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Is Alcohol Counselling an Effective Treatment?

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

The way we treat alcoholism has changed a lot over the decades. Where the problem of alcoholism used to be viewed strictly as a behavioural problem that could be conquered with self-help support and professional alcohol counselling, we now tend to see the problem as both a medical and psychological issue. As such, the recovery community has developed some different treatment approaches that can be used side-by-side to improve outcomes.

As someone dealing with an alcohol problem yourself, you might be wondering whether or not alcohol counselling is an effective treatment by itself. Unfortunately, no hard and fast answer applies to everyone. Overcoming a drinking problem is influenced by a variety of factors, including:

  • how much a person drinks
  • how often a person drinks
  • how a person perceives alcohol
  • how long a person has been drinking excessively
  • individual family circumstances
  • the current state of one's overall health.

Some people respond very well to counselling while others do not. It is up to the doctors, nurses and therapists providing care to determine the best strategies for the individual. In the absence of such professionals, trained counsellors working for charities and alcohol support groups can provide limited guidance.

What Alcohol Counselling Achieves

To understand why alcohol counselling may not be enough by itself, it is important to understand what it is designed to achieve. This begins with the knowledge that alcoholism is not just a physical problem. Yes, alcohol does affect the body in very specific ways that lead to tolerance and dependence. But it also affects the mind and emotions.

Excessive amounts of alcohol that cannot be processed by the liver end up travelling through the body via the bloodstream. Alcohol eventually reaches the brain, where it prompts the production of certain chemicals known as neurotransmitters. When those neurotransmitters become imbalanced, they affect thought patterns and emotions. The effects can be severe enough that they are not able to be overcome simply by stopping drinking.

The purpose of alcohol counselling is to address these psychological and emotional issues. One example might be as follows: it is typical for an alcoholic to falsely believe that drinking is the only thing enabling him or her to cope with life's many overwhelming problems. The individual assumes that alcohol is a solution to problems rather than recognising it is the primary cause.

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Counselling seeks to reverse that thinking. It is designed to encourage the recovering alcoholic to look at drinking from a more realistic viewpoint. In so doing, it forces the recovering alcoholic to:

  • Take Ownership – Successful recovery from alcohol requires an individual to take ownership of his or her behaviour. This is so important given the fact that only the affected person can make the decision to stop drinking. One must take ownership of one's past, present, and future if permanent abstinence is to be maintained.
  • Recognise Triggers – Every alcoholic has certain triggers in his or her life that lead to drinking. Counselling seeks to identify those triggers so they can be avoided.
  • Establish Avoidance Strategies – Another aspect of alcohol counselling is one of establishing avoidance strategies for the future. In other words, once the recovering alcoholic knows what his or her triggers are, he or she needs ways to avoid experiencing those triggers. That is what avoidance strategies are all about.

We have listed just three aspects of the counselling offered to alcoholics in recovery. Counsellors and therapists may address other things on a case-by-case basis. Regardless of the specific counselling strategies that a therapist may adopt, all counselling has a common goal: to prevent future relapse by equipping recovering alcoholics with the skills and strategies they need to remain alcohol-free for the rest of their lives.

Alcohol Counselling and Detox

Counselling therapy may be enough for some people dealing with minor alcohol problems. However, it is seldom adequate in cases of late stage alcohol abuse or full-blown alcoholism. The reason is simple: the human body is more than capable of adapting to excessive levels of alcohol in the system. This adaptation manifests itself in tolerance and dependence. Both tolerance and dependence are physical issues requiring medical solutions.

Detox is the only successful method of dealing with tolerance and dependence. Detox is the process of allowing the body to cleanse and reconfigure itself by preventing a person from continuing to drink. It is a process that is absolutely necessary for the alcoholic who wants to recover. One cannot make the best use of alcohol counselling if detox is not accomplished first.

In light of that, those with the most severe drinking problems find that counselling alone is not an effective treatment. Physical detox must accompany it in order to work.

Likewise, detox alone is not an effective treatment strategy for most people dealing with alcoholism. Detox is necessary to provide the physical separation that allows the body to cleanse itself and heal; counselling is necessary to make sure the mind and emotions are healed as well.

Counselling and Prescription Medications

Some cases are very treatable through a combination of alcohol counselling and prescription medications. Only a doctor with experience in alcohol recovery is qualified to make this determination. In such cases, the doctor may prescribe one of four different drugs approved for alcohol treatment.

Three of the drugs in question are designed to help control alcohol cravings. It is believed that those with less severe drinking problems can benefit from these drugs when these are combined with appropriate counselling services. Yet there is one catch: none of the drugs is effective if the patient decides to persist in his or her drinking while taking them. Indeed, continuing to drink while taking one of the medications usually makes the problem worse.

The fourth drug prescribed by doctors actually makes drinking physically uncomfortable. Someone using the drug will experience severe hangover symptoms within minutes of consuming alcohol. The idea is to motivate those in recovery to avoid drinking by making it very uncomfortable to do so.

If you are struggling with an alcohol problem, we want to help. Through any combination of alcohol counselling, detox, and prescription medication, you can overcome and go on to live an alcohol-free life. In order to do so, however, you must get help. Contact us by way of our 24-hour helpline so that we can connect you with those who can treat you. We work with private rehab clinics, alcohol charities, counsellors, and NHS alcohol programmes.

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