“I need a drink after the day I had! Let’s get together for happy hour after work. This mom needs wine.” How many times have you heard or even said these things or something similar yourself? According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2018, two-thirds (66.3%) of adults aged 18 and over consumed alcohol in the past year. Yet why do you drink alcohol? Is it to just unwind or to relieve stress, maybe have more fun at social gatherings? Possibly, but those reasons are overly simplified. People turn to alcohol for many reasons. These reasons are complex and varied, and they have nothing to do with morality, weakness or character flaws.
Conditioned to Think Drinking Is All Good
The beer commercial comes on TV, and it is full of beautiful people having a great time. You open a magazine, and there is a stunning print ad for liquor. Driving down the freeway, there is a funny sign for a liquor store. On your favorite show, everyone goes out for drinks at happy hour and has a great time. Your favorite bands have their own brands of whiskey or tequila. Unfortunately, many of these examples show the limited benefits to drinking and downplay the many health risks of drinking alcohol.
Drinking is portrayed as the societal norm in all forms of popular media, unconsciously conditioning you to have a favorable attitude toward drinking alcohol. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, our society does not like to talk about how addictive alcohol is. Instead, we tend to separate it from its adverse effects, flipping the narrative to blaming the person rather than the substance. Thus, you are conditioned and primed to see alcohol as more benign than other substances and possibly as a necessary ingredient for a good time or to relax.
Alcohol and the Brain’s Reward Center
Basic research on drinking and alcohol use disorder is to understand the neurobiology of alcohol use. One reason you drink, and maybe drink to excess, is rooted in biology.
The alcohol you drink artificially stimulates the brain’s pleasure center, triggering a flood of endorphins. These are the body’s “feel-good” chemicals, and they are responsible for the good feeling you get when you exercise or for that rush of euphoria you get from your first drink.
A healthy brain maintains a delicate balance of neurotransmitters, but when you drink alcohol, it throws off the balance of these neurotransmitters. Dopamine controls desire and craving, and serotonin regulates feelings of inhibition. When you drink alcohol, dopamine levels spike, making you to want more of what caused you to feel good. To return to homeostasis, the brain will release chemical “downers,” and when the effects of that first drink wear off, you end up feeling worse than before the drink. Unfortunately, that dopamine is still working and making you crave more alcohol. So, you might order another drink and the cycle starts again.
This cycle has nothing to do with strength and weakness or whether you are a good or bad person. It is a chemical reaction that happens to everyone who drinks. The chemical reaction is the same even if you experience it differently based on your gender, weight and age.
Trauma and Alcohol Use
One reason you might be turning to alcohol is trauma. Early childhood trauma is strongly associated with developing mental health problems, including alcohol dependence, later in life. People who experience trauma in childhood may use alcohol to help cope with trauma-related symptoms. One of the most consistent results across studies is the finding that maltreatment in childhood is associated with an increased risk for alcohol use disorders. Human and animal studies suggest that stressors in childhood can lead to neurobiological changes in systems known to be involved in the pathophysiology of depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.
Even trauma in adulthood can lead to increased drinking to self-medicate. Going through trauma, even if you do not develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can lead to alcohol use problems. Up to three-quarters of people who survived abuse or violent, traumatic events report drinking problems. Up to a third of those who survive traumatic accidents, illness or disaster report drinking problems.
Mental Health Disorders and Drinking
If you have a psychiatric disorder, you could be drinking to self-medicate. Alcohol use and dependence frequently occur with other mental health conditions – this is commonly referred to as a co-occurring disorder. The most common comorbid mental health disorders with alcohol use were schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder and personality disorders. Specific anxiety disorders are commonly comorbid with alcohol use as well.
There are other reasons that you may drink alcohol if you also have a mental health disorder, including:
- Common risk factors can contribute to both mental illness and substance use and addiction. In addition, overlapping factors cause both substance use disorders and other mental illnesses.
- Mental illnesses can contribute to alcohol use. When an individual develops a mental illness, associated changes in brain activity may increase the vulnerability for problematic use of substances by enhancing their reward system.
Help Is Available
Many people can enjoy a drink or two and not be negatively impacted. However, if you are turning to alcohol more often and drinking more for whatever reason, help is available. There are 12-step programs, SMART Recovery and the Alcohol Experiment, among others.
However, you might need more intensive assistance. Casa Palmera has residential services, a partial hospitalization program (PHP) and intensive outpatient (IOP) to serve patients’ varying treatment needs. You do not have to make this journey alone. We can help.
People drink alcohol for many reasons, and some can drink without severe adverse consequences. However, others experience alcohol use that is out of control. We understand that alcohol use disorder is a complex illness made up of multiple biopsychosocial factors. That is why we are the leader in holistic care and treating the mind, body and spirit. At Casa Palmera in Del Mar, California, each patient receives care from compassionate, empathetic, highly-trained staff, many of who have been a part of the Casa Palmera family for over 10 years. Once you have been at Casa Palmera, you are part of our family, and we will continue to support you, with an individualized aftercare plan and access to our alumni program and app. Recovery is a lifelong journey. Call Casa Palmera today at (855) 508-0473 and let us help you start that journey.