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Why Alcohol Is Addictive for Some & Not Others

Last Updated: November 15, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

Alcohol can be highly addictive physically and mentally. It changes the chemicals in the brain, which may lead to intense alcohol cravings.

Alcohol is known to cause chemical changes in the brain, making people want to use it more with each drink. This creates a cycle that can make it difficult to stop using alcohol. 

How Addictive Is Alcohol?

Alcohol is used by almost 140 million people in the U.S. annually. Of those individuals, nearly 15 million are addicted to it, which is over 10% of all alcohol users. Alcohol is the most frequently used addictive substance, followed by tobacco, with less than 59 million users. Illegal drugs come in at a distant third, with only 8.1 million people addicted to them, which is less than half the number addicted to alcohol.

The Brain and Alcohol Addiction

Addiction is widely regarded as a brain disease. The chemical changes that occur in the brain as a result of alcohol addiction are often misunderstood by some who may not view it as a disease. However, repeated alcohol misuse alters the structure and function of the brain, leading to the development of addiction.

Alcohol’s Effects on the Brain

Alcohol is addictive because of its effect on the brain. Alcohol activates GABA receptors in the brain, which slows down brain activity, leading to the symptoms that come with alcohol use.

Alcohol use also triggers the release of chemicals called endorphins. These chemicals are responsible for the feeling of pleasure. Normally, endorphins are released in response to beneficial behaviors like eating, exercising or having sex. However, alcohol releases an excessive amount of these chemicals, causing an artificial sense of pleasure. This reinforces the desire to use alcohol again, leading to addiction. The more alcohol is used, the stronger the addiction becomes.

Overall, alcohol addiction is caused by its impact on the brain and the reinforcing cycle that it creates.

Tolerance and Dependence

Addiction is often accompanied by tolerance and dependence. Tolerance happens when your brain gets used to alcohol’s effects, and you need more of it to get the same effect. This may lead to increased alcohol use, which can negatively affect your body and mind.

Dependence is when your brain accommodates alcohol by changing its normal function. When this happens, your brain relies on alcohol to function normally. Stopping alcohol usage after dependence develops may lead to uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that occur until your brain readjusts to the absence of the substance.

Genetic Factors and Alcohol Addiction

Although genetics are not the only factor in determining alcohol addiction, some people are more likely to develop alcoholism due to their genes. 

Genetic Predisposition

Genetics plays a large role in increasing the susceptibility to alcohol addiction. Several genes have been identified that have a strong impact on how the body metabolizes alcohol. According to research, about 50% of a person’s risk for developing an alcohol use disorder is inherited.

Family History and Alcoholism

It is crucial to remember that being exposed to alcohol use and addiction can raise the likelihood of someone developing alcohol addiction. Even if there is no genetic factor, a person with a family history of alcohol addiction may have a greater risk due to this exposure.

Environmental Factors and Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol addiction risk may be influenced by social situations, cultures and environments that promote alcohol use.

Social Factors

Alcohol consumption can escalate in specific social situations, putting individuals at a higher risk of developing alcoholism. For instance, college environments with a prevalent drinking culture and peer pressure to engage in heavy drinking are prominent examples of such situations. However, many other social circumstances or cultural practices can lead people to consume alcohol excessively, contrary to their personal choices.

These can include:

  • Friend or family peer pressure to drink alcohol
  • Work culture that promotes drinking, i.e., happy hours
  • Culturally accepted drinking, such as wine at meals at a young age
  • Drinking can be seen as “manly,” creating pressure to drink a lot of alcohol

Stress and Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol can provide a temporary escape from stress by creating a numbing and relaxing effect. People who use alcohol to cope with stress may be experiencing environmental factors such as job loss or divorce, which can increase stress levels. These situations can lead to an increased dependence on alcohol. For individuals with an underlying mental illness, stress can have an even greater impact.

Psychological Factors and Alcohol Addiction

Technically, addiction in the medical sense is purely a chemical change that occurs in the brain. There is, however, a psychological aspect to alcohol addiction. 

The Reward System and Alcohol

The ability to handle stress and difficulty is a significant aspect of mental well-being in psychiatry. The stronger your coping skills, the healthier you will be mentally. Alcohol can serve as a coping mechanism over time, making it easier to handle stressful situations. 

This coping method may eventually become essential for your psychological well-being, which may lead to alcohol dependence. During alcohol rehabilitation, the psychological aspect of addiction is frequently addressed by teaching new coping strategies to replace alcohol as a source of support in difficult situations.

Alcohol and Mental Health

Dealing with mental health issues is a complex and challenging process. Medications prescribed for mental illness tend to have a slow-acting effect and require time to work. Consequently, those with mental illness often resort to self-treatment to alleviate symptoms. Alcohol is one of the most common self-medication methods for mental health issues, but it can be dangerous. Mental illness alone increases the risk of addiction, and using alcohol to self-medicate can significantly exacerbate this risk.

Physical Factors and Alcohol Addiction

Physical factors arise in individuals with alcohol addiction or dependence, which compel them to continue using it or make it difficult for them to quit.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Going through alcohol withdrawal can be risky and uncomfortable. Those struggling with alcohol addiction who have attempted to quit drinking can attest to the fact that it’s far from enjoyable. As a result, the brain is continuously reinforcing the urge to consume alcohol while simultaneously discouraging attempts to quit.

Alcohol Cravings

Due to the activation of the reward systems in the brain, alcohol generates powerful and nearly uncontrollable urges for more alcohol. Such urges are particularly strong during the withdrawal phase, but they can persist for several months or even years after quitting drinking. These alcohol cravings may prevent individuals from quitting alcohol or entice them to resume drinking after months or years of abstinence.

Am I Addicted to Alcohol?

Alcohol addiction is characterized by the inability to stop drinking despite negative consequences. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is the medical name for this condition.

Diagnosis of AUD involves a questionnaire comprising 11 distinct queries mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM–V), a medical guidebook. The severity of the symptoms is determined by the number of questions answered with a “yes”: 

  • Two to three positive responses signify mild symptoms
  • Four to five indicate moderate symptoms
  • Six or more positive responses signify severe symptoms

Questions ask if you have done the following over the last year:

  • Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended?
  • More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
  • Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
  • Found that drinking — or being sick from drinking — often interfered with taking care of your home or family or caused job or school problems?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you or gave you pleasure to drink?
  • More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting injured (such as driving, using machinery, swimming, walking in a hazardous area or having unprotected sex)?
  • Continued drinking even though it made you feel depressed or anxious or added to another health problem? Or after having a memory blackout?
  • Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your typical number of drinks had much less effect than before?
  • Had withdrawal symptoms when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?

Keep in mind that only a qualified physician can diagnose AUD accurately.

How Long Does It Take To Get Addicted to Alcohol?

Alcohol addiction is unique to every individual, and the timeline for developing an addiction varies based on several factors. Moreover, some people may not even realize they are addicted to alcohol until they experience a sudden event that makes them aware of their dependence on it.

Get Help for Alcohol Addiction at The Recovery Village Atlanta

Alcohol addiction can be hard to overcome without professional help. Treatment usually has two parts: medical detox and rehab. During medical detox, the individual stops drinking and experiences withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol detox can be dangerous and even life-threatening, so it’s important to get professional treatment.

Rehab follows medical detox and involves medical monitoring while learning coping skills and strategies to avoid relapse during individual, group and family therapy. Rehab treatment at The Recovery Atlanta is personalized to the individual using a full continuum of care, including residential rehab, partial hospitalization programs and aftercare services. Residential rehab patients at our physician-led facility also have access to amenities, including:

  • Yoga
  • Art therapy
  • Exercise gym
  • Basketball half-court
  • Ping pong, foosball, shuffleboard, video games
  • Computer lab for PHP patients

The Recovery Village Atlanta is an accredited, evidence-based alcohol addiction rehab center with a proven record of helping people achieve lasting sobriety in Atlanta, Georgia. Our expert staff and state-of-the-art facilities have helped many people overcome their alcohol use disorder. We encourage you to reach out to our team to start your journey to lifelong recovery.


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