Addiction is common: approximately 10 percent of Americans suffer from a drug use disorder at some point in their life1. If you’re struggling with alcohol or any other substance, you’re certainly not alone.
But why do people get addicted to alcohol, and what makes this such a common issue in our society?
Since we don’t talk openly enough about alcoholism and what it means to be an alcoholic, many people might not even realize they need help. For me, I had never even heard the word alcoholic or addict until I entered treatment. When I first started drinking, it was fun. All of my friends did it, and it didn’t seem like a big deal.
What I didn’t realize was that my thoughts about alcohol and my relationship with alcohol were almost immediately different than that of my friends. I was always waiting for the next time I could drink. I almost always got drunk or blacked out and made decisions I would never have made when I wasn’t drinking.
Addiction presents itself differently in everyone, but there are several common reasons people get addicted to alcohol. It’s also interesting to note that alcohol is one of the most accepted substances to use in the United States. This fact makes it difficult for many people to realize that they could even have a problem with alcohol.
How Do I Know if I’m Addicted to Alcohol?
Addiction is a physical or mental dependence on a substance. The definition of alcohol use disorder (AUD) is an inability to control one’s alcohol use despite negative consequences2. Other common signs of AUD include:
- Lying about how much you’re drinking, or hiding alcohol around the house so others won’t notice
- Drinking to feel ‘normal’ or avoid a hangover
- Buying alcohol from different stores so employees don’t know how much you are drinking
- Continuing to drink even though you want to stop, or promised others you would stop
- Drinking more or for longer than you initially intended
- Frequently experiencing blackouts or feeling ill from the effects of drinking
- Finding yourself distracted by thoughts about alcohol
- Skipping out on other activities to drink instead
- Finding yourself in dangerous situations due to drinking or intoxication
- Experiencing tremors and other withdrawal symptoms if you don’t drink often enough
- Increased tolerance: requiring more and more alcohol to feel the effects
Curious to know if you’re really drinking too much? Take our short alcohol use quiz.
How Do People Get Addicted to Alcohol?
There are many different factors that contribute to why people get addicted to alcohol—including genetics, brain chemistry, personal experiences, and mental health. For most people, it’s a combination of several of these factors.
Research shows that genetics can account for about half of a person’s risk for alcohol use disorder3. It’s certainly true that some people who have alcoholism in their family history don’t become alcoholics, and some people who do become alcoholics have absolutely no family history of it.
However, since genetics are at play, it’s crucial to be cognizant of your alcohol use if you have a family history of alcoholism. If a person is genetically predisposed to experience the positive effects of alcohol more strongly, they’re more likely to develop a problem with alcohol.
Repeated exposure to excessive amounts of alcohol can cause changes in the brain that make a person crave more alcohol—even when drinking more would be dangerous.
Consuming alcohol releases dopamine in the brain’s reward center4. This causes you to feel good and happy, and associate alcohol with pleasure. Later, if you’re feeling down or unhappy, your brain will remember this and encourage you to seek more alcohol.
If you drink frequently, your body will also compensate by making fewer of its own relaxing and soothing brain chemicals5. This can leave you feeling anxious or depressed, and dependent on alcohol to regulate your mood. In other words, drinking too much, too often, can interact with your brain’s circuitry to create dependence.
Environment and Personal Experiences
If you grow up in a household where alcohol is readily available and is consumed when something negative happens, you may learn to drink in order to feel better. If you’re around people who drink often and pressure you to drink, this can lead to increased alcohol consumption as well.
Everyone reacts differently to their personal experiences and environment. One person who grew up around large amounts of alcohol might become an alcoholic, while another might swear off alcohol for life. Still, life experiences and surroundings—including adverse childhood experiences and other traumatic events—can play a role in whether you become addicted to alcohol.
It’s very common for someone who is addicted to alcohol to also suffer from other mental health disorders, such as post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, depression, and insomnia. Many people don’t even know that they have these mental health disorders and, in some ways, accidentally begin self-medicating as a way to feel better.
Unfortunately, alcohol use almost always makes these mental health issues worse, leading to a negative feedback cycle. In fact, people diagnosed with alcohol use disorder are twice as likely to also be diagnosed with anxiety6.
Why Did I Become Addicted to Alcohol?
Of course, all of the above may only tell you half of the story. If you find yourself struggling with alcohol, you may spend time trying to understand “why am I an addict?” While you should never beat yourself up for the past, it can sometimes help you deal with the issue more effectively if you understand how it developed for you, personally.
When I was young, alcohol was prevalent in my household. My mom allowed me to start drinking at a very young age, and she drank often. I don’t believe that she is an alcoholic, but the fact that it was always allowed in my household made it seem like alcohol wasn’t a big deal.
Many of my friends also started drinking at a young age, so the people I spent the most time with drank often, and again, it just seemed so normal. Before I knew it, I was using alcohol as a way to numb my feelings when they became too difficult to bear.
Before I knew it, I was using alcohol as a way to numb my feelings when they became too difficult to bear.
When my mom was going through a divorce, and when I was dealing with the effects of sexual assault, I quickly turned to drugs and alcohol, and found myself in increasingly dangerous situations. I suffered further abuse and trauma, which I now know was none of my fault. But it was hard for me to cope with these events without substances.
While my drug and alcohol use came to undermine the things I valued most in life, I remained in denial about it for a long time. And this is very common. Often, there are very legitimate reasons why a person becomes dependent on alcohol or drugs, and it’s important to be understanding with yourself, and not engage in self-blame.
But if any of this resonates with you, I encourage you to seek assistance for the problem. While it was hard to acknowledge that I needed help at first, doing so was the first step to getting my life back. And although it was often a challenging road, I can safely say more than a decade later that getting sober was one of the most important things I’ve ever done.
There are many ways people become addicted, but there are also many ways to recover from addiction. From online coaching and medication-assisted treatment, to 12 step meetings and other support groups, there’s likely to be a solution that works for you.