Alcohol addiction may not look like a disease, but it is. Alcoholism is a chronic, progressive, and relapsing disease of the brain, according to both the American Medical Association and the American Society of Addiction Medicine and the American Psychiatric Association. As brain mapping and neural technologies evolve, evidence continues to support the belief that alcoholism is a disease.
Just as lifestyle choices can contribute to diseases such medical diseases as skin cancer, diabetes, or heart disease, the same could be said about the origins of alcoholism. Just as genetics can influence medical conditions, our DNA can also dictate the way an individual’s brain will respond to the introduction of alcohol. Until one has actually consumed alcohol it wouldn’t be known if one has the genetic predisposition for alcoholism. By the time it becomes clear that there is a problem it may already be too late.
When an alcohol use disorder leaves a person with serious fallout, such as loss of a job, broken relationships, loss of a home, financial devastation, legal problems, or health conditions, it becomes very clear that sobriety is the only viable option left. Once the decision to change one’s life has been made, a successful outcome is dependent on having a positive, focused mindset, a willingness to endure some discomfort during detox and early recovery, and a commitment to establishing a new sober lifestyle.
Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Dependence
When preparing for therapy for alcoholism it is important to understand that the rehab setting you need is based on the severity of the alcohol use disorder. This important distinction, such as between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, will dictate whether an outpatient setting with minimal medical oversight or a structured, supervised residential program is the appropriate level of care.
Alcohol abuse can be described as excessive drinking that negatively impacts the life of the drinker. Heavy partying, binge drinking, underage drinking, drinking and driving can all have serious consequences, including alcohol poisoning. Abusing alcohol can result in the failure to meet daily responsibilities at home, school, or work. It can lead to auto accidents or a DUI, or result in sexual promiscuity that could involve acquiring an STD, or an unplanned pregnancy. Someone who abuses alcohol still has the ability to control their drinking, which differentiates them from being alcohol dependent.
Alcohol dependency is defined as an addiction that has resulted from increasing tolerance due to prolonged and consistent drinking behavior. Alcoholism involves altered brain chemistry that results in physical and psychological dependency to alcohol. When the alcoholic attempts to stop drinking they experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, tremors, or sweating, prompting them to immediately return to drinking for relief. Alcohol dependence may result in many of the same issues as one who just abuses alcohol, but with the serious secondary health issues of liver damage, heart disease, cancer, brain damage, or death.
What to Expect in Alcohol Detox and Withdrawal
According to a publication for the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Addiction entitled Treatment of Alcohol Withdrawal, authored by Hugh Myrick, M.D., and Raymond F. Anton, M.D., the clinical features of alcohol withdrawal in a dependent alcoholic are caused by the overactivity of the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that manages our response to stress. These signs and symptoms begin just 6-12 hours after the last drink and may include:
- Sensitivity to light and sound
- Disorientation, mental confusion
- Difficulty concentrating
The authors state that about 5% of individuals experiencing alcohol withdrawal will have a serious reaction called delirium tremens (DTs) which can be life threatening. The symptoms of the DTs can include persistent hallucinations, severe agitation, disorientation, seizures, and wide swings in heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, and breathing rate. The DTs usually appear 2-4 days after cessation of drinking.
The possibility of seizures of some sort occurs in up to 25% of alcohol withdrawal events, typically happening within the first 24 hours after the last drink. Again, whether an individual goes through detoxification in an outpatient center or an inpatient facility is largely determined by how long the drinking had been active, how much alcohol was regularly consumed, whether multiple detoxes have been undertaken, any history of the DTs or seizures, if there are underlying psychiatric or medical conditions that need to be managed, and the age of the alcoholic.
Managing Alcohol Withdrawal Symptoms
It is very important that withdrawal symptoms are controlled during 2-7 day period, and into the alcohol detox process, which can last a few weeks. Trying to quit ‘cold turkey’ without the management of symptoms may put you at risk of relapse just to find relief at minimum, to risk of death. If your alcohol withdrawal symptoms are mild to moderate, and you have strong social support, an outpatient facility can prescribe a benzodiazepine regimen, such as Ativan or Valium, to ease the shakiness, anxiety, sleep disturbances, and confusion, while also reducing the risk of seizures.
According to author and medical practitioner Elson Haas, M.D., detox relief is also aided by the following:
Hydration. Drinking plenty of water is crucial during the withdrawal period to achieve water balance in the body, as well as soups, teas, and diluted fruit and vegetable juices.
OTC medications. Medications such as Tylenol, Advil, and Imodium can help with nausea and vomiting, headache or fever, and muscle pain.
- Magnesium helps balance electrolytes and metabolic disturbances
- Folic acid assists the digestive tract absorb nutrients
- Thiamine helps the body’s energy metabolism and can reverse Wernicke’s Syndrome if a thiamine-deficiency has led to this development
- Vitamin C helps with withdrawal symptoms
- Cayenne pepper helps reduce nausea and vomiting and improves appetite
- Celandine helps calm the emotions experienced during withdrawal
- High fiber diet. Fiber helps bind toxins and move them through the digestive system faster.
Integrated Therapy for Alcoholism: Mind, Body, and Spirit
Treating alcoholism requires a multi-pronged approach that treats the whole person—mind, body, and spirit. This kind of integrated therapy is the appropriate therapeutic intervention for overcoming this potentially life-threatening disease.
The underlying contributing factors that lie at the heart of an alcohol use disorder must be identified and treated, so individual and group therapy is an essential treatment element. Deep-seated issues such as a history of trauma or abuse, emotional pain due to loss or other adverse life events, loneliness, or marriage or family discord may have added to need to self-medicate. Self-medicating emotional pain with alcohol or drugs is very common, so for treatment to be successful these issues must be addressed.
During the treatment phase of recovery, which immediately follows detox and withdrawal, the individual will embark on a comprehensive program at an outpatient or residential rehab. Active participation in all the treatment elements, combined with a sincere desire to live a life in sobriety, can provide the essential recovery skills to help individuals meet their goals.
An integrated alcohol recovery program includes:
Individual therapy. Through intensive psychotherapy the individual will examine any unhealthy behavior patterns that perpetuate the alcohol addiction, and then reshape those thoughts and behaviors.
Group therapy. Group therapy offers an opportunity for peers in recovery to share about their personal experiences and challenges, resulting in a sense of mutual support.
Family therapy. Family groups help the whole family unit heal and move forward together as their loved one enters recovery.
Medication. Medication-assisted treatment is sometimes appropriate for helping someone stabilize in recovery. Naltrexone is a non-narcotic medication that helps reduce cravings and relapse risk.
Education. In recovery it is important to understand how addiction develops, and then how to avoid a relapse.
Nutrition. Alcoholism can be very hard on the body, so sound nutrition is emphasized in rehab and in recovery.
Recreational therapy. Adding recreational activities to the treatment plan offers many benefits, including physical exercise, bonding with peers, and balancing the work of recovery with some fun.
Holistic therapy. Integrated therapy for alcoholism will include holistic activities like yoga and meditation.
The Value of Sober Living After Rehab
When making the commitment to conquer an alcohol use disorder many are hyper-focused on those first two phases of recovery, detox and treatment, but may ignore the most important phase of all, continuing care. It is understandable that someone whose life has been seriously disrupted by alcohol abuse might skip over that last aspect of recovery, but that would be a serious mistake.
Because addiction to alcohol is a highly complex disease, it requires ongoing therapy, peer support, and systemic lifestyle changes following rehab to achieve a lasting recovery. Continuing care efforts that begin after completing the treatment program should be considered part of the new routine. These include participation in a recovery community, such as AA, continuing weekly psychotherapy and/or group therapy sessions, and possibly sober living housing for a few months.
Think of addiction recovery this way. Say that a person needs knee replacement surgery, as without this surgery they would have a reduction in quality of life. Well imagine if, right after a knee replacement the person immediately goes out and runs a 10K. His or her physical recover would be in jeopardy, correct? Instead, this person would benefit from a physical therapy program that would help them regain their strength and range of motion. Recovery from addiction is also a process that doesn’t end with the completion of a treatment program, anymore than healing from surgery ends upon discharge from a hospital.
Sober living provides a steppingstone towards resuming normal life by preparing the individual for recovery on a more solid foundation. Some of the benefits of sober living include:
- Deterrent to relapse. A zero tolerance policy for the use, possession, or distribution of drugs or alcohol is standard in sober living homes. Random testing provides a powerful deterrent to residents who might be tempted to drink. This is important to individuals in early recovery who need a safe, supportive place to get their feet back under them. A relapse would get them removed from the house.
- Increased accountability. Sober living reminds the individual that they are accountable for their own actions, as well as to fellow roommates and the house manager. Clearly stated house rules and shared responsibilities create expectations for accountability to the group. This accountability can prepare the individual for becoming accountable once again to the family, one’s employer, or to teachers.
- Added structure. Life in active alcoholism can be chaotic and disordered. Once sober, the individual may struggle to reestablish order in their lives. Sober living provides daily structure and a regular, predictable schedule that helps the client create healthy daily habits, including attending 12-step or SMART Recovery meetings and house meetings, and contributing to the daily chores.
- Peer support. Some people who leave rehab do not have a supportive family to return to, or the friends they once had are not respectful of recovery goals. Loneliness and social isolation are common relapse triggers. Sober living provides social support and fellowship between housemates who share the same commitment to sobriety.
- Practice recovery tools. After completing rehab, the client has not had a chance to practice the coping skills, interpersonal skills, stress-reducing techniques, conflict resolution skills, or anger management skills they learned in rehab. Sober living provides the space and time to practice these tools before returning to regular life.
There is no greater gift that health and wellbeing. Anyone battling a drug or alcohol addiction would agree that restoring one’s health and carving out a new, productive life for themself is all that really matters. From that point relationships, work, parenting—anything worthwhile in life—will thrive.
Next Level Recovery Provides Integrated Therapy for Alcoholism Near Salt Lake City
Next Level Recovery offers a full-spectrum integrated alcohol treatment program, providing both residential and outpatient formats. Using evidence-based treatment elements, our expert staff delivers high quality end-to-end addiction and recovery treatment, enhanced with alternative therapies and enjoyable activities that help to fill the void left when the substance abuse ended. To supplement the individual or group therapy sessions and daily 12-step or SMART Recovery meetings, Next Level offers activities such as hiking, meditative yoga, rock climbing, dancing, and sports. For more information about therapy for alcoholism please contact our team today at (888) 759-5846.