Most Effective Alcohol Dependence Treatment
Last Updated: November 9, 2023
When seeking and planning treatment for alcohol use disorder, addressing all mental health concerns is essential for effective recovery.
Alcohol-related incidents are a rising problem in the U.S. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, more than 140,000 people die every year due to alcohol-related issues. This makes it the fourth leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., which has risen about 25% from 2019–2020.
According to the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), over 16.3 million people ages 12 and above reported heavy alcohol use within the past month. The need for available and effective treatment for alcohol dependence is significant in the U.S., with many people meeting the criteria for alcohol dependence or alcoholism.
Recognizing the Need for Treatment
Recognizing that you need treatment for alcohol use disorder is the first step. If you experience two or more of the following signs and symptoms, you may have alcohol use disorder:
- Periods where you drank more than or longer than you wanted to
- Wanted to stop drinking but felt unable to
- Spent a lot of time recovering from the effects of alcohol
- Intense preoccupation thinking about drinking alcohol
- Found that drinking or the effects of drinking impacted your daily life, job or other responsibilities
- Continued drinking alcohol even when it was affecting your family or friendships
- Lost interest in normal activities and preferred drinking alcohol instead
- Engaged in unsafe behavior due to drinking (unprotected sex, drunk driving, etc.)
- Continue drinking even though it makes you feel depressed or anxious
- An increase in tolerance for the amount of alcohol you can drink before feeling the effects
- Experience symptoms of withdrawal (shaking, nausea, sweating, racing heartbeat, etc) when you do not drink alcohol.
AUD affects how a family functions daily. Other household members may take on more responsibility around the house or financially due to the person with an alcohol dependence becoming unreliable and choosing alcohol over other priorities. Spouses and children of someone with AUD may struggle with emotional or physical distress depending on the severity of someone’s alcohol dependence.
Effectiveness of Alcohol Treatment
The good news is alcohol addiction treatment is available, and many people who seek treatment for AUD find it beneficial. Research shows that about one-third of those who enter treatment for AUD show no symptoms a year later or have greatly reduced their drinking and other alcohol-related issues.
Available Treatment Options
Behavioral treatments are meant to help change your behavior with alcohol through counseling with a licensed professional. The goal of behavioral treatment is to reduce drinking by understanding the behaviors that lead to alcohol misuse. This can happen through:
- Creating a support system
- Setting achievable goals
- Identifying and avoiding triggers for relapse
- Building skills to stop or reduce drinking
The different types of behavioral treatments include:
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT can be individual or small-group therapy. CBT focuses on identifying thoughts and feelings that lead to negative behaviors, such as abusing alcohol. CBT can help someone develop skills needed to cope with everyday scenarios that can trigger someone to want to drink.
- Motivational Enhancement Therapy: This type of therapy helps build and solidify motivation to change behaviors around drinking. It is completed over a short time and focuses on the positives and negatives of treatment, getting a plan in place and building confidence to stick with treatment.
- Marital and Family Counseling: Marital and family counseling includes spouses and other family members in treatment. Family can be a crucial part of treatment for alcohol addiction and improve the likelihood of maintaining sobriety after alcohol dependence treatment.
- Brief Interventions: Brief interventions are short-term individual or group counseling sessions with a specific goal. A counselor gives information about the risks of drinking, and each patient gets feedback to help set goals and make changes.
Medications for Alcohol Dependence
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approves certain medications for treating alcohol dependence. These include:
- Naltrexone: This medication helps reduce heavy drinking.
- Acamprosate: This drug is used to support abstinence.
- Disulfiram: Disulfiram causes unpleasant side effects if someone drinks alcohol when using the medication.
Mutual support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery groups, provide peer support during treatment and ongoing sobriety. These types of groups offer support through mutual struggles with alcohol and circumstances that can help someone in alcohol dependence treatment not feel alone.
Starting the Treatment Journey
Consulting a Primary Care Doctor
A primary care doctor is a great first step in seeking treatment for alcohol dependence. A primary doctor has local resources and recommendations for treatment options and is familiar with the patient looking for treatment.
A primary doctor can also help evaluate a patient’s current drinking patterns and health, come up with a treatment plan and discuss if medication for AUD would be beneficial.
Professionals Involved in Care
Many healthcare providers can be involved in AUD treatment. These can include:
- Primary care providers: These professionals help with the initial exploration of alcohol use and provide referrals or treatment options.
- Psychiatrists: Psychiatrists assist with behavioral and mood assessment while recommending and prescribing medication for AUD treatment.
- Psychologists: These specialists help patients build skills to reduce drinking habits with behavioral therapy.
- Social workers: Social workers help provide counseling services for AUD and set up other supports as needed.
- Alcohol counselors: These healthcare providers specialize in AUD treatment options and can provide specific alcohol dependence-related support.
Personalized Treatment Approaches
Treatment for AUD should be personalized to each patient. Every person who enters AUD treatment has unique needs and may respond better to different interventions.
Addressing Concerns and Myths
It can seem contradictory to prescribe medication to treat a substance use disorder, but medications prescribed for AUD treatment are not habit-forming and should be thought of as medication for any other chronic condition.
The Future of Alcohol Treatment
New prospective treatments for AUD are being explored all the time, especially through the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). With a scientific approach to how alcohol dependence begins in the brain and body, new treatments become available as more information is gathered.
Some of these discoveries include:
- Chantix: An anti-smoking drug that has shown success in reducing the desire to consume alcohol.
- Gabapentin: A medication used for pain that has been shown to improve abstinence from alcohol and reduce alcohol cravings.
Tips for Choosing the Right Treatment
The best way to choose the right type of treatment is to gather information about a program and assess if it’s right for you. Things to consider when selecting a treatment program for AUD are:
- Types of treatment offered
- Tools used to measure the program’s success
- If treatment is individualized for each patient
- How relapse is handled
- If inpatient or outpatient treatment is better for you
- Cost of treatment
- Location and availability of treatment programs
Advocating for yourself or a loved one and being involved and respected in the treatment selection process can make you feel more comfortable moving forward with a treatment option.
The Ongoing Nature of Recovery
Relapse is a common and expected part of the alcohol dependence recovery process. A relapse should be seen as a temporary setback, just like any other chronic health condition that may have setbacks.
Recovery from AUD is an ongoing process. Continued support from loved ones and treatment will help someone move through a relapse toward their recovery.
Mental Health and AUD
There is a direct link between heavy drinking and periods of depression and anxiety among those with AUD. Studies show that over one-third of people who meet the criteria for AUD have experienced episodes of depression and anxiety.
Someone with AUD may also drink alcohol to cope with feelings of depression and anxiety and then feel anxious or depressed due to their alcohol consumption. With AUD, it is crucial to consider all co-occurring diagnoses when seeking and planning treatment. Addressing all mental health concerns is essential for treating alcohol dependence effectively.
Advice for Friends and Family
The support of friends and family is an essential part of AUD recovery. Loved ones can provide encouragement and accountability for someone during their journey to sobriety. It is important to be patient and non-judgemental during someone’s AUD recovery, as it takes time, and continued support is needed.
Professional Help and Resources
The following are organizations and resources for AUD treatment and support:
- American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry
- American Psychological Association
- National Association of Social Workers
- Substance Use Treatment Facility Locator
- Alcoholics Anonymous (AA)
- SMART Recovery
- Women for Sobriety
- Al-Anon Family Groups
- Adult Children of Alcoholics
- National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
- National Institute on Drug Abuse
- National Institute of Mental Health
Recovery from AUD is possible with treatment and commitment. No single path to recovery exists, and treatment and recovery will look different for everyone. Whatever the treatment process looks like, participation and staying engaged in the process will help build the skills to fight AUD.
If you or a loved one are struggling with AUD, reach out to The Recovery Village Atlanta to learn more about how you can get started on the path to an alcohol-free life.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol-Related Emergencies and Deaths in the United States.” 2023. Accessed September 17, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol Use in the United States: Age Groups and Demographic Characteristics.” 2023. Accessed September 17, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2023. Accessed September 17, 2023.
McCrady, Barbara S. and Flanagan, Julianne C. “The Role of the Family in Alcohol Use Disorder Recovery for Adults.” Alcohol Research Current Review, May 6, 2021. Accessed September 17, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help.” September 2023. Accessed September 17, 2023.
Schuckit, Mark A. “Alcohol, Anxiety, and Depressive Disorders.” Alcohol Health and Research World, 1996. Accessed September 19, 2023.