Physical Addiction to Alcohol & Dependence Explained

Compare Rehab UK | Physical Addiction to Alcohol & Dependence Explained

What is Alcohol Addiction?

Alcoholism, also referred to as dependency or addiction, affects both the mind and body and is characterised by uncontrollable urges to use alcohol despite its detrimental consequences on one’s relationships, finances, and health. Alcohol addiction can harm a person’s capacity to fulfil their everyday obligations because it interferes with how the brain works and makes it challenging for them to keep control of their urges.

What is the Difference Between Physical and Psychological Addiction?

It’s crucial to recognise the difference between physical dependency and psychological addiction. Physical dependency is a part of addiction but is not the same as addiction, according to specialists. A person can become alcohol-dependent physically without being psychologically addicted to it.

Two primary characteristics characterise physical dependence. The body will naturally start to develop a tolerance first. People who consume alcohol will need to consume more of it as their tolerance increases in order to feel the same effects. Second, if consumption of the same substance is stopped or significantly reduced, the body will experience withdrawal. A chronic alcoholic will experience withdrawal symptoms when they quit drinking. When a person’s body has become accustomed to regular alcohol consumption, they are said to be physically dependent and would experience physical symptoms if they stopped drinking. They could keep drinking to avoid experiencing these effects.

The psychological aspect of addiction does not refer to how alcohol alters one’s state of mind, such as leading to disordered thought. Instead, excessive drinking can lead to a psychological addiction to alcohol, which makes the person’s ideas and behaviours start to become focused on getting and consuming alcohol, even at the expense of vital obligations.

The Stages of Alcohol Addiction

Although everyone’s road to addiction is different, there are five key stages:

  1. Sporadic use or binge drinking

Experimentation is typically included in this phase. You might decide to reintroduce alcohol if you enjoy the flavour or the way it makes you feel. However, even if you do drink more than the advised weekly limit at this point, you can still exercise control over your drinking.

The problem is that it’s impossible to predict if occasional or social drinking will result in alcohol use disorder. A person will typically be introduced to various types of alcohol and experiment with it in a variety of ways in the early stages of alcohol consumption.

Those experimenting with alcohol are typically young adults, such as university students. For this youthful crowd, drinking generally is a social activity, and they all binge drink to party. Even if they don’t drink frequently, binge drinking alone increases their risk of having an alcohol use disorder. A person engages in binge drinking when their blood alcohol level rises to 0.08 or higher in less than two hours. This typically requires four drinks for women, depending on body weight, and five drinks for men in two hours. However, many binge drinkers will consume more than four or five drinks and have greater BAC levels as a result.

Some party or binge drinkers will not go through the experimental stage and start drinking regularly. Additionally, some individuals who already have a mental health condition may transition from social drinking to more frequent drinking because they believe it helps them feel better.

  1. Alcohol abuse

You might be drinking now to increase your self-assurance or to relieve stress or anxiety. In this stage, drinking occurs more frequently, and you might frequently consume more than is advised. This can lead to continuous excessive alcohol use and emotional connection with alcohol.

A person’s risk of developing an alcohol consumption problem can be increased by the sheer volume of beverages they take in a particular amount of time, independent of environmental or hereditary factors. Women who consume more than three drinks per day or more than seven per week are deemed to be in danger. Men are seen as being in danger if they consume more than four drinks per day or more than 14 per week due to the physiological variations between them and women.

  1. Drinking problem

By this time, you probably have a drinking problem and drink out of habit rather than choice. You might be seeing issues with your moods and sleeping habits as a result of your use, which may be beginning to affect other areas of your life. Nevertheless, you are probably still at the phase where you enjoy drinking and think it improves your life.

The frequency of consumption and the motivation behind drinking are both related to moderate alcohol usage. Comparatively to someone who routinely enjoys a glass of wine, someone who has an emotional or psychological attachment to drinking may be more likely to develop an alcohol use problem.

Problem drinking is typically characterised by losing control over one’s alcohol consumption and/or showing symptoms that drinking is interfering with one’s daily activities. According to specialists, in such a situation, the person will start to exhibit more symptoms, maybe 3-5 alcohol withdrawal symptoms. A person may or may not be physically dependent on alcohol at this point. In other words, quitting alcohol will cause withdrawal symptoms.

A person may, however, develop problematic drinking habits and eventually an alcohol use disorder if they have an attachment to drinking, such as if they depend on it to “have a good time” or for other purposes. It will probably be harder to stop drinking if alcohol dependence develops because withdrawal symptoms are present.

  1. Physical dependence

At this point, you most likely have an alcohol tolerance and need more of it to experience the same amount of satisfaction as before. Your body may become accustomed to alcohol as a result of this increased consumption. You may likely feel physical withdrawal symptoms, including a rapid heartbeat, sweating, tremors, and nausea when you stop using it or the effects start to wear off.

Most addiction specialists concur that “going cold turkey” or a home detox is never advised. The best course of action would be to discuss safe alcohol detox options with an addiction counsellor or mental health specialist.

Alcohol withdrawal can occasionally increase dangers and even result in fatalities. People who are susceptible to the consequences of withdrawal need medical detoxification under supervision. The requirement for a medically supervised detox is determined in part by the duration of alcohol abuse and the average amount of consumption. Therefore, it is advised that anyone looking to detox from alcohol speak with a doctor first.

  1. Alcohol Addiction

Addiction follows physical dependence. At this point, you are drinking for physiological and psychological reasons rather than out of a will or for enjoyment. You’ll crave alcohol, which will make it difficult for you to enjoy life. Your relationships with others, as well as your health and finances, are probably suffering as a result. You won’t be able to stop even though you understand the harm it is doing. You won’t be able to stop yourself from drinking once you’re compelled to.

The final stage might be viewed as the most extreme manifestation of all the potential issues related to alcohol consumption disorder. It is a situation of reversals. As opposed to drinking to live, a person in the final stage probably drinks to survive. People are no longer able to stop themselves from drinking at this point. Withdrawal symptoms may become so excruciatingly unpleasant after a sufficiently long period of heavy chronic alcohol usage that the user becomes driven to keep drinking only to avoid them.

At this time, a person may start to experience the symptoms of a severe illness, including liver cirrhosis. Liver cirrhosis develops after years of liver damage. People who use alcohol often develop scar tissue instead of new, healthy tissue in their liver. The liver’s scar tissue gradually stops the required blood flow. The body’s capacity to eliminate toxins from the blood, manage infections, metabolise minerals, and absorb cholesterol and several vitamins is also compromised by the development of scar tissue. People in the final stages of alcoholism may be more susceptible to falls and other mishaps due to balance and coordination issues and chronic health disorders and conditions. The most frequent cause of mortality following a fall is brain bleeding, not the fall itself.

A person who is abusing alcohol to the point of willful self-harm is likewise at risk. A person may feel helpless if they can no longer regulate their drinking. As mentioned, withdrawal can be uncomfortable. The final stage of alcoholism is a real dilemma. As the depression brought on by alcohol misuse might cause someone to consider suicide, assistance is always available.

Alcohol Addiction

The effects of alcohol addiction

Alcoholism has a number of detrimental effects, not the least of which is a poor influence on both mental and physical health. In addition to many other physical illnesses, it can cause liver problems, high blood pressure, increased risk of heart disease, obesity and diseases linked to obesity, and many other physical conditions.

Abuse of alcohol can alter thoughts, emotions, and behaviour by upsetting the chemical equilibrium in the brain. As a natural depressant, alcohol causes your brain to release stimulant molecules to counteract the depressants. You might become agitated or stimulated with too much of these stimulants, and with too much alcohol, you might feel depressed or angry.

Addiction to alcohol is also closely related to significant mental illnesses, including anxiety and depression. As many people drink to try and relieve the symptoms, drinking can both be the underlying cause of many conditions as well as an exacerbating component. This frequently leads to a cycle of misuse because, as the alcohol’s benefits wear off, anxiety and depressive symptoms tend to rise, and, in order to self-medicate, more alcohol is consumed.

Many individuals who commit suicide do so while under the influence of alcohol because it can impair judgement and promote reckless and obsessive behaviour. Alcohol is also associated with self-harm, psychosis, and suicide.

Last Edited: September 19th, 2022
Clinically Reviewed: July 22, 2022
Compare Rehab UK | Physical Addiction to Alcohol & Dependence Explained
Clinical Reviewer


BACP accredited psychotherapist with 16 years experience working in mental health specialising in psychodynamic person-centred therapies treating those with a range of mental health disorders including anxiety, depression, OCD and Addiction.