What is an Alcoholic?

alcoholismMillions of people around the world drink alcohol without issue. They can go out to bars, clubs and parties and drink the night away. They can go to work the next day and take care of their responsibilities and do it all over again the next time the occasion arises. Then there are those who are constantly intoxicated and they’re lives become unmanageable, but they can’t stop to get their life back on track. As an outsider looking at someone who is always drunk, it’s difficult to understand why they can’t realize the harm they’re causing to themselves and others.

Alcoholism affects about one in every 12 people, and these people have lost the ability to control their drinking. While they may seem selfish and self-centered, they’re actually suffering from a mental illness that they have no control over. Many alcoholics would stop if they had the ability to do so, but they can’t.

 The Stop and the Go System

Every human has two parts of the brain that allow them to experience pleasure and restrain them when they might be in danger. These are sometimes referred to as the “stop system” and “go system.” The go system is the pleasure portion of the brain. We need this in order to survive. It’s what tells us to drink, eat and reproduce, which are necessary to sustaining human life. The stop system is meant to initiate our “fight or flight” response. It lets us know when we’re in danger. So no matter how thirsty you may be, you might think twice about getting water if it was surrounded by dangerous animals, which is how our ancestors survived.

When alcohol is introduced to the body, the pleasure system is initiated and it tells the person they should repeat that action. This happens because a chemical in the body called dopamine flows and gives the person pleasure. The stop system realizes that there is an excess flow of dopamine and will balance the system so the person remembers that there may be dangers associated with their drinking. It provides people with logic and self-awareness, so they know they should go home if they have an important commitment the following morning.

Alcoholics have a stop system that doesn’t function properly, so it can’t restrict the flow of dopamine in the system. The go system is telling the person they need to keep drinking because there’s nothing telling the person otherwise. This is why alcoholics have a difficult time stopping once they start drinking. Eventually, their body becomes dependent to alcohol, so they’ll impulsively drink even when they don’t want to.

 Treatment for Alcoholism

Rehabilitation is the best way for an alcoholic to recover, and the person will go through a variety of different treatments. It’s necessary for the alcoholic to discover what’s triggering their cravings so they can learn how to retrain their brain to develop new habits when the cravings occur. The most commonly used treatment to help retrain the brain is cognitive behavioral therapy, which is all about repeating new actions over and over again. Eventually, new healthy habits will become second nature for the alcoholic.

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