Why Do People Become Alcoholics? Causes & Risk Factors
Last Updated: April 25, 2023
Many important factors play a role in why people become alcoholics, including genetics, environment and psychological aspects.
Alcoholism is a complicated issue, influenced by many genetic, environmental and psychological factors. Understanding the reasons why people struggle with alcoholism is essential for professional treatment providers to know which treatments may be most effective.
What Causes Alcoholism?
By exploring what causes alcoholism, we can develop more effective strategies to combat this challenging issue. For instance, those who use alcohol to self-medicate may need therapy that addresses the root causes of their addiction and helps them learn healthier coping mechanisms.
Alcoholism can be influenced by many factors, including:
- Genetics and family history
- The impact of environmental factors
- The connection between stress, anxiety and depression
- Early exposure to alcohol
- The prevalence of self-medication
- The importance of personalized support for those seeking recovery
Genetics and Environmental Factors
Research has shown that people with a family history of alcoholism face an increased risk of developing alcoholism themselves. Although having a genetic predisposition to alcoholism does not guarantee that someone will develop an addiction, it may contribute to their susceptibility.
Environmental factors can also affect a person’s likelihood of developing alcoholism, particularly if they grow up in a home with heavy alcohol use. Many aspects involve environmental factors, including family history, social relationships and cultural norms.
- Family history: Children who grow up with parents or relatives who drink heavily may be more likely to view alcohol use as normal behavior or more vulnerable to environmental factors.
- Social relationships: Peer pressure, particularly during adolescence, may contribute to heavy drinking. Parties, bars or social settings where drinking is common can also contribute to an addiction.
- Culture and societal norms: In some regions or social groups, drinking alcohol might be an accepted and even expected part of everyday life, leading to increased opportunities for abuse and addiction. A culture that encourages drinking alcohol to cope with stress or to celebrate may unintentionally enable people to form unhealthy relationships with alcohol.
Stress can play a role in heavy alcohol use as people may drink to escape the pressures of daily life or seek relief from stressors. The numbing effect of alcohol may provide a sense of comfort or distraction temporarily, but it can become an unhealthy coping mechanism, increasing alcohol consumption and the possibility of developing an alcohol use disorder.
Similarly, high anxiety levels are known to co-occur with alcoholism, where alcohol is used to self-medicate anxiety symptoms. Often, those with anxiety disorders drink alcohol to reduce their heightened emotional state and feel more at ease in social situations. However, this can worsen anxiety symptoms or lead to panic attacks over time, creating a cycle that perpetuates anxiety and alcohol addiction.
Depression and alcohol use also have a complex, bidirectional relationship. Those with depressive symptoms may turn to alcohol for temporary relief. However, alcohol misuse can contribute to the onset and severity of depressive symptoms since alcohol is a central nervous system depressant. This often worsens each condition, making overcoming psychological and substance use issues more challenging.
Drinking at an Early Age
Research has shown that individuals who begin drinking alcohol at a young age are more likely to develop alcohol use disorders as adults than those who delay alcohol consumption until later in life.
The reason for this is complex. However, there are several contributing factors for early alcohol exposure potentially increasing the risk of addiction. These include:
- Changes in brain structure: Alcohol can disrupt the normal process of brain maturation, leading to changes in brain structures and functions associated with impulse control, decision-making and reward processing, enhancing a person’s vulnerability to addiction.
- Developing unhealthy coping mechanisms: When young people use alcohol to manage stress or escape their problems, they can rely on it as a coping strategy. Later in life as adults, these people may default to heavy drinking during hard times.
- Social factors: Peer pressure, exposure to social situations where alcohol is present, and the normalization of underage drinking can create an environment that fosters the development of alcohol addiction.
Mental Health Conditions
Mental health issues can cause a void that alcohol appears to fill, creating a sense of relief, comfort or even euphoria. Yet, these temporary effects will fade, and the harmful consequences of alcohol addiction take hold. This often results in a cycle of substance use that is difficult to break without proper support and treatment.
Common mental health conditions that may cause individuals to turn to alcohol include:
- Unresolved emotional issues
How Alcohol Addiction Develops
Alcohol addiction develops because using alcohol releases chemicals in the brain called endorphins. These chemicals are associated with pleasure and are designed to reward the brain to make sure an action is repeated. Endorphins are released naturally in response to food, sex, succeeding in a difficult task and many other activities that are biologically advantageous to repeat.
Alcohol or other substances that release endorphins create addiction because they release artificially high amounts of endorphins. This can evolve into a strong attraction to the substance, reinforcing the behavior of using alcohol again. Each time you drink, it strengthens the draw to alcohol, leading to a constant cycle.
Find Support for Alcoholism at The Recovery Village Columbus
Getting help for alcoholism at The Recovery Village Columbus can greatly improve the chances of overcoming alcohol addiction. The center’s team of professionals works closely with each patient to create and continuously adjust treatment plans that ensure long-term success.
The Recovery Village Columbus offers several treatment options, including medical detox, individual counseling, group therapy, family therapy to provide you with personalized care at our Joint Commission-accredited facility. Contact a Recovery Advocate today to take the first step toward living an alcohol-free life.
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- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder.” November 2008. Accessed April 25, 2023.
- Grant, Bridget; et al. “Epidemiology of DSM-5 Alcohol Use Disorder: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions III.” JAMA Psychiatry, August 2015. Accessed April 25, 2023.
- Grant, Valerie; Stewart, Sherry; O’Connor, Roisin; Blackwell, Ekin; Conrod, Patricia. “Psychometric evaluation of the five-factor Modified Drinking Motives Questionnaire–Revised in undergraduates.” Addictive Behaviors, November 2007. Accessed April 26, 2023.
- Grant, Bridget & Dawson, Deborah. “Age at onset of alcohol use and its association with DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence: results from the national longitudinal alcohol epidemiologic survey.” Journal of Substance Abuse, 1997. Accessed April 26, 2023.
- Khantzian, Edward. “The Self-Medication Hypothesis of Substance Use Disorders: A Reconsideration and Recent Applications.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry, January 1997. Accessed April 26, 2023.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.” Updated October 2022. Accessed April 26, 2023.
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The Cycle of Alcohol Addiction.” 2021. Accessed May 18, 2023.
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