Signs of Alcoholism

Am I An Alcoholic?

Recent studies have found that 12.7% of American adults—one in eight—officially meet the criteria to be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder. Whether these disorders are mild or severe, recognizing the signs of alcoholism and seeking help as soon as possible is crucial.

Alcoholism is a chronic disease that often proves fatal without professional treatment. Alcohol kills 88,000 people a year in the United States—that’s over two times higher than the number of people who die of an opioid overdose.

When Casual Drinking Turns into Alcohol Abuse

As one of America’s favorite pastimes, alcohol consumption has become an expected indulgence for celebratory occasions and has become a part of many individuals’ everyday social life, especially with the widespread popularity of craft beers and cocktails. Being surrounded by regular drinkers can make it easy for an alcoholic to justify their drinking—after all, it’s normal behavior.

However, where casual drinking poses little to no risk for some people, individuals who are more susceptible to alcohol’s effects will have real difficulty keeping things legitimately casual. What starts as casual drinking can evolve into a self-perpetuating pattern of abuse and eventual addiction over time.

More often than not, casual or social drinking marks the starting point for alcohol abuse. In fact, mixing more often with other drinkers because it justifies one’s own drinking is a sign of alcohol addiction. By the time a person asks, “Am I an alcoholic?” many other signs and effects of alcohol abuse have likely already taken shape in his or her life.

Alcohol’s Effects

Tolerance Level Increases

Although drinking may provide a stimulating effect at first, alcohol is a depressant, slowing chemical interactions throughout the body via the brain and central nervous system. Concerns about being an alcoholic often take shape once a person or loved ones notice the steady increase in his or her alcohol consumption over time.

Alcohol works by interfering with serotonin, GABA, and glutamate neurotransmitter secretions in the brain. With frequent drinking, the brain develops a tolerance to alcohol’s influence, and these increases in tolerance level will continue for as long as a person keeps drinking. Sometimes, a person will claim the fact that they are drinking but not drunk as evidence that they don’t have a drinking problem when the opposite is true. Being able to consume more than a small amount of alcohol without becoming intoxicated is a sign of alcohol dependency.

Physical Dependency

Physical dependency is one of the first signs of alcoholism. Physical dependency on alcohol develops out of the brain’s rising tolerance levels. Once physically dependent, a person starts experiencing withdrawal effects when they aren’t drinking or aren’t drinking as much as usual.

Withdrawal effects take shape in response to growing chemical imbalances in the brain. As tolerance levels rise, the brain requires increasing amounts of alcohol in order to regulate the body’s processes as normal.

In the absence of more alcohol, withdrawal effects start to surface as various bodily processes break down. Someone who’s asking “am I an alcoholic?” had likely experienced more than a few withdrawal episodes, when they suffered symptoms such as a headache, nausea, brain fog, irritability, depression, or a general unwell feeling, which were only relieved by drinking alcohol. Hand tremors, another common withdrawal symptom that is most noticeable in the morning, is one of the hardest signs to conceal. Although tremors can be caused by other conditions, if it disappears with alcohol consumption, then it is a symptom of alcohol withdrawal.

Psychological Dependency

More than anything else, psychological dependency marks one of the key signs of alcoholism. At first, this may show in seemingly harmless ways, such as when a person feels like they “need” alcohol to relax after work, or to de-stress in the midst of conflict. Individuals psychologically dependent on alcohol may begin planning their lives around drinking without even realizing it’s happening. For example, they may plan their social lives around drinking, only planning events that involve alcohol consumption and skipping events where drinking would be unacceptable. They are likely to become irritable if plans change at the last minute, delaying the time when they were expecting to be able to start drinking. They may withdraw from family and friends and isolate themselves to hide the effects of drinking or to hide from the concern of loved ones.

At this point, alcohol’s influence on the brain’s chemical system has “rewired” a person’s overall psychological make-up. Alcohol has become the center of his or her life, taking control of actions and reactions, leading to anxiety when the individual doesn’t have access to alcohol.

Am I an Alcoholic? – Questions to Ask

Have Withdrawal Effects Become the New “Normal”?

Severe alcohol withdrawal effects typically take the form of:

  • Persistent fatigue
  • No appetite for food
  • Profuse sweating
  • Headaches
  • Hand tremors
  • Ongoing nausea
  • Foggy thinking

Anyone frequently experiencing these symptoms  can answer yes to the question, “am I an alcoholic?” Withdrawal effects play an active role in perpetuating the abuse/addiction cycle, as most heavy drinkers will drink more alcohol to gain relief from withdrawal symptoms.

Do I Binge Drink?

The brain’s tolerance levels for alcohol can rise quickly, especially in cases of frequent and heavy drinking. Once tolerance levels reach a certain point, drinkers must consume large amounts of alcohol in a short period to experience the desired “buzz” effect. This leads to binge drinking, defined as consuming four or more drinks within two hours for a woman, or five or more drinks for a man.

Do I Have a Family History of Alcohol/Substance Abuse?

Alcoholism carries a genetic as well as an environmental component. This means that people brought up in families of heavy drinkers (or substance abusers) are at high risk of alcoholism not just because they are surrounded by substance abuse, but because the genetic makeup inherited from their parents makes them more vulnerable to developing a dependency. When asking “am I an alcoholic?” consider your family’s substance abuse history, as well as your past and current environments. Alcoholic spouses, significant others and close friends can also steer a person towards heavy drinking behaviors over time.

Has My Drinking Caused Problems in My Life?

Once alcohol’s effects take over a person’s life, he or she will show little regard for any negative consequences that result from drinking. Negative consequences may take the form of:

  • Problems on the job or losing a job
  • Relationship conflicts or divorce
  • Difficulty living up to responsibilities
  • Problems with the law
  • Money problems
  • Health problems
  • Mental health problems

Someone who continues to drink in spite of one or more of these consequences can answer yes to the question, “am I an alcoholic?”

Have I Tried to Stop Drinking and Failed?

A loss of control over drinking behavior is a clear warning sign of addiction. Anyone who’s made multiple attempts to quit drinking and failed has good reason to ask, “am I an alcoholic?” as this indicates a clear loss of control over alcohol’s influence. This should not be taken as a sign that the individual is incapable of overcoming alcoholism, however, but rather that he or she needs qualifying, professional help to overcome it.

Am I an Alcoholic? – Early & Late Stage Symptoms

Alcoholism typically progresses in stages, with early and late stage symptoms developing along the way. Alcohol has a cumulative effect on a person’s physical and psychological health, and the sooner people seek treatment, the better equipped they’ll be to recover, so it’s never too soon to ask the question “am I an alcoholic?”

Early stage symptoms typically take the form of:

  • Inability to manage or cope with daily stressors
  • Drinking to relieve stress
  • Sleep problems
  • Frequent nightmares
  • Withdrawal episodes
  • Frequent illness due to a weakened immune system

Late stage symptoms of alcoholism include:

  • Blackout episodes
  • Drinking in the morning or at the start of the day
  • Persistent cravings for alcohol
  • Shortness of breath
  • Numbness in the hands and feet
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Yellowish skin tone
  • Swelling in the feet

Once a person starts experiencing late-stage symptoms, concerns regarding “am I an alcoholic?” are well warranted, as his or her health status has seen a considerable decline. Without needed treatment help, symptoms increase and their severity worsen over time, to the point where life-threatening health conditions, such as liver disease and heart problems start to develop, as well as damage to the brain.

The toll that alcohol addiction takes on the brain and body can be healed with effort over time, but only if individuals struggling with alcohol use disorder seek professional help before the damage done is too severe.