Causes of Alcohol Addiction: Most Common Risk Factors
Last Updated: February 28, 2024
No single factor leads to alcohol addiction. Instead, there are many genetic, environmental, psychological and social causes of alcohol addiction.
Not everyone who drinks alcohol will become addicted, but unfortunately, some people will develop problems related to alcohol. Given this fact, people often wonder what causes alcohol addiction. In reality, there isn’t one exact cause of addiction; instead, multiple factors can increase a person’s risk of becoming addicted to alcohol.
Alcohol Addiction & the Brain
The first step toward understanding the causes of alcohol addiction is learning how alcohol affects the brain. According to medical research, alcohol strongly affects the brain by creating pleasurable feelings. Because of this effect, people may drink to reduce negative emotions and cope with stress.
With repeated drinking, people tend to feel worse when they’re not under the influence of alcohol, which can motivate them to drink even more. Over time, alcohol causes changes in the structure and functioning of the brain to the extent that brain functioning is impaired, and a person loses control over their drinking.
Risk Factors for Alcohol Addiction
Researchers have identified several risk factors for alcohol addiction. Not everyone who has these risk factors will become addicted, but in general, the more risk factors a person has, the more likely it is they will develop problems with alcohol misuse. Risk factors for alcohol addiction can be divided into four categories.
Genetic factors seem to play a role in the development of alcohol addiction. Research shows the risk of alcohol addiction is 50% heritable, meaning about half of the risk of alcohol addiction can be explained by genetics.
Factors within the environment can also play a role in the development of alcohol addiction. For instance, the family environment during childhood can lead to problem drinking. Children who grow up watching parents consume alcohol or have easy access to alcohol at home are at higher risk of addiction. Environmental stressors can also contribute to addiction.
Psychological problems like depression and ADHD increase the risk of alcohol addiction. In addition, the effects of childhood trauma can make a person more likely to develop issues related to alcohol.
Social factors, including peer pressure, can lead to alcohol addiction. This is particularly true for people who begin drinking in their early teens to fit in with others. Research shows that adults who started drinking before age 15 are over three times as likely to report experiencing an alcohol use disorder, which is the clinical term for alcohol addiction, compared to those who had their first drink at age 21 or older.
Alcohol Addiction Stages
Alcohol addiction is said to develop in three stages:
- Binge/Intoxication: During this first stage of addiction, alcohol consumption is rewarding. It reduces anxiety, creates feelings of euphoria and makes social interactions less distressing. These desirable effects motivate a person to keep drinking, and brain changes lead to habit formation and changes in how a person responds to drinking cues, such as shot glasses or beer cans.
- Negative Affect/Withdrawal: During this stage, the alcohol addiction becomes stronger. When a person isn’t drinking, they experience unpleasant side effects, like sleep problems, pain or a sense that they just don’t feel well. Emotions like irritability and anxiety also take center stage. At this point, a person drinks not to feel good but to avoid feeling bad.
- Preoccupation/Anticipation: When a person enters the preoccupation/anticipation stage, they are preoccupied with drinking. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which controls decision-making, is impaired, contributing to continued addiction.
Prevention and Intervention Strategies
Given the risks of alcohol addiction, quality intervention and prevention programs are critical. To reduce the risk of alcohol abuse, education programs that provide teenagers with facts about the dangers of alcohol are essential. For those who have begun to develop problems with drinking, early intervention programs, such as brief counseling or support groups, can prevent the progression to a clinical addiction.
Once a person develops an alcohol addiction, a range of treatment programs are available. An alcohol use disorder is typically treated with behavioral interventions, such as counseling and medications to control cravings. People in alcohol addiction treatment also commonly attend support group meetings. Treatment is offered at multiple levels of care, from outpatient services within the community to residential rehab programs requiring patients to live on-site at a treatment center.
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National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The Cycle of Alcohol Addiction.” 2021. Accessed August 14, 2023.
Hagele, Claudia; Friedel, Eva; Kienast, Torsten; Kiefer, Falk. “How Do We ‘Learn’ Addiction? Risk Factors and Mechanisms Getting Addicted to Alcohol.” Neuropsychobiology, 2014. Accessed August 14, 2023.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.” April 2023. Accessed August 14, 2023.