Signs of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

Alcohol abuse is a dangerous condition, killing and impacting the health of millions of people every year [1]. If you suspect that you or someone you know might be abusing alcohol, it can be a frightening prospect.

One of the reasons the condition is so problematic is that it can be hard to spot. How do you know if you are addicted to alcohol? What signs do you need to look for in another’s behaviour?

Telling the difference between addiction and a healthy relationship with alcohol is all about understanding the condition and being able to identify its warning signs.

What is alcohol abuse?

To identify alcohol abuse in yourself or another, you first need to understand what the condition is.

Firstly, it is an addiction. It involves an uncontrollable desire to drink, even when the effects of drinking are proving dangerous to the individual’s mental or physical health.

What happens in the brain?

When an individual drinks alcohol, a hormone called dopamine is released in the brain. This is known as the pleasure hormone.

The brain remembers this beneficial effect of alcohol and, after frequent use, begins to make an association between alcohol and the feeling of pleasure.

With more frequent and regular use, the association grows stronger until the brain immediately turns to alcohol when it wants to feel pleasure.

Alongside this association, alcohol also changes the brain’s chemistry. Over many uses, the brain slowly becomes dependent on frequent doses of alcohol in order to function.

This is known as a physical dependency, and when the alcohol is not taken, withdrawal symptoms can occur.

Psychological dependency can also occur where an individual believes that they cannot continue with their day-to-day lives without alcohol. Without it, they can experience intense periods of anxiety and even have suicidal thoughts.

What are the signs?

There are common signs of alcohol abuse that you can look out for, either in your own behaviour or a friend’s.

A combination of some of the following traits in an individual’s behaviour might suggest that they are struggling with alcohol abuse.

1. Being frequently intoxicated

One of the most obvious signs of alcoholism is if an individual is regularly intoxicated. This could range from being drunk two or three times a week, but it commonly involves drinking every day.

The places and occasions within which an individual is drunk can also be a sign. If they are intoxicated at work, at family events, or even in public spaces, then they may be struggling with alcohol abuse.

2. A decline in mood

Alcohol is a depressant, and it can have a damaging effect on an individual’s mental health and mood. Drinking to ease the negative effects of alcohol is a common behaviour cycle for those with addiction.

If an individual begins to show a decline in mood, adopts a more negative worldview, or appears to demonstrate more health complications, it could be the result of alcohol abuse.

Alcohol can also exacerbate the effects of an individual’s other mental health conditions. If someone is struggling more with their depression or anxiety, for example, then their drinking may be out of control.

3. A gradual increase in alcohol consumed

When an individual becomes addicted to a substance, its effects gradually become weaker as their system builds up a resistance to it. The same applies for alcoholism.

As a result, individuals tend to drink more over time, increasing the volume they consume in order to achieve the same pleasant feeling they got when they first started drinking.

If an individual is increasing their alcohol use over time, then it may be a sign that their tolerance is growing after drinking to an unhealthy extent.

4. Being unable to say no

Alcohol abuse makes an individual desperate. When offered an opportunity to drink, they will take it.

This behaviour continues even when their substance use is having a damaging effect on their wellbeing.

Whether it is affecting their mental health or inflicting damage to their physical self – damaging their liver, for example – they will still not be able to say no.

If you are unsure of whether this applies to you, think of the last time you declined a drink.

5. Being secretive

Even though an individual drinks a lot, they will not be open about it. Alcoholism is commonly stigmatised [2], and so an individual will likely try their best to hide their addiction from friends or family.

If an individual does their best to cover up their drinking, they are likely abusing it.

This might involve them lying about where they are going, explaining their hungover appearance, or hiding their alcohol stash.

6. Losing interest in hobbies

Addiction dominates an individual’s thinking. It becomes all they care about, and this means that they lose interest in other areas of their life.

Previously enjoyed hobbies and activities are no longer maintained. They only care about how and when they are next going to drink.

This can also mean that they lose contact with friends, go out less, and become increasingly solitary. Isolation is a common trait of an addicted individual.

Questions to ask yourself

It can be hard to assess your own behaviour, let alone that of a close friend. If you suspect that you may have a drinking problem, here are some questions you could ask yourself:

  • Do I drink despite its negative effect on my health?
  • Have I lost interest in the things I used to enjoy since I started drinking?
  • Do I have uncontrollable urges to drink?
  • Has my drinking got me into trouble with the law?
  • Do I experience withdrawal symptoms when I don’t drink?

If the answers to some of these questions are yes, then you may be struggling with alcohol abuse.

The risks of alcohol abuse

The dangers of alcohol abuse are well known. It can ruin lives and degrade the mental, physical, and social life of the individual it is affecting.

The condition can have both short-term and long-term effects, impacting both the individual and the people closest to them.

Short-term effects

These risks relate to the day-to-day dangers of an individual’s drinking and include:

  • Intoxicated violence towards strangers or family members
  • Loss of items, including important things like house keys and credit cards
  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Injuries or accidents, which could lead to hospital visits

Long-term effects

These risks relate to the increased chance of an individual developing a serious health condition such as:

  • Liver disease
  • Liver cancer
  • Bowel cancer
  • Mouth cancer
  • Breast cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke

Personal problems can also develop such as relationship breakdown, unemployment, and homelessness.

Getting help

If you or a loved one are demonstrating the signs of alcohol abuse, it is important to seek help.

Speaking to a GP or specialised organisation can be a great way to get advice and figure out what treatment method is best going forward.

Treatment methods

There are many treatment methods available for alcohol abuse, and which practice is chosen will depend on the circumstance of the individual.

Detoxification, for example, is a controlled and supported method of stopping alcohol use. With the help of medical staff, individuals ween their bodies from the substance and try to overcome the resulting withdrawal symptoms.

Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a common method used to help individuals change their negative behaviour. In these sessions, they are taught to recognise the thought patterns that lead them to abuse alcohol and are encouraged to adopt healthier alternative ways of thinking.

Methods of treatment will be chosen to suit the needs of the individual and will depend on factors such as:

  • How long they have been addicted
  • What damage has been caused to their brain and body
  • What pre-existing mental health conditions they have