Why Do Alcoholics Drink?

hand holding shot glass

People of the world drink alcohol for a variety of reasons—as a social lubricant, to relax, peer pressure, or even because they enjoy the taste. For most of these individuals, the reasons they drink, while perhaps not positive ones, will not lead to any harmful consequences. For some, though, despite the reasons why they started, they will develop an alcohol use disorder resulting in potentially negative impacts and chronic, life-long disease.

What Is An Alcohol Use Disorder?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), an Alcohol Use Disorder is a medical diagnosis for those that meet criteria for harmful alcohol use. The disorder is given when a person meets a specific set of criteria, which are found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V).

Underpinnings of Harmful Alcohol Use

While there are plenty of reasons people drink alcohol, there are typically a few specific reasons that alcohol consumption can become harmful. For instance, many individuals currently in recovery identified that their alcohol use was driven by an emotional need to escape from the turmoil of their everyday life. Sometimes, this can mean relationship stress, financial concerns, or familial dysfunction.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) have also identified 4 genetic markers that have been linked to alcohol use disorders, and while by themselves are not a predictor of harmful alcohol use or the development of a disorder, when coupled with emotional stress and trauma can prove disastrous. It is important to note that alcohol use does not always become a problem, and even when your alcohol use has had negative impacts it does not always mean you have an alcohol use disorder. A medical professional should be consulted if you think you may have a problem, and to better understand if you have become physically dependent on the substance.

The Impact of Co-Occurring Disorders

Co-occurring disorders are when a mental health disorder is present simultaneously with a substance use disorder. Research suggests that upwards of 60% of those with a substance use problem also have a mental health diagnosis of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders. When mental health concerns are not treated by a mental health professional, this can often lead to using alcohol and other substances to self-medicate the illness. The onset of mental health concerns typically occurs before the age of 21, compounding concerns that underdeveloped brains of adolescents may unwittingly turn to illicit substances to make themselves feel better. Even if the mental health concern is treated at a later date, if an alcohol or other substance use disorder has developed already, treatment for one is unlikely to resolve the other.

Changes In The Brain

Alcohol use, harmful or otherwise, creates chemical reactions in the brain that can lead to imbalances of naturally occurring chemicals meant to stabilize our mental health and make us feel better. With the prolonged use that is associated with an alcohol use disorder, these chemical imbalances can become permanent leading to neural pathways that will on some level always crave alcohol to feel “normal”. This re-wiring of brain chemistry is what drives the fact that alcohol use disorders are considered permanent.

How Long Alcohol Use Disorders Last

If you have spoken to a person in recovery from an alcohol use disorder, you have probably heard them refer to a life-long process they engage in to maintain their recovery. This is because the disease of addiction, including alcohol and other use disorders, is a chronic disease. Like other chronic diseases (diabetes, cancer, asthma, etc.), once an alcohol use disorder has developed, it has completely re-wired the neurological makeup of your brain. Through medical care and on-going recovery supports, the disorder can go into remission, and you can live normally for the rest of your life. However, current research from NIAAA shows that once a person has the disease, they are likely to have it for the rest of their life. Many of the relapses that occur after treatment are often the result of individuals believing that their alcohol use disorder is gone forever because symptoms are no longer present. An awareness that this is a medical condition, rather than a behavioral issue, is critical to long-term recovery.

No matter why we drink, once an alcohol use disorder has developed, we must take life-long steps to maintain recovery. The process begins with treatment and continues in our communities for the rest of our lives. While this may seem daunting, a life in recovery is often more fulfilling than our lives beforehand.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.