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What is alcohol dependence?

Alcohol dependence, also known as alcoholism or alcohol use disorder, is a disease characterized by a strong desire or compulsive need to consume alcohol despite negative physical, social, and economic consequences. It involves a process of physical and psychological dependence. The body becomes accustomed to alcohol consumption and one experiences withdrawal symptoms when not drinking.

Alcohol dependence can affect a person’s ability to control or limit their drinking. This is because of both physical dependence and strong psychological cravings. It is a treatable condition but may require more extensive treatment depending on the severity of the addiction.

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Facts about alcohol dependence

According to the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), around 18% of those 15 and over in Canada will meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder in their lifetime. Furthermore, over 50% of people in Canada currently drink more than the recommended amount. Alcohol consumption contributes to a range of health problems such as cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mental illnesses, and is a common cause of accidents and violence.

But help is out there! There are several treatment options for alcohol use disorder, from outpatient care and counseling to intensive programs and detoxification. There are also support organizations and self-help groups such as Anonymous Alcoholics (AA).

What causes alcohol dependence?

The causes of alcohol dependence are due to a complex interaction of genetic, psychological, social and environmental factors. Genetics play a significant role, with an increased risk for individuals who have a family history of alcohol use disorder.

Psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and stress can lead individuals to use alcohol as a form of self-medication. Social and environmental factors, including social pressure and cultural norms, along with early exposure to alcohol, can also contribute to the development of dependence.

Stressful life situations and experiences of trauma, especially during childhood, increase vulnerability, while certain personality traits such as impulsivity and risk-taking behaviour can further amplify the risk.

It is the interaction of these different factors that increases the risk of developing alcohol use disorder. All these underlying causes often need to be addressed in the treatment process.

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How do you know if you are addicted to alcohol?

Determining whether you have alcohol dependence involves identifying a range of signs and symptoms that indicate an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Alcohol dependence, or alcohol use disorder, is characterized not only by an increased amount of alcohol consumption but also by a strong psychological and physical dependence.

7 signs of alcohol dependence

Here are some indications that a person may be dependent on alcohol:

  1. Strong desire or compulsion to drink alcohol: An intense craving for alcohol that feels hard to resist.
  2. Loss of control: Inability to limit the amount of alcohol consumed once drinking has started.
  3. Developing tolerance: Needing to consume larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effects that were previously achieved with smaller amounts.
  4. Withdrawal symptoms: experiencing physical symptoms such as tremors (shaking), sweating, nausea, and anxiety as alcohol levels in the body drop. In severe cases, withdrawal can lead to delirium tremens (DTs), which can be life-threatening.
  5. Prioritizing alcohol over other activities: spending a lot of time obtaining, consuming, or recovering from the effects of alcohol. This happens at the expense of work, family, and social commitments.
  6. Continued use despite negative consequences: continuing to drink even when it leads to problems with health, work, relationships and legal issues.
  7. Sacrificing interests and activities: giving up or reducing participation in activities that were previously important or enjoyable in favor of drinking.

If you recognize these symptoms and it negatively affects your life, it may be an indication of alcohol dependence. It is important to seek professional help for an accurate diagnosis and to discuss possible treatment options. There are many resources and supports available for those struggling with alcohol dependence. This can include therapy, medical treatment and support groups, which can all offer help on the road to recovery.

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Help for alcohol dependence

If you are wondering whether you have alcohol dependence or are at risk of developing it, it is important to seek help. Otherwise, problems can develop and get worse over time.

Treatment for alcohol dependence

Treatment for alcohol dependence is an individualized process depending on the severity of the problem. If you are a high-risk user, supportive and motivational counseling can be helpful. For more severe alcohol dependence, treatment may begin with medically supervised detoxification to safely manage withdrawal symptoms. Subsequently, drug treatment can be used to reduce alcohol cravings and prevent relapse. Common drugs include naltrexone, acamprosate, and disulfiram.

Psychotherapy, particularly cognitive behavioural therapy, is also effective. CBT helps the person understand and change the behavioural patterns that lead to alcohol use while developing coping strategies. Treatment is available through your health care provider, but also through specialized addiction clinics and treatment centers if needed. In Canada, 211 can help connect you to programs and services in your area.

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous offer social and emotional support through the community of others in similar situations. Education on alcohol addiction and self-help strategies are also important, as well as long-term follow-up and aftercare to maintain sobriety. Complementary therapies such as mindfulness and yoga can further support recovery by reducing stress and improving well-being. A flexible treatment plan and a strong support network are essential for a successful recovery from alcohol dependence.

What can you do as a family member of someone with an alcohol problem?

There are several ways to provide support while taking care of your own health:

  1. Educate yourself about alcohol addiction to better understand what your loved one is going through. This will help you empathize and create a supportive environment.
  2. Communicate in an open and non-judgmental way. Express your concern and love without blaming. It is important to let the person know that you are there to support, not criticize.
  3. Encourage professional help. Discuss treatment options, such as therapy or support groups. If you can, offer to help find appropriate resources or accompany them to meetings.
  4. Set healthy boundaries to protect yourself and other family members from the negative consequences of your loved one’s drinking. It is important not to enable the behaviour.
  5. Seek support for yourself. Dealing with a loved one’s alcohol problem is psychologically stressful. Take part in support groups for family members, such as Al-Anon, and attend therapy to deal with your feelings and stress.
  6. Avoid enabling the addiction by not covering up or excusing your loved one’s behaviour. Resisting solving problems caused by your loved one’s drinking can motivate them to seek help.
  7. Be patient and hopeful. Recovery is a process that takes time and may involve relapse. Continue to offer your support throughout the process.

Remember that the person must want to seek help and change themselves. You can offer support and resources, but the ultimate responsibility for change lies with the person experiencing alcohol dependence. Taking care of your own mental and emotional health is also crucial in this process.

In the case of alcohol use disorder, other family members may also be affected. There is support for relatives and children of those with an addiction. Calling 211 can help connect you to programs and services in your area.

From conversation to understanding and change

Talk therapy is often the first step in seeking help. By working with a psychologist or therapist, you can begin to understand your symptoms and triggers. This is essential for long-term change.

When professional help is unavoidable

If your substance use or a certain activity is beginning to affect your work and personal life, seeking professional help is essential. It is never too late to break free from addiction. Help is available and support is just a click away. So if you or someone you love is struggling with these issues, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. For information about addiction services and facilities near you, call 211.

12 common questions and answers about alcohol use disorder

What is alcohol dependence?

Alcohol dependence, also known as alcohol use disorder, is a disease characterized by a strong desire or compulsive need to consume alcohol despite negative physical, social, and economic consequences.

How common is alcohol dependence?

In Canada, around 18% of the adult population meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder.

Is addiction a disease?

Yes, addiction is considered a brain disease because it affects the brain’s reward system and decision making.

Can alcohol addiction be treated?

Yes, addiction can be treated, but it may require long-term care and support. It is possible to become free from alcohol dependence.

What are the risks of alcohol dependence?

Alcohol consumption contributes to a range of health problems such as cirrhosis of the liver, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and mental illnesses, and is a common cause of accidents and violence. It can also have consequences in areas such as work, relationships, and overall quality of life.

What are the symptoms of alcohol dependence?

Alcohol dependence is characterized by a range of symptoms that indicate an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. This includes a strong and overwhelming desire for alcohol, difficulty in stopping or controlling the amount of alcohol consumed and developing a tolerance that requires larger amounts of alcohol to achieve the same effects.

What treatment options are available?

There are several different types of treatment such as detoxification, medication, residential treatment, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and support groups.

How long does it take to recover from an alcohol dependence?

It varies from person to person. Some may need a few months while others may need years of continuous care.

Is relapse common?

Yes, relapse is part of the recovery process for many people. The most important thing is not to give up. If you have relapsed, it is important to seek help as soon as possible to get back on track.

Is alcohol dependence more common among men or women?

Alcohol dependence is more common in men, but it also occurs in women.

How important is the support system around a person with an addiction?

A support system is often crucial for a successful recovery. This includes not only professional help such as therapists and doctors, but also family and friends who provide emotional and practical support. A good support system can help reduce the risk of relapse and help the person maintain a healthier lifestyle.

Where can I go if I or someone I know has an alcohol addiction?

If you or someone you know has a problem with alcohol, your family doctor or local walk-in clinic can help. You can also contact 211 for information on programs and services close to you.There are many ways to become free from alcohol addiction!

Steps in addiction treatment to improve quality of life

Treatment for alcohol dependence is multi-faceted and individualized, with the aim of helping people to stop drinking, manage withdrawal symptoms, and avoid relapse. Here are the main components of a treatment plan for alcohol dependence:

1. Medically supervised detoxification

This is often the first step for those with severe dependence. The body is cleared of alcohol under safe conditions with medical supervision. It helps to manage withdrawal symptoms that can be severe or even life-threatening.

2. Drug treatment

To reduce cravings for alcohol, manage withdrawal symptoms, and prevent relapse, doctors may prescribe medication. Examples of such drugs include naltrexone, which reduces cravings; acamprosate, which stabilizes brain chemistry; and disulfiram, which causes unpleasant effects when alcohol is consumed.

3. Psychotherapy

Therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) are effective in treating alcohol dependence. CBT helps individuals identify and change behaviours and thought patterns that contribute to their drinking. It also helps in the development of coping strategies to deal with triggers and stress.

4. Support groups and fellowship

Participating in groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can offer invaluable social and emotional support.

5. Education and self-help strategies

Learning about the nature of alcohol addiction and how to manage it in the long term is crucial. Self-help materials and tools can offer additional support.

6. Aftercare and follow-up

Long-term follow-up with health professionals and ongoing participation in support groups or therapy help maintain sobriety and prevent relapse.

7. Lifestyle and complementary therapies

For some, techniques such as mindfulness, yoga, and acupuncture can offer additional support in the recovery process by reducing stress and improving overall wellbeing. Finding a meaningful life in sobriety is also important.

The treatment plan should be flexible and adaptable to the individual’s changing needs throughout the recovery process. A strong support network of family, friends, and caregivers plays an important role in achieving and maintaining sobriety. Recognizing the need for help and actively seeking treatment are crucial steps towards recovery.

The first step to change

Book a 20- or 45-minute session with a qualified coach, therapist, or psychologist today via our website booking form. If now isn’t the right time, remember that there is always an opportunity to come back when you are ready to make a change. Together we make the difficult easier.

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Written by Ellen Lindgren

Licensed psychologist

Ellen is a licensed psychologist and has experience mainly in clinical psychology where she has worked with various conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, crises and trauma in primary care and psychiatry. She has also worked with research while studying in the US and with affective disorders and insomnia at Karolinska Institutet, Sweden.