Alcoholism Causes and Treatment
Alcoholism is dependence on alcohol. Dependence exists when alcohol is taken in sufficient amounts to interfere with physical health, psychological function or social relationships. Two patterns of alcoholism exist: 'addictive alcoholism' and 'nonaddictive alcoholism'. Nonaddictive use of alcohol can be stopped at will, whereas addictive use of alcohol continues even when the user experiences effects detrimental to his mental, physical and social well-being.
Successful treatment of addictive alcoholism depends on the motivation and co-operation of the patient. Patients accustomed to a large daily intake of alcohol may respond only to institutional treatment where the physical symptoms of withdrawal are prevented or diminished by the administration of tranquillising drugs. Milder cases of addictive alcoholism are treated by reinforcing the patient's desire to give up alcohol.
Scientists are not certain of the causes of alcoholism. Although an estimated 90 million adults in our society drink alcoholic beverages at one time or another, only 6 percent of them become chronic alcoholics. There is some evidence that the disease has a physiological basis, but most studies indicate that alcoholism stems mainly from psychological disturbances. The alcoholic is generally deeply dissatisfied
with himself and the world around him. He is unable to cope with the tensions of daily life or to deal successfully with his problems. For him, alcohol permits escape from the demands and anxieties of living.
A chronic alcoholic is so dependent upon alcohol as a relief from stress that it is difficult for him to stop drinking. The consumption of alcohol becomes a compulsion over which the individual has little or no control. When heavy drinking results in the loss of friends or of financial security, the alcoholic faces additional anxieties and embarrassing situations. Consequently he has further need for the escape afforded by alcohol. Alcoholism is thus a vicious circle, arising from and leading to tension and insecurity.
There are two general types of alcoholics, the steady drinker and the periodic alcoholic. The steady drinker consumes large quantities of alcohol daily, but rarely becomes drunk. The periodic alcoholic does not drink daily, but goes on long binges.
Alcohol is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the entire body. It affects nearly every tissue, but particularly the central nervous system. Contrary to popular belief, alcohol is not a stimulant, but a depressant. It reduces the sensitivity of the nervous system and dulls the higher functions of the brain. It is this latter effect that leads to the loud speech, lack of physical control, and impulsive actions common to intoxicated people. The feeling of confidence and well-being, the lack of a. sense of embarrassment or guilt, and the loss of inhibitions all arise from the deadening effect of alcohol on the normally restraining influences of the cerebrum. Large quantities of alcohol impair physical reflexes and muscular coordination, as well as mental acuteness. They may also cause stupor, coma, and even death.
Excessive and prolonged intake of alcohol can result in serious physical illness. The alcoholic will often substitute alcohol, which is rich in calories, for foods containing vital nutrients. Conditions resulting from vitamin and mineral deficiencies, including intestinal and liver ailments, are common among alcoholics. Delirium tremens, a condition in which the individual has terrifying hallucinations and loss of muscular control, often occurs among chronic drinkers.
Drugs, such as disulphiram, are regularly taken by the patient. Alcohol, even in small quantities, taken in association with disulphiram causes the patient to feel acutely ill. The drug is continued regularly until the craving for alcohol is lost. In some cases, however, the patient prefers to give up the disulphiram and not the alcohol, and the treatment fails without his will to succeed.
'Aversion therapy' may be used to condition the patient to associate alcohol with unpleasant experiences such as electric shocks. In 'group therapy' individual willpower is strengthened by the collective motivation of a number of people with a similar object. This principle is used in the voluntary society called Alcoholics Anonymous, some of whose members have cured themselves and are willing to help others. Members remain anonymous and are helped in confidence.
The treatment of alcoholism is a lengthy, complex, and often discouraging process. Psychological treatment, which may help the individual to understand and deal with his problems, is usually necessary for a permanent cure. Hospitalization is often required in serious cases. Relapses are frequent. Many alcoholics are apparently incurable.
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