same effect.
- We are able to drink more (ie our tolerance builds up).
- The withdrawal gets worse.
This last point is the main one from the perspective of dependency. Your brain only has to become very slightly hypersensitive to counter the effect of a small beer, it has to become very hypersensitive to counter a bottle of spirits, a couple of bottles of wine, or a dozen beers. So the more you drink the worse the withdrawal.
But the withdrawal alone doesn’t make an addiction. Everyone who drinks gets alcohol withdrawal (although if you are only drinking for example a small glass of beer or wine, that withdrawal is going to be so minor that it’s going to be almost unnoticeable). What dictates whether you are addicted or dependant to something not just the extent of the withdrawal, it is how your brain interprets that withdrawal. This brings us to the psychological aspect.
When you first start drinking any withdrawal is very minor and even if you were aware of it, it would never dawn on you to take a another drink to get rid of it. Most people drink alcohol towards the end of the day anyway, and so sleep through a lot of the withdrawal. It will disturb their sleep and leave them feeling tired and anxious the next day,. The key however is that they don’t consciously notice the withdrawal, nor would it ever dawn on them to take a drink to get rid of it.
The problem is that over the years and with repeated consumption, your subconscious mind starts to identify that there is an unpleasant feeling, and that a drink will get rid of it. As we continue to drink, this lesson is ingrained deeper and deeper into our subconscious. From thereon every time the effects of an alcoholic drinks starts to wear off, leaving behind it that unpleasant withdrawal feeling, we willvwant another drink to get rid of that feeling. This is learned behaviour and cannot be unlearned. It is also why reducing your intake is so fraught with difficulties.
This is the main differentiator between the ‘alcoholic’ and the so called ‘normal drinker’. The ‘alcoholic’ instinctively reaches for another drink when the last one starts to wear off; the ‘normal drinker‘ has yet to reach that stage.
A simple way to gauge your withdrawal, and your association of that withdrawal to having another drink, is to have half of what you’d ordinarily drink but have it earlier in the day (around lunchtime). Stay awake and see how you start to feel as the alcohol wears off. If you find an unpleasant anxious feeling starts building up, then that is the withdrawal. If that feeling makes you want to have another drink, then that is your brain associating the withdrawal to the next drink.
So does this mean you’re an alcoholic? In fact the word ‘alcoholic’ isn’t really used much these days because the theories of addiction that it evokes are no longer considered valid; the idea that it is individual that is the problem, that they have a genetic or spiritual deficiency that is the root of the issue, and that they are somehow different from others. These days we understand that alcohol is simply an addictive substance and that the longer you drink for and the more you drink the more likely you are to develop a dependency on. These days it is considered far more productive to approach things in a simple cost / benefit analysis. What is alcohol giving me, compared to what it’s taking?
So where do you go from here if you do want to change your relationship with alcohol? Many people find the first step is to understand alcohol on a much deeper level, this allows them to properly make that costs / benefit analysis. It also then explains to them where they are, how they got there, and what their options are for making a positive change.
You may be someone who only ever drinks in the evening and wants to know why you can suffer the withdrawal all day long but then find yourself overwhelmed in the evening. Indeed, you may be someone who can go for days without a drink but then find, when they start, they are unable to stop. This has a lot to do with another psychological process, that of ‘craving’. You can read more about cravings here.
You may find that you have a pronounced tendency to end up intoxicated, no matter how much you intend not to. You can read more about that here.
If you want to delve in a bit more detail into the chemical and physiological effects of alcohol, the working of the subconscious, and why there is this tendency with alcohol to end up intoxicated, the first 5 chapters of Alcohol Explained can be found here.