With over 14 million Americans suffering from an alcohol use disorder, it’s hard not to wonder: is alcohol addiction preventable?
To hear some people tell it, excessive alcohol use is a choice, and the answer is simple: just don’t drink. According to others, addiction is a genetic disease certain people are born with, and may be difficult for some to avoid. But are either of these perspectives truly accurate?
As it turns out, addiction is not so black and white. Alcohol abuse causes changes in the brain that can make healthy choices feel next to impossible. And while studies show that genetics can raise one’s risk of addiction, several other factors—such as mental health, social pressures, and environmental issues—also come into play.
In other words, alcohol use disorder is complicated. But the good news is, there are many steps you can take to help avoid addiction. Below, we’ll discuss what we know about how alcohol dependence happens, and how you can prevent it.
Where Does Alcohol Addiction Start?
The pathway to drug or alcohol addiction is complex, but involves at least two important areas in the brain. One is the reward center, which influences survival instincts like eating. The other is the prefrontal cortex—in charge of decision-making and impulse control.
Like other addictive substances, alcohol increases dopamine in your reward center. This produces feelings of pleasure that tell your brain to repeat the behavior, and also creates memories that associate certain things with that behavior. This is one of the primary ways that habits form.
A healthy brain has checks and balances on this process. This is where the prefrontal cortex comes in—essentially telling the brain it has had enough of a positive effect. But unfortunately, heavy drinking can wreak havoc on this area. This makes it harder to resist the urge to drink, leading to a vicious cycle.
In other words, regardless of genetics or personal intentions, it’s possible to develop unhealthy drinking habits that are reinforced by your brain chemistry. This is a major reason most experts now view addiction as a chronic disease, not a moral failing. And while some people may be more vulnerable than others, it can happen to anyone.
What Does Addictive Behavior Look Like?
As the above changes happen in the brain, what happens on the surface? How do you know when you, or someone you know, is developing addictive behaviors around alcohol?
Early warning signs include:
- Drinking more than you originally planned to
- Social activities that increasingly revolve around alcohol
- Using alcohol to relieve stress, or feeling drinking is necessary to have fun
- Drinking more and more frequently
- Consuming more than the daily recommended guidelines, or binge drinking
- Noticing it’s harder to recover from a night of drinking, or takes longer
A person who is already addicted will often also:
- Continue to drink despite harm to relationships, career, or health
- Frequently crave or seek out alcohol
- Feel anxious, irritable, or stressed when sober
- Drink compulsively, and be unable to stop once they start
- Experience alcohol withdrawal if they stop drinking
If you notice any of these signs, you may be concerned. But what can you do to improve the problem before it gets worse? How does one avoid addiction?
How to Prevent Alcohol Addiction
There are several actions you can take to reduce your likelihood of addiction, or head off problem drinking before it gets any worse. These involve changing risky habits, reducing your stress levels, recognizing drinking triggers, and caring for your mental health.
Breaking Bad Habits
Habits come in several different forms. Some develop to help the brain save energy. These are the day-to-day routines we learn to do automatically. Other habits, like alcohol use, are influenced by the effects of dopamine on the reward center. The following steps can help you kick a bad habit:
- Set measurable goals – Decide on a drinking target you can track, such as 2 drinks per day maximum
- Know what drives the habit – Stress, people or places, certain times of day, etc.
- Switch up your routine – Make it harder to do things on autopilot
- Replace the habit – Look for a healthy alternative
- Keep a journal – You’ll be able to see what’s working, and even notice triggers you didn’t think of
- Encourage yourself – Reward yourself for progress towards your goals
Short-term stress is a normal response that helps us overcome dangerous or challenging situations. Chronic stress, on the other hand, is physically and emotionally draining. Many people turn to alcohol to relieve these unpleasant feelings.
Unfortunately, alcohol is only a temporary solution. Once it’s gone, the stress often remains, and may actually be worse. Finding healthy ways to deal with stress can reduce the need for alcohol as a quick fix. Here are some good alternatives:
Exercise: Physical activity helps boost endorphins, which naturally relieve pain and make us feel good. Incorporating regular exercise into your routine can have many health benefits, including reducing stress.
Meditation: There are many different forms of meditation, but they all share a common goal: staying present in the moment. This has a calming effect, slows breathing and heart rate, and decreases stress. One study also found mindfulness meditation can improve emotional regulation, impulse control, and substance abuse.
Practice Self Care: Life is busy, and it’s easy to forget to take a break. Listen to your body. If you are exhausted, take a nap or relax. If you’ve been working nonstop, take a timeout and have dinner with a friend, watch a movie, or read a book.
Recognize and Avoid Triggers
Our brains learn to associate certain people, places, and things with drinking, which can become “triggers” for alcohol consumption. Take some time to reflect on what your own unique triggers may be. You don’t need to be addicted to have drinking triggers, and oftentimes they’ll be worked into your daily life.
Once you recognize these triggers, start making small changes. You don’t have to avoid everything connected to alcohol, but look for adjustments you can make. For example, you might go to dinner with friends every Friday, followed by drinks and pool. If it feels hard to refuse alcoholic beverages when everyone else is drinking, go to dinner and skip pool.
Create Balance in Your Life
As you work towards changing your drinking patterns, focus on incorporating activities that foster healthy relationships and bring you happiness. Staying home or avoiding people to escape temptations can end up being counterproductive, causing loneliness and boredom. Similarly, “throwing yourself” into work as a distraction can lead to burnout.
Find a healthy balance. Fill the time you’d otherwise spend drinking with a new hobby, or a class where you can meet new people. This will provide positive support while you are trying to establish new habits.
Find Mental Health Support
Alcohol use disorder is often linked to other mental health disorders—including depression, anxiety, and PTSD to name a few. In fact, about 37 percent of people abusing alcohol suffer from other psychiatric conditions. As with stress, alcohol may temporarily dull uncomfortable mental health symptoms. But in the big picture, it will often intensify them, leading to a harmful cycle of self-medication.
Talk to your doctor or a counselor if you have concerns about your mental health and how you are feeling. There are many healthier ways of managing these problems, including medication and therapy. You might even try one of these mental health apps to relieve symptoms without turning to alcohol.
Get Help Early
The thought of treatment can be daunting. Many people associate it with costly and time-intensive rehabs or group therapy. But newer options make it easier to tailor treatment to your daily life and budget. Most importantly, asking for help early can prevent long-term, serious problems later. Here are some options for getting your drinking under control, before it has a harmful effect on your life:
Medication Assisted Treatment: Several medications can help decrease alcohol cravings. Naltrexone and acamprosate are both FDA-approved for the treatment of alcohol dependence. Others such as gabapentin, topiramate, and baclofen are approved for other purposes, but considered safe and effective. These medications can be combined with behavioral therapies to help support your recovery.
The Sinclair Method: For people who want to reduce drinking, but not stop altogether, treatment options like the Sinclair Method (TSM) may be especially useful. Those following TSM take a single naltrexone pill one hour before drinking. This blocks the pleasurable effects of alcohol, and over time can help a person significantly reduce their intake.
Telemedicine: In the age of technology, support for problem drinking is at your fingertips. Telemedicine is an increasingly popular choice, which you can access from anywhere.
Ria Health is one completely online option that gives you a customized treatment plan based on your needs and goals. You’ll have access to expert medical care, coaching, medication therapy, and online support groups at the touch of a button.