Symptoms of Alcoholism and How to Help
Many ask about noticing signs and symptoms of alcoholism. Alcoholism is a dangerous disorder that can impact physical and mental health as well as relationships, finances, career, and nearly every other aspect of life. Almost 30 million Americans currently struggle with some form of alcohol misuse or alcohol use disorder. While some people with the condition may blatantly show signs of a substance use disorder, others have learned how to discreetly hide their behaviors from the people they love.
As someone who has battled the power of alcoholism firsthand, I cannot emphasize how important it is to educate yourself on the signs alcohol is a problem in someone’s life. Learning to recognize varying behaviors that point to misuse can help a loved one get the help they deserve.
What Is Alcoholism?
Alcohol Use Disorders (AUDs) are categorized by the amount an individual drinks and how often they do so. AUDs are varying dependencies on alcohol that can cause drastic cravings and health problems. Alcoholism is considered the most severe type of AUD and occurs when a person is unable to regulate their drinking, even though it is causing them harm. It is defined as the consistent, persistent use of alcohol without the ability to control consumption.
Those struggling with alcoholism may not even be aware they have a problem, while in other cases, they may be embarrassed by their behaviors and attempt to hide them. Whether a person is aware of their alcoholism or not, however, it has the power to negatively impact their life and the lives of the ones they love.
Noticing Signs and Symptoms of Alcoholism
Alcoholism looks different for every person who struggles with it. However, there are general signs and behaviors that many alcoholics demonstrate. It’s important to keep these signs in mind, especially if you’re questioning if alcoholism may be present.
Fixation on Drinking Alcohol
Because alcoholism is a substance dependency, it creates intense cravings that can be challenging to fight. You may notice that someone struggling with alcoholism is always drinking, asking about drinking, or wondering if they are able to bring alcohol to any and all events. This is because if an alcoholic is not currently consuming alcohol, it’s hard for them not to think about when their next drink will be. The longer an individual struggles with alcohol use, the more intense their cravings become and the harder it is to quit.
“Tolerance” refers to the reduced effect the same amount of certain substances can have on your body when you consume them regularly. When you consume a specific substance in large quantities for a long period of time, you may notice that your tolerance rises – you can tolerate more of the substance without experiencing severe effects.
Alcoholism can quickly increase a person’s tolerance. This means that an individual struggling with alcoholism may require more alcohol to produce the same effects that they enjoyed when they first started drinking. People with higher tolerances end up drinking more to feel the same effects they once knew, which can ultimately cause more severe physical issues and increased dependency.
Drinking Alone or Hiding Alcohol
If you notice a loved one has been drinking frequently, alone, or even in secret, this may be a sign that they are struggling with an alcohol use disorder. In many cases of alcoholism, people become ashamed of their behaviors and do what they can to make them less apparent. Others know their loved ones disapprove of their drinking and attempt to conceal it.
This often involves drinking alone, in secret, or hiding alcohol in containers that look like other drinks. Once they reach a certain point of cravings, many alcoholics hide alcohol in other drinks so that they can use them during the day and keep up with their withdrawal symptoms. When the cravings become extreme enough that you hide your behavior, it’s most likely that they’re dealing with alcoholism.
Being questioned about alcohol or drinking can cause an alcoholic to panic and become defensive. I remember just how difficult it was to admit that I had a problem, let alone be questioned about my behaviors when I was hiding them. If you feel that someone you care about is getting defensive when you bring up your worries, they may already be dealing with some of the effects of alcohol use disorder.
Change in Personality and Relationships
Consistent alcohol use can slowly change an individual’s personality. This is because alcohol is not only a depressant, but it has also been proven to increase aggression and irritability. People who struggle with long-term alcoholism may find that they have little to no motivation or no interest in things that they once enjoyed. This change in personality can also cause them to neglect important relationships and instigate conflicts. If you’re concerned about alcoholism, it’s critical that you keep an eye out for personality changes.
Continuing To Drink After Problems Occur
Alcoholism can also affect judgment. For example, many of us who have dealt with alcohol abuse have had incidents that we regret. This could include starting fights, saying things we don’t mean, or causing a scene that you wouldn’t normally create. For most people that can regulate their alcohol, these kinds of situations may deter them from drinking for a while—especially if another person brings up concerns about their behavior. With alcoholics, on the other hand, it can be challenging to quit drinking just because of a bad night. This is because that craving is still there regardless of what happened and can push you to drink again.
Symptoms of Excessive Alcohol Use
Because alcoholism is an intense condition that can result in serious health problems, some symptoms can begin showing themselves quickly. Others may take some time to arise.
Watch out for these physical and mental changes if you’re concerned:
- Frequent, sometimes drastic, mood swings
- Withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, nausea, or headaches when not drinking
- Little or disturbed sleep
- Sunken eyes and dark circles beneath the eyes
- Weight gain or malnutrition
- Aggressive behavior
- Depression or anxiety
- Poor hygiene
- Memory issues
- Impulsive behavior and decision-making
- Frequent accidents that cause injury
How to Help Someone with an Alcohol Use Disorder
Watching someone you care for go down a dangerous path can be heartbreaking and leave you feeling helpless. While it may be difficult, there are ways that you can aid your loved one through these troublesome times. Here are a collection of tips that I have found to be helpful for those with loved ones showing signs of alcoholism.
Talk to a Professional
Sometimes it can feel impossible to talk to the person you are concerned about. Whether you’re nervous you will push them away or don’t know how to bring up the topic, consider discussing your concerns with an expert who can offer you support. Rehabilitation counselors, therapists, or even intervention specialists can all provide you with insight on what to do if you or your loved one are showing signs of alcoholism. They have seen similar situations and can advise you on how they believe you can best handle your unique circumstances.
Consider an Intervention
Interventions can be daunting for both the people planning them and the person experiencing the intervention. An intervention is designed to confront an individual about their problematic behavior and discuss how it is impacting people in their life. While they can seem contentious, the goal of an intervention is to let the struggling person know that they are cared for and they deserve to get help. Interventions most often include family, friends, romantic partners, and people who genuinely care for the person that has been impacted by alcoholism and are best conducted by a trained professional.
Privately Discuss Treatment
While the intervention method is a key way to both inform the person how their behavior is affecting others and inspire them to accept help, some people take very poorly to being confronted. If you believe that the person you are concerned about may feel attacked in a group setting, consider privately approaching them with your concerns.
Private discussions allow two people to share an intimate environment where they can ideally feel comfortable enough to discuss important topics. This is where you can voice your worries concerning your loved one’s health constructively. In some cases, a heart-to-heart with the person you love is enough to lead them to consider treatment, and it can be a solid precursor to intervention.
Offer Your Support and Love
Alcoholism can be extremely isolating. This is because an AUD can cause someone to ruin relationships or cause shame that makes them push their loved ones away. Offering your love and support to the person who is struggling can make a massive difference in their life. While it’s important to establish boundaries to keep yourself safe, letting your loved one know that they are supported and cared for can motivate them to seek recovery. It can also be immensely important during the journey of recovery.
Create Firm Boundaries
Because watching someone you love fight alcoholism is so difficult, it can often impair your judgment or cause you to look over behaviors you shouldn’t. Creating firm boundaries between you and your loved one is one of the greatest things you can do to help. Strong boundaries keep you from accidentally enabling someone who is struggling, which typically contributes to the problem getting worse. It also helps to establish your stance on the situation. You are allowed to – and should – create strong boundaries while still wanting someone to get better.
What Are Treatment Options for Alcoholism?
I believe that it is imperative to destigmatize alcoholism to better encourage seeking help. Alcoholism is a curable substance use disorder that can be overcome with the help of treatments like the following.
Behavioral treatments involve working with a health professional to identify and help change the behaviors that lead to drinking. This can include cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, and marital and family counseling, which can all be crucial in supporting long-term recovery
Support Groups and 12-Step Groups
Support groups are integral for anyone on the road to recovery. They are much different from your average therapy or counseling meetings and offer a more comfortable, laid-back environment. Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) give individuals with AUDs the opportunity to talk about their feelings with people who are going through the same things. Mutual support can be incredibly beneficial, especially with a disorder that can be this isolating.
Detoxification, or detox, is typically the first step in treating alcoholism and involves removing alcohol from the body completely. This is a critical phase that can manage the acute physical symptoms of withdrawal that occur when a person stops drinking. Detox is often done under medical supervision to ensure the patient’s safety, as withdrawal can sometimes lead to severe and potentially life-threatening conditions such as delirium tremens (DTs), seizures, and other health complications.
Medical professionals may use medications to ease withdrawal symptoms and monitor vital signs. The main goal during detox is to provide comfort and safety to individuals as their bodies adjust to the absence of alcohol. Depending on the severity of the addiction, detox can last from a few days to several weeks.
Inpatient or Outpatient Rehabilitation
Rehabilitation in the form of residential or outpatient treatment is often the best form of help an individual can receive. This is because rehab centers are dedicated to helping struggling individuals recover at their own pace. Rehabilitation facilities work by combining multiple treatment methods, such as psychotherapy, group therapy, alternative and adjunctive therapies, and medication, to help an individual combat the hold alcoholism has over them.
Inpatient programs require individuals to stay at a residential facility, which typically ranges anywhere from 30 to 90 days. Outpatient services, on the other hand, allow individuals to go home and attend work or school while still receiving scheduled treatment at the center.
Both inpatient and outpatient rehab programs often incorporate a combination of medical and psychological therapies that are designed to address the root causes of addiction, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), motivational interviewing, and holistic approaches that can include nutrition, fitness, and mindfulness practices.
There are a variety of medications that can aid in recovering from an alcohol use disorder. Some of these medications can suppress the intense cravings that come along with detoxing, while others can ease the symptoms of withdrawals. These can be an enormous help, as many people’s biggest fear about quitting alcohol is the consequences of withdrawals. Because alcoholism can also lead to other mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression, mental health medications may also be a key part of the journey.
Defeating Alcoholism Together
Alcoholism can alter a person’s life completely, and it is not a disease that can be cured. However, that doesn’t mean that it cannot be managed for long-term recovery. As someone who has struggled with alcohol use disorder, I understand how isolating the condition can be. After I began my journey of recovery, I decided to devote my career to sharing important resources that might be able to help others heal too.
My goal is to offer fundamental services, support, and resources that can help individuals struggling with all forms of substance misuse. If you are concerned about someone you love, we offer substance abuse intervention services for families.
Call 310-450-6627 to connect with us.
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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on Health: Alcohol Topics. Retrieved January 26, 2024, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/
Mayo Clinic. (2021). Alcohol use disorder: Symptoms & causes. Retrieved January 26, 2024, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/alcohol-use-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20369243
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help. Retrieved January 26, 2024, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/treatment-alcohol-problems-finding-and-getting-help