What does alcohol really do? How to spot signs of alcohol addiction, and how to help someone with alcoholism
Is alcohol really a harmless drink?
Having a drink is one of Australia's most common ways to 'unwind'. But is it really? Do we truly relax after a drink (or many)?
In a fast-paced world, we're used to everything being fast-acting: from our medication - to our computers, and cars. When it comes to unwinding from a stressful day, the thought of putting even more effort into doing something to relax can be exhausting.
Some of the most beneficial things can be the first to be sacrificed amidst stress: exercise, meditation, connecting with a loved one, and nourishing your body with healthy food.
Using alcohol as a way to escape the pressures of life can seem like one of the quickest ways to unwind.
And let's face it - Aussie culture has long been intertwined with pubs, knocking a few back with mates, using some bubbly to celebrate.
You may have wondered whether signs you've noticed are actually symptoms of alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, or even signs of alcohol withdrawal.
Most importantly, wherever you are in your journey - it's important to know that help is available.
Some Common Signs of Alcohol Addiction
It's hard to separate personal experiences from ingrained culture - even when things start to become problematic. Symptoms of alcohol addiction are something many people worry about, and it's important to spot the signs and seek help early - whether that's for another person or you.
You're missing it when it's not around
Withdrawal symptoms can include thinking and planning how and when you'll be able to get a drink.
You can't function 'like normal' without it, or control yourself with it
You feel 'off' when you haven't had your usual drink/s. On the other hand, you feel more 'yourself' when you've been able to drink.
It's affecting your everyday life: your work or loved ones
As with many other areas of life, a clear sign that a habit is turning into an addiction is its effect on the rest of your life. Alcohol addiction can impair or strain working or personal relationships.
Serious episodes like black-outs, memory lapses, or dangerous situations
Severe alcohol misuse can cause serious situations such as loss of memory, passing out, or scenarios such as sexual risk-taking or drink-driving.
The Short-Term Effects of Alcohol on the Brain and Body
You may have experienced the feeling that you just can't switch off. When stress turns chronic, your mind can go into overdrive. The little downtime you have seems to be wasted feeling anxious.
The experience of alcohol can be wide-ranging between people, and can even depend on things like how tired you are or how much you've eaten.
But if you have a drink, what exactly changes?
Alcohol and Inhibitions
Having a drink might be associated with freeing inhibitions. You forget about your shy personality for a moment under the cloak of a few drinks.
Interestingly, alcohol's effects on the brain is actually as an 'inhibitor'. This is because it can act as a blocker for certain over-achieving parts of the brain. Parts that want to keep you alert, maybe a little on edge - and perhaps in downright anguish.
If you imagine a raging river flowing quickly, an inhibitor might be something like rocks and boulders slowing everything down to a babbling brook pace.
Or how loud music would become if you decided to put in some foam earplugs. You can still hear, but it's dampened.
But is it all roses?
Alcohol and Sleep
Another cultural norm is the old 'nightcap'. Having a spot of insomnia? Just have a tickle of brandy - they would say.
It's a common misconception that alcohol can help sleep.
In fact, it's a tricky relationship. Once alcohol is in your body, you may feel a little drowsy and more inclined to sleep. The paradox? Although you seem to fall asleep more quickly, the quality of sleep is actually lowered.
Because it makes you sleep a little worse, you don't quite get the same restful experience and much-needed rejuvenation. You may wake up more often (even without realising or remembering). It can actually dampen your REM sleep, known as the dream sleep - and for its restorative qualities for health and creativity.
The Neuroscience Behind Alcohol
There are many different types of 'communicators' in our brains calling the shots - neurotransmitters.
There are neurotransmitters that 'excite'. They get your mind going and keep you on the ball about everything going on around you.
The yin to this yang is neurotransmitters like GABA, guiding a return to calm. It's like the coolant in this system, so when GABA is released, we can actually chill out and forget a little about that stress.
Just like you need waking hours and sleep overnight, your brain also these peaks and troughs to function happily.
Alcohol acts a bit like a GABA imitator - it likes to dampen all these pathways, some of which may well be contributing to your stress. This seems great in the moment but isn't as great for your long-term brain or body health.
In fact, alcohol can actually decrease the production of GABA - and its incredibly useful calming effects.
Beyond the short-term consequences, there are more serious implications in the overuse of alcohol: Increased risk of chronic illnesses, accidents, violence, and even malnutrition and alcohol-induced dementia.
A common question is what is the best was to approach someone you think may be suffering from alcoholism?
Someone Close to me Might Be Alcoholic
If you notice that someone close to you may be in need of help, reaching out to let them know you're there - and asking if they're ok, can be reassuring. This is also best done in a safe and quiet space, preferably away from alcohol.
There are also times where someone may not be ready to talk about their struggles. If this is the case, it's important that you and anyone living with this person are safe.
For someone to receive help, they also must be willing and ready to receive it. If you provide a gentle and non-judgemental ear, then this may support someone to finding assistance in their own timing.
What Can Talking Therapy Do For Me?
Therapy gives you the chance to develop skills of emotional self-reflection, and work on areas that are important to you.
To explore and develop the coping mechanisms we use, and the effect they have on areas such as self-esteem and self-acceptance.
Addressing these and making them work for you can have a profound impact on your experience of stressors, pain and difficult times.
Finding Better Coping Strategies
Everyone develops skills and strategies to deal with the ups and downs of life- whether you're conscious of them or not. Reflecting and understanding the ways in which you approach stress can give you insight to how healthy your strategies are, and perhaps even why they are your go-to.
Once you are aware of these, then evaluating the best coping tools for you, your personality, and your situation can make an incredible difference to your quality of life.
How to Know When to Get Help
Issues with alcohol dependence can carry a lot of shame. One of the first steps is admitting you might need help.
If you're struggling with the pressures of life and finding it hard to cope, then chatting to someone can be really helpful in sorting out some of those mental knots.
If you'd like to get in touch with us, we would love to provide a helping hand to you in your journey.