What is addiction?

Addiction is defined as not having control over doing, taking or using something to the point that it can cause you physical, financial or emotional harm. It is estimated that around 1 in 3 people are addicted to something, most common addictions are; drinking, drug taking and gambling, but people can be addicted to anything from shopping, food even exercise.

Anything can lead to an addiction if it is carried out to the point it can be harmful.

Addiction can be physical and psychological, the root of addiction starts with feelings of enjoyment and then the urge to carry out the behavior again, often though the behavior has to increase or intensify to reach the same initial level of enjoyment. When the addictive behavior isn’t being carried out the person may experience withdrawals, which can lead to the behavior being carried out again and again to avoid these unpleasant feelings.

Some people think they can carry out potential harmful behaviors without becoming addicted, although it is true that everyone has different levels of tolerance and will power, ultimately addiction is non-judgmental and no one is completely immune from addiction.

Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol dependence can take many shapes and forms, ultimately it means that a person is drinking alcohol to excess regularly, not feeling like they can’t go either without a drink or stop their drinking once it starts. It is estimated that around 589,000 people in England are alcohol dependent with 24% of adults regularly drinking over the recommended levels (drinkaware.co.uk, 2019).

Alcohol consumption isn’t always recognised as being a problem because it is so socially acceptable. In the UK where there is a binge drinking culture that is seen as “normal”, so often people don’t see the signs that their drinking habits are creeping into dependency until it dramatically affects their lives in a negative way.

Alcohol is both physically and psychologically addictive, people who use alcohol in harmful ways may not be able to feel like they relax or enjoy themselves without a drink and when the body becomes used to having alcohol in its system it can give physical withdrawals to show it needs alcohol, such as shakes or cramps.

Sometimes it is assumed that only the lower classes of society are alcohol dependent and many people still think of alcoholics as people who are homeless on park benches. In actual fact, the more people earn the more they are likely to drink, with households earning over £40,000 being most likely to drink high levels of alcohol regularly during the week (drinkaware.co.uk, 2019).

Most people are aware there are guidelines on recommended alcohol consumption, but how many of us know what they are and what that looks like as a drink? Below is a quick guide to the recommendations.

  • It is recommended to stay within safe levels, an average adult should try to drink no more than 14 units a week.
  • If you do drink 14 units or more, drinking should be spread over 3-4 days and aim for at least 2-3 drink free days
  • 14 units is equal to:
    6 pints of 4% alcohol beer
    6 glasses (175ml) of 13% wine
    14 measures (25ml) of whiskey

When looking at the examples of 14 units it might be easy to see how many people’s consumption of alcohol slip outside of these safe ranges but what can alcohol addiction look like?

What can alcohol addiction look like?

Evening drinking

Going out for drinks after work with your friends or having a glass of wine in the evening to relax after a stressful day isn’t unusual or a sign that someone might be getting dependent on alcohol. But, if those few with friends turns into a few more and on a regular basis or that glass of wine becomes a bottle then your body could be becoming dependent on alcohol. Alongside this, drinking in the evening can affect the quality of sleep which will impact on your mood the following day, making it more likely you’ll want a drink when you’re home – and the circle continues.

Binge Drinking

There aren’t many people who haven’t had one too many on a Saturday night out making the same half hearted pledge the following day while nursing thumping heads “I’m never drinking again!”. In line with official alcohol guidelines, all of us who have hit the tiles on a weekend are by definition binge drinkers.

Binge drinking is recognised as drinking a lot of alcohol in a short space of time, or purposely drinking to get drunk (nhs.co.uk, 2018). Binge drinking can become problematic when it becomes a regular pattern and the person might start to experience changes to their behaviours. Some people who are unable to tell when they’ve had too much to drink may drink to the point of blacking out and not being able to remember events the following day. Consuming large amounts of units in one go affects the chemicals in our brain that allow us to read social cues as well as judge situations and environments.

Changes in mood or behavior due to long term binge drinking might not be something that is easily noticeable, drinking patterns and behavior might change gradually as alcohol consumption and dependency increases. As well as changes in mood and temperament while under the influence, frequent binge drinking increases the risk of developing serious health conditions over the long term which include:

  • heart attack and stroke
  • increased risk of liver, mouth and bowel cancer
  • dementia
  • high blood pressure
Day drinking

A clear sign that someone might be experiencing alcohol addiction is the need to day drink. Less the cheeky pint with Saturday lunch and more your usual routine is affected either by thoughts of drinking or by the need to drink.

Some people might find that they need a drink the morning after a heavy session, commonly known as hair of the dog. This is often used as a way of avoiding the hangover but actually it’s your body showing signs of dependency and can often lead to a slippery slope into dependency.

Looking forward to clocking off work and meeting your friends at the local isn’t uncommon, but when someone is becoming or is dependent on alcohol they might start to focus on the drink rather than the social aspect of the activity or may find themselves experiencing cravings when they know it’s getting close to clocking off time.

Secret Drinking

Often when someone is worried about their drinking, feeling like they might have a problem or has been told by a loved one of a concern they might become defensive of their drinking and try to conceal it’s extent, as a way of proving the point they don’t have a problem. They might try and hide alcohol away from others, keep alcohol close by i.e. in a draw or locker at work, be secretive about their drinking i.e. going to the pub before coming home after work and not say anything about it or deny it if asked.

Alcohol Withdrawals

Your body will show signs of withdrawal when it doesn’t get the alcohol it is used to. These are classed as withdrawals and are a sign that you may be becoming or are addicted to alcohol.

Withdrawal signs include:

  • Tremors (shaking of the hands)
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Sleep difficulties

More serious alcohol withdrawals can include visual hallucinations and alcohol-related seizures. If you are experiencing any serious withdrawals it is important to seek some professional support. 

What can I do if I think I have a drinking addiction?

Track your drinking

If you’re in a position where you think you might be drinking alcohol at an unhealthy level or if a loved one has mentioned their concerns but you don’t think there’s a problem, track what you are drinking. Over the course of 7 – 10 days note down each alcoholic drink you’re having and at what time, make sure if you’re drinking at home you’re accurately documenting the quantity because the pours of wine or spirits you think is “roughly” an average glass or a measure could be a lot more than you think it is. After a period of tracking have a look at your drinking habits, is there anything surprising that you’re seeing? Check the units you’re consuming against recommended guidelines, maybe it could be worth cutting back a few of those drinks.

Change your behaviour

If you don’t think you need professional help to address issues with drinking there are a few tactics that you can use to avoid those environments that make it difficult to refuse a quick one:

  • Avoid Pubs. If you’re making a commitment to reduce or stop your drinking being surrounded by drink and drinkers will not be easy or fun and will increase the likelihood of relapse. Try and organise seeing friends somewhere else like doing sports, going to the cinema or going for a coffee instead.
  • Make plans for night you would usually go out. If you’re trying to curb weekend binge drinking there is nothing worse than being home alone with nothing to do while everyone else is out. Make plans to be doing something on those nights so you keep yourself distracted from cravings.
  • Make some healthy changes. This is a great opportunity to improve your overall health, try joining a gym or taking up running and go in the evenings when you would usually be thinking about pouring a drink. It’ll give the mind a boost of feel-good chemicals and keep it occupied instead of thinking about a drink.
Join a programme

For more chronic alcohol addictions or if your life is being negatively impacted by your drinking then it could be worth joining a program. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous incorporate a 12-step program to guide you through ending your relationship with alcohol and rebuilding relationships with yourself and loved ones. The benefits of joining a program is that you meet and work with others who are going through the same thing or have been through it and come out the other end.

Where to go for help

From being curious about if your levels of drinking are safe to taking the first steps to getting support in addressing an alcohol addiction there are plenty of places to go and forms of help and advice.

If you are worried about the amount of alcohol you are consuming keep a diary for a week to see if it’s within the recommended safe levels or if you don’t keep drink-free days try them and take note of how you’re feeling without having a drink.

Online

Resources are available online on how to monitor or reduce alcohol consumption, quizzes on if the amounts of alcohol you’re drinking is within safe levels and advice on how to cut down and have some drink-free days. Make sure if you’re accessing online support from trustworthy sources that have been approved either from government, NHS or other professionals.

https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/

https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/alcohol-support/

GP Services

If you would prefer to speak to someone face to face or would like to talk about the available options, accessing your GP is a great way to get some professional support and advice.

Specialist Services

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a GP but would like to speak to a professional about your use of alcohol, many areas have specialised alcohol support team who can provide confidential help and support. If you feel you might have an addiction to alcohol they often hold drop-in where you can directly link in with the service.

References

Drink Aware (2019) Are You Drinking More Than Before [online] available at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/drinking-habits-and-behaviours/are-you-drinking-more-than-before/

Drink Aware (2019) Binge Drinking [online] available at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/drinking-habits-and-behaviours/binge-drinking/

Drink Aware (2019) Alcohol and Aggression [online] available at: https://www.drinkaware.co.uk/alcohol-facts/health-effects-of-alcohol/mental-health/alcohol-and-aggression/

NHS (2018) Alcohol Misuse [online] available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/alcohol-misuse/risks/