Dependency on alcohol is not the result of lack of will power

Breaking the alcohol habit

Fallen whisky tumblerOne of the problems faced by anyone battling with an addiction to alcohol is the lack of knowledge of those who can render the most significant assistance; their closest relations. Unfortunately, this lack of knowledge is generally is also apparent amongst the bulk of the medical profession who are supposed to be able to help.

The difficulty is that the solution seems so simple to those that don't have to wrestle with the problem – just don’t drink.

But if you don't know what is actually going on there is little you, or anyone else can do about it.

As a consequence close family come to believe that person with the problem is weak-willed, and uncaring about their family. Unfortunately, the person who is drinking is generally already thinking they are weak or stupid or both, but they are very much aware that they do care about those around them and desperately want the love and support of their relations.

It's not about will power

We'll take a look at what is going on in the mind and body of someone who is currently suffering from Alcohol Dependency (AD) but let’s banish the idea that somebody who is AD is weak-willed.

Amongst those who have battled the problem are; Michael Phelps – most decorated Olympic athlete, Betty Ford former First Lady and an outspoken proponent of the feminist movement, Alexander the Great, Ulysses S. Grant and probably Winston Churchill. Clearly, none of these lacked will power.

Since it is not will-power that is the issue there must be something else going on – so what is it.

Alcohol, mind, body, mood and hormones

The way we feel and the way our minds work is hugely influenced by our endocrine systems – by the hormones coursing through our bodies. Equally, the hormones released by our endocrine system are influenced by the thoughts we have or decide to have! It is a two-way system!

Most of our hormones have an impact on the way we feel; these include cortisol, endorphins, oestrogen and testosterone (in both men and women), serotonin, dopamine and adrenaline to name but a few.

However, probably the most important of these in the case of AD appear to be cortisol, serotonin and dopamine. Cortisol is associated with stress, serotonin with calmness and dopamine with feelings of achievement, euphoria and bliss.

Cortisol

When we are feeling stressed our levels of cortisol rise. This helps to put the body prepare for dealing with the type of difficult situations that threatened our stone-age ancestors; in times of famine, it encourages the body to lay down fat stores. But it also tends to make us feel anxious.

Having a drink has a depressive effect on the brain and tends to dull that feeling of anxiety – which feels good at the time.

Unfortunately, regular use of alcohol also tends to raise the underlying levels of cortisol leaving both mind and body in a permanently stressed condition.

Seratonin

Alcohol also tends to raise serotonin levels. Seratonin has a wide range of functions, but amongst other things, it makes us feel calm and relaxed. It is believed by many that a lack of serotonin may underly depression.

On the face of it, this means that alcohol should be useful in times of stress. And it is – sometimes! Unfortunately, alcohol can produce chronically raised levels of serotonin to which the brain becomes adjusted. As a result, when the artificially elevated levels of serotonin drop the person may begin to feel depressed and anxious.

Dopamine

Dopamine is associated with feelings of euphoria, bliss. It also impacts on concentration and plays a major role in motivation and feelings of reward. If you’ve ever worked hard to reach a goal, the satisfaction you feel when you achieve it is partly due to a rush of dopamine. Regrettably, dopamine responds in a similar way to serotonin; alcohol produces chronically raised levels to which the brain adjusts and the lowering of these results in feelings of failure and loss of confidence in one's ability to achieve things.

Eventually, we end up with a chronically raised level of cortisol, a desperate need for the effects that serotonin and dopamine should provide but a brain that is largely desensitised to the impact of even normal levels. This results in an urgent need, a craving, to elevate them again by drinking more.

It is worth noting that nicotine increases dopamine by 200%, cocaine 400%, and amphetamines a staggering  1000% which explains why these drugs are so addictive.

What can we do?

You can now understand why both body and mind have an intense desire for more alcohol while what they actually need is more serotonin, more dopamine and less cortisol. Without these it is natural to feel a lack of control, doubt your ability to achieve things, feel permanently anxious and unable to relax.

You must recognise that, while the feelings are very real, that is all they are – feelings. They are not a reflection of your real self.

Understanding what is happening will help you cope with the impact of stopping drinking on both body and mind but what you must find alternative ways of generating the normal feelings of calm you get from serotonin and surges of pleasure produced by the production of dopamine while at the same time dealing with the elevated levels of cortisol.

Simple - but not necessarily easy - solutions

Fortunately, there are some relatively simple steps we can take to achieve this. We will be covering these in another blog very shortly. If you choose to subscribe we will send you a link as soon as it is published.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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Thursday, 14 November 2019

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