Why Is Alcohol Addictive?

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Glamorized in movies, consumed with dinners and sporting events and parties, and considered socially acceptable in most circles, alcohol is such a common substance that we sometimes overlook that it is highly addictive. 

This post will explain what makes alcohol addictive, summarize how alcohol addiction happens, and explain what you can do to avoid it.

What Makes Alcohol Addictive?

bartenders standing behind a busy bar
Photo by Taylor Davidson on Unsplash

Two frequently asked questions about alcohol are, “How does alcohol make you drunk?” and “Why is alcohol addictive?”

In both drunkenness and addiction, the brain plays a major role. The symptoms of being drunk happen as alcohol impacts various areas of the brain, which includes the release of dopamine and endorphins, causing pleasurable feelings.1

Changes to the Brain

The pleasurable release of dopamine people experience when drinking isn’t harmless. It causes the brain to associate alcohol with pleasure.2 Over time, this “teaches” the brain to seek alcohol and leads to cravings. A person’s ability to experience pleasure from healthy activities is gradually reduced, and more and more alcohol is needed to feel the same amount of pleasure.

And alcohol’s long-term impact on the brain doesn’t end there. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant that unbalances GABA (which calms the central nervous system) and glutamate (which ramps it up). Eventually, people who drink heavily can begin to rely on alcohol to keep their nervous system in check. Without alcohol, symptoms of depression or anxiety can increase, or even happen for the first time. 

Read more: Alcohol and Your Brain

Social and Psychological Factors

Changes to dopamine, GABA, and glutamate can cause the brain and body to become dependent on alcohol. But there are also social and psychological factors that make alcohol addictive. 

For example, social pressure makes it difficult for many people to stop drinking, even when they realize it’s becoming a problem. Many people also use alcohol to cope with anxiety, depression, trauma, stress, or physical pain. And the people, places, emotions, and experiences that individuals associate with alcohol can become triggers that spark intense alcohol cravings.3

Withdrawal Symptoms

When people who are dependent on alcohol try to stop drinking, they often experience withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can include anxiety, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, sweating, confusion, high blood pressure, and even hallucinations.4 In severe cases, withdrawal can be life-threatening, and medical supervision is necessary to safely stop drinking. People often drink again just to get withdrawal symptoms to stop.

So, heavy drinking can eventually cause changes to the brain that result in dependence on alcohol. Physical dependence, triggers, social pressure, and withdrawal symptoms then make it challenging to stop drinking, even for people who truly want to quit.

Read more: How Does Alcohol Use Disorder Happen?

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Stages of Addiction

Although the process of addiction can happen gradually enough to really be a continuum, some divide addiction to alcohol into four stages: pre, early, middle, and late. 

  • In the pre-alcoholic stage, drinking typically isn’t considered a problem yet. It involves casual drinking that gradually becomes more frequent, and tolerance to alcohol begins to develop. 
  • In early stage alcoholism, drinking becomes more regular. People begin finding excuses to drink, including consuming more alcohol to cope with the negative consequences of alcohol, like hangovers.
  • By the time alcoholism progresses to the middle stage, drinking is frequent and consistent. Alcohol begins to have a negative impact on the person’s relationships and health.
  • Finally, in late stage alcoholism, the person feels they must drink. They experience strong cravings and suffer from withdrawal symptoms when not drinking. At this point, they are dependent on alcohol—meaning their body requires alcohol to feel normal. 

In theory, these stages of addiction can happen so gradually that people don’t realize how out of control their drinking has become until they’ve reached the middle or late stage. In practice, this process varies a lot from individual to individual, and the point at which you consider your drinking to be a problem may occur a lot sooner.

Curious where your drinking falls on the spectrum? Take our quick alcohol use assessment to find out where you stand.

How Addictive Is Alcohol?

three friends drinking at a bar together during the day
Photo by Elevate on Unsplash

We know that the answer to the question, “Is alcohol addictive?” is a definite yes. But just how addictive is alcohol? Some people can drink casually without ever developing an addiction. But alcohol is still a highly addictive substance, and addiction to alcohol is more common than addiction to drugs.

Alcohol is addictive because of the way it changes the brain. It can cause both psychological dependence (drinking to avoid unpleasant feelings) and physical dependence (withdrawal symptoms when trying to quit). In addition to experiencing withdrawal, people who try to stop drinking may struggle with intense cravings.

Why Do Some People Become Addicted While Others Don’t?

You may wonder why some people become addicted to alcohol, while others do not. There are many factors that affect a person’s vulnerability to alcohol, including genetics. Biological children of alcoholics are significantly more likely to become alcoholics, even if they are raised by non-alcoholics.

Other factors that make some people more vulnerable to alcohol addiction include:

  • Mental health conditions like social anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and PTSD
  • Personality factors like risk-taking or a desire to be “the life of the party”
  • Drinking at an early age
  • Growing up in a family, culture, or other environment where frequent drinking is normalized or glamorized
  • Having low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Experiencing high levels of stress

It’s helpful to be aware of your risk level when it comes to alcohol use disorder, so you can take precautions and monitor your drinking as needed. However, alcohol addiction is complex, and anyone can ultimately be affected—even when few risk factors are present.

How To Avoid Alcohol Addiction

To avoid alcohol addiction, it’s safest to not drink alcohol at all, especially if you know that you’re vulnerable to alcoholism. But if you prefer to drink in moderation, that may be possible depending on your overall risk. Moderate drinking is defined as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men. 

Set limits on how much you will drink in social situations, and prepare for how you will say no if you’re offered additional drinks. Avoid drinking when you’re feeling sad, stressed, or anxious, so you won’t develop a habit of using alcohol as a coping mechanism. Develop healthy ways to cope with difficult situations and feelings—like creative outlets, a strong support system, exercise, or spending time outdoors.

Warning signs to look out for include:

  • Drinking more over time and developing a tolerance for alcohol
  • Making excuses to drink
  • Lying about drinking or isolating yourself from loved ones
  • Choosing drinking over responsibilities or activities you used to enjoy
  • Feeling hungover when not drinking
  • Struggling to limit or control your drinking
  • Negative effects on relationships, health, finances, or your career

If you or a loved one is addicted to alcohol, learn as much as you can about alcohol use disorder. Explore treatment options to determine which makes the most sense for your personality, preferences, level of addiction, and budget.

If you’re looking for an effective, affordable option that won’t disrupt your life, Ria Health can help. Our convenient telemedicine app puts recovery coaching, medication for alcoholism, support groups, and tools for tracking your progress right at your fingertips.

Learn more about how it works, or get in touch with a compassionate member of our team today.


Have questions about online alcohol treatment?

or call (800) 504-5360

Written By:
Ashley Cullins
Ashley Cullins is a writer with a passion for creating engaging, understandable content on complex topics like addiction and mental health. She has over five years of experience writing for healthcare websites and publications. Having experienced addiction first-hand in her family, Ashley deeply connects with Ria Health’s mission to make treatment easier and more accessible. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time with her daughter, reading, and cooking.
Reviewed By:
Evan O'Donnell
Evan O’Donnell is an NYC-based content strategist with four years’ experience writing and editing in the recovery space. He has conducted research in sound, cognition, and community building, has a background in independent music marketing, and continues to work as a composer. Evan is a deep believer in fact-based, empathic communication—within business, arts, academia, or any space where words drive action or change lives.

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