Today many people believe that alcoholism and addiction are a disease. I also agree that there are biological, neural, or genetic influences on whether a person eventually develops a drug or alcohol problem. Regardless of your personal views, alcoholism and addiction are uniquely distinct from other known medical diseases and afflictions. Like most other diseases, there is a physical component of alcoholism. Once a drink is taken, the body demands more. This is called a ‘craving’. However, there is another part to the disease of alcoholism centered around an overwhelming mental obsession for alcohol that occurs even when the alcoholic is not actively drinking. I will explain the difference between these two parts of alcoholism that make up the two-fold disease. While this article primarily discusses alcoholism, the concepts and theories are equally applicable to drug addictions. What is the alcoholism.
The Phenomena of Craving
When an alcoholic takes a drink, their brain processes it differently than a non-alcoholic. Research suggests that the reason for this lies in the dopamine reward pathways, since alcohol releases dopamine. Without going too much into the science of the disease model of addiction, I will briefly explain how and why craving occurs. Because alcohol, like eating, hydrating, and sex, releases dopamine, our body recognizes it as a positive experience and this inspires us to repeat such acts. However, alcohol is literally toxic to our bodies, which explains why too much booze causes nausea, vomiting, and hangovers. Non-alcoholics experience these negative effects of drinking and it deters them from pursuing the dopamine release from drinking. In the body of an alcoholic the act of drinking becomes wrongly identified as a necessary activity for survival. Something in the brain of an addicted person attaches a need so powerful for alcohol that it overrules the negative consequences that deter non-alcoholics. Essentially the alcoholic brain tricks itself into thinking it needs alcohol, like food and water, to survive. This also explains why the alcoholic is unable to limit their drinking to just a few drinks. Their brain is receiving the positive signal produced by alcohol and the brain responds by craving more and more. The phenomena of craving occur when alcohol is introduced into the body, however the second part of alcoholism, the mental obsession, happens without any introduction of alcohol.
Uncovering the Mental Obsession
Many alcoholics in the first month of sobriety report a strong obsession to drink. Perhaps they go by an old bar or see a beer commercial on t.v. This tendency to constantly think about and desire alcohol is known as the mental obsession. It is different from craving because the mental obsession is not influenced by the presence of alcohol in the body. The mental obsession, if no changes occur, makes abstinence from alcohol unbearable to the alcoholic and often leads to a relapse. So why, even after detox, does the alcoholic brain obsess over alcohol? Researchers into addiction science propose that the brain stores the experience of drinking in a special part of short and long term memory. The alcoholic brain processes and labels alcohol as high priority memory, like memories of eating and sex. Again this is rooted in the biology of human survival, since these memories are stored differently because they ensure our reproduction and health. With the alcoholic the brain incorrectly groups drinking alcohol into this important section of memories. This explains that when the alcoholic stops drinking, their brain still obsesses and demands alcohol.
What is the impact of alcoholism on the local communities
Alcoholics, in my opinion, suffer from a two-fold disease. One-side, the craving, is a psycho-biological (aka physical) reaction to alcohol. The other side, the mental obsession, centers in the mind of the alcoholic. Both of these components explain that when an alcoholic tries to just quit drinking their chances of success are low. It requires a strong and committed recovery plan to overcome both the physical craving of alcohol and the mental obsession. Drastic measures often have to be taken to achieve long-term sobriety. These measures can include 12-step groups, recovery groups, therapy, spirituality, meditation, and others. Many people need some kind of in-patient or out-patient treatment services, like those offered at NewBridge Recovery. Patients at NewBridge benefit from medical assistance therapy, help building a recovery plan, and both group and individual therapy.