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Causes, Risk Factors and Stages of Alcohol Addiction

Last Updated: November 3, 2023

Editorial Policy | Research Policy

There isn’t one clear cause of alcohol addiction. It’s often a combination of varying factors. No matter what the cause is for an individual, AUD is treatable. 

Alcohol addiction, clinically known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a complex condition arising from a combination of genetic, environmental, psychological and social factors. Understanding its causes is important for creating effective prevention and intervention strategies for addiction.

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Alcohol Addiction & the Brain

Alcohol can make it harder for the brain to do its job. It affects the brain's reward system by triggering the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reinforcement. It impacts the brain’s ability to control balance, memory, speech and judgment. Over time, excessive drinking often leads to changes in brain chemistry, making individuals more susceptible to addiction. This rewiring of the brain's reward pathways reinforces the desire to continue drinking despite negative consequences.

Risk Factors for Alcohol Addiction

Several factors increase an individual’s risk of developing an alcohol addiction. An individual may have one or more genetic, environmental, psychological or social contributors. 

Genetic Factors

Research has shown that genetics play a significant role in determining an individual's vulnerability to alcohol addiction. Specific genes related to alcohol metabolism, neurotransmitter function and the brain's response to alcohol can influence a person's likelihood of developing AUD. Some genes increase a person’s risk, and others have been shown to be protective factors against AUD.

Environmental Factors

Environmental factors, such as family upbringing, peer influence and exposure to alcohol, contribute to the risk of alcohol addiction. Growing up in an environment where alcohol abuse is normalized or witnessing family members engaging in heavy drinking can increase someone’s likelihood of developing AUD later in life. This likelihood can increase for individuals who have experienced adverse life events, such as child abuse or neglect, a health crisis, housing or financial instability, the breakdown of their family unit, sexual or physical assault, or family/community violence.

Psychological Factors

Some psychological factors can contribute to the development of alcohol addiction. Individuals with co-occurring mental health disorders like anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder are at a higher risk of using alcohol to cope. While alcohol may provide temporary relief, it often worsens mental health symptoms over time.

Social Factors

Social factors, including societal norms, cultural attitudes and peer pressure, can strongly influence alcohol consumption patterns. Social acceptance of heavy drinking and frequent exposure to alcohol-related activities can contribute to the normalization of excessive alcohol use.

Alcohol Addiction Stages

Alcohol addiction typically progresses through several stages, each marked by distinct behavioral and physiological changes. These stages are:

Stage 1: Abstinence

During this stage, individuals have not yet started using alcohol. They have no experience with alcohol consumption and may choose to abstain for personal, cultural or health reasons.

Stage 2: Initial Use 

In this stage, individuals start experimenting with alcohol. They might have their first few drinks out of curiosity or in social situations. The focus is on trying alcohol without it significantly impacting their lives.

Stage 3: High-Risk Use

During high-risk use, individuals begin to drink more frequently and in larger amounts. This stage involves an increase in alcohol consumption, often in social settings or to cope with stress. The behavior is still considered risky but hasn't escalated to problematic levels.

Stage 4: Problematic Use

Problematic use marks a turning point where negative consequences start to emerge due to alcohol consumption. These consequences might include poor performance at work or school, relationship problems, legal issues or health concerns. Despite these negative outcomes, individuals may struggle to cut back on their drinking.

Stage 5: Early Stage of Dependence

At this stage, individuals develop a tolerance to alcohol, meaning they need more alcohol to achieve the same effects. They may also experience withdrawal symptoms when they're not drinking. Cravings for alcohol become stronger, and individuals might find it challenging to control their consumption.

Stage 6: Middle Stage of Dependence

During the middle stage of dependence, drinking becomes a central focus of the individual's life. They prioritize obtaining and consuming alcohol over other activities. Their tolerance continues to increase, and they experience more severe withdrawal symptoms when not drinking. Attempts to quit or cut down on drinking often fail.

Stage 7: End Stage of Dependence

In the end stage of dependence, alcohol consumption takes over the individual's life completely. They may experience severe health problems, deteriorating mental health and a breakdown in relationships and responsibilities. Quitting becomes extremely difficult due to the intense dependence on alcohol and withdrawal symptoms.

Prevention and Intervention Strategies

Addressing alcohol addiction requires a comprehensive approach that considers all of the potential factors. Prevention and intervention strategies should include:

  • Education: Raising awareness about the impact and risks of alcohol addiction and promoting responsible drinking can help prevent its onset. 
  • Screening and Early Intervention: Identifying individuals at risk early on and providing appropriate interventions can prevent the progression to addiction.
  • Access to Treatment: Ensuring that individuals have access to evidence-based treatments, including behavioral therapies and medications, is crucial for recovery.
  • Support Networks: Building strong social support systems can aid individuals in managing stress and coping with triggers without turning to alcohol. A support system also plays a key role in one’s recovery. 
  • Mental Health Care: Treating co-occurring mental health conditions can reduce the likelihood of using alcohol as a coping mechanism. It can also help prevent mental health symptoms from worsening.

Get Help for Alcohol Addiction at The Recovery Village Kansas City

If you or a loved one are searching for help with alcohol use, we’re here to help. Our team of experts at The Recovery Village Kansas City provides trauma-informed comprehensive services, including medical detox, residential rehab, partial hospitalization program (PHP) and intensive outpatient program (IOP). We also offer dual diagnosis and medication-assisted treatment. Contact us today, and one of our Recovery Advocates will guide you through the admissions process.

Sources

Chartier, K.G., et al. “Environmental Influences on Alcohol Use: Informing Research on the Joint Effects of Genes and the Environment in Diverse U.S. Populations.” The American Journal on Addictions, August 2017. Accessed August 16, 2023.

Edenberg, H. J., & Foroud, T. Genetics and alcoholism. Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology, 2013. Accessed August 16, 2023.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “Alcohol and the Brain: An Overview.” 2022. Accessed August 16, 2023.