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Understanding Alcohol Dependence

Published on August 30, 2021
Understanding Alcohol Dependence

Alcohol dependence can make it difficult to stop drinking. Breaking free from unhealthy patterns of behavior and overcoming the physical and mental symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can be a monumental challenge, but one that is well worth the effort.

What Is Alcohol Dependence?

In essence, someone who is alcohol dependent physically needs a certain amount of alcohol in their system to feel normal. 

If they abstain, they are likely to experience sweating, racing heartbeats, trouble sleeping, restlessness, delirium tremens, and other symptoms that can range from mild to dangerous. 

Alcohol Dependence Vs. Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction refers to changes in behavior that prioritizes alcohol or drug use over all else, as use of the substance becomes more and more compulsive. 

It is possible to be addicted to a substance but not have a physical dependence on it, and it is possible to be dependent on a substance but not be addicted to it. 

However, both of these conditions are closely intertwined, especially when it comes to drinking problems and alcoholism.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Until 2013, the 4th edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) included two entries for different stages of alcohol use disorders: alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence. 

But with the publication of the DSM-5, the current standard for diagnosing mental health problems, these two conditions have been combined under the umbrella of alcohol use disorder (AUD). 

AUD can be categorized as mild, moderate, or severe depending on how serious a person’s dependence and addiction to alcohol becomes.

What Alcohol Dependence Feels Like

If you were to attend a 12-Step meeting you would likely find that the experience of alcohol dependence varies a great deal from person to person:

  • For some, alcohol misuse is a wellspring for feelings of insecurity and self-loathing, even as heavy alcohol intoxication provides fleeting moments of relief from those feelings of anxiety, deepening the cycle.
  • For others, going without alcohol creates a profound sense of boredom with the world that only drinking can fix.
  • And for still others, sobriety causes such severe physical and mental pain that drinking isn’t even an option—it’s the only way they feel they can get through the day.

And yet, alcohol dependence is an experience that is remarkably similar from person to person in a variety of ways. 

Alcohol consumption and its many effects creep into each and every corner of a person’s life, impacting their work, relationships, and their view of themselves and the world.

The Effects Of Alcohol Dependence On Behavior

When alcohol dependence develops and deepens over time, changes in mood, behavior, and attitude are common. These changes may include:

  • loss of control over alcohol intake once it begins, leading to unintended binge drinking
  • increasing tolerance of risky behavior such as driving, watching small children, or going to work after/while drinking
  • impulsiveness and poor judgement
  • alternating insomnia and oversleeping
  • poor performance at work, in school, or in regards to other personal responsibilities
  • withdrawal from relationships and social activities
  • tendencies towards secretiveness or deception
  • increased emotional sensitivity, irritation, or anger
  • increasing depression, anxiety, and negativity

Risk Factors For Alcohol Dependence

Anyone can develop an alcohol problem, but there are certain factors that are more strongly associated with the development of alcohol dependence. 

These risk factors include:

  • drinking alcohol from a young age
  • heavy drinking (12/15 drinks per week if female/male)
  • parents with problematic drinking habits
  • close family members with histories of substance use disorders
  • mental health problems such as depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, ADHD, or schizophrenia

Short- & Long-Term Risks Of Alcohol Dependence

Unfortunately, alcohol puts heavy drinkers at high risk for a number of both short- and long-term health and lifestyle risks.

Short term risks of alcohol dependence may include an increased risk of:

Long-term risks of alcohol dependence may include an increased risk of:

Excessive drinking is also associated with other negative life effects, including:

  • breakups and divorce
  • domestic violence
  • unemployment
  • homelessness
  • financial and/or legal complications

Treating Alcohol Dependence

Individuals working to overcome alcohol dependence will likely need the support of their loved ones, as well as professional assistance from inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs or other support groups. 

Treatment options commonly include:

If you are interested in enrolling in treatment for alcohol dependence, please contact an Ark Behavioral Health representative today. 

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

Alcohol Research and Health - Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal, and Relapse
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) - Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder
National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus - Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

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