What Is Alcoholism?
Alcoholism, also known as “alcohol dependence,” is a disease that includes four symptoms:
• Craving: A strong need, or compulsion, to drink.
• Loss of control: The inability to limit one’s drinking on any given occasion.
• Physical dependence: Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, occur when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking.
• Tolerance: The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol in order to “get high.”
People who are not alcoholic sometimes do not understand why an alcoholic can’t just “use a little willpower” to stop drinking. However, alcoholism has little to do with willpower. Alcoholics are in the grip of a powerful “craving,” or uncontrollable need, for alcohol that overrides their ability to stop drinking. This need can be as strong as the need for food or water.
Although some people are able to recover from alcoholism without help, the majority of alcoholics need assistance. With treatment and support, many individuals are able to stop drinking and rebuild their lives.
Many people wonder why some individuals can use alcohol without problems but others cannot. One important reason has to do with genetics. Scientists have found that having an alcoholic family member makes it more likely that if you choose to drink you too may develop alcoholism. Genes, however, are not the whole story. In fact, scientists now believe that certain factors in a person’s environment influence whether a person with a genetic risk for alcoholism ever develops the disease. A person’s risk for developing alcoholism can increase based on the person’s environment, including where and how he or she lives; family, friends, and culture; peer pressure; and even how easy it is to get alcohol.