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How to Identify the Different Stages of Alcoholism

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

Alcoholism is a medical condition that develops over time. In other words, a person does not find him/herself completely healthy one day and addicted to alcohol the next. Alcoholism develops over time with persistent excessive drinking. Also, know this: every case of alcoholism starts with just one drink. Every alcoholic began as a casual drinker who saw no harm in that first glass of wine or pint of beer.

Doctors and alcohol recovery specialists tend to view the condition through the lens of what are known as alcoholism stages. Just as an oncologist can measure the severity of cancer by looking at the symptoms that go along with each of the four stages, alcoholism can be measured in a similar fashion. There are seven different stages of alcoholism that the medical community generally accepts.

Before we get to those stages, there are also three kinds of drinking problems that exist within the stages. Those problems are:

  1. Problem Drinking – This is occasionally drinking more than is considered safe according to government standards.
  2. Alcohol Abuse – This problem is one of routinely exceeding recommended safe levels along with occasional binge drinking and drunkenness.
  3. Alcoholism – As you know, alcoholism is a condition in which drinking controls almost every aspect of a person's life. It is a condition of addiction.

Doctors and other recovery specialists use a tool known as the dependency scale to determine what stage of alcoholism a person might be in. Where a person falls on that scale determines the kinds of treatments he or she needs to get well. With that said, let us now look at the seven stages of alcoholism we mentioned previously.

1. Abuse with Binge Drinking

Problem drinking is something that should be taken seriously in order to prevent it from getting worse. However, it is considered relatively easy to overcome with prescription medications and counselling. When problem drinking becomes alcohol abuse, the individual has entered the first stage of alcoholism.

Alcohol abuse occurs when an individual begins experimenting with different kinds of alcohol for purposes other than enjoying a drink with a meal or an occasional social drink with friends. It involves routinely exceeding recommended safe levels of drinking multiple times in a given week. In some cases, problem drinking also includes regular episodes of binge drinking. Students on their way to alcoholism are more likely to exhibit the binge drinking behaviour on weekends.

2. Incremental Increases in Drinking

The second stage of alcoholism is identified by incremental increases in the amount of alcohol an individual consumes. For example, a casual drinker without an alcohol problem finds a comfortable level of consumption and sticks with it over extended periods of time. Think of the family friend or relative who has been drinking a single glass of wine in the evening for years. That person's consumption has not increased for as long as you have known him or her.

A person progressing towards alcoholism is just the opposite. Experimentation and occasional excessive drinking are replaced by a steady preference for certain kinds of alcohol and more frequent excess. Binge drinking may also increase, including a tendency to binge every weekend rather than just on occasion. Episodes of drunkenness also become more frequent.

3. Noticeable Drinking Problems

While problem drinking is defined as regularly exceeding recommended safe levels of alcohol and binge drinking, the third stage of alcoholism is slightly different. This stage is one in which the drinker begins experiencing noticeable personal problems as a result of his or her drinking. For example, he or she might experience:

  • difficulties in personal relationships
  • a sudden change in friends
  • reduced participation in family activities
  • reduced participation in general social gatherings
  • difficulty interacting with strangers.

Someone in the third stage of alcoholism may also develop insomnia and an unexplainable level of anxiety. These two symptoms are the direct result of how alcohol affects the brain. As more alcohol is in the system, the brain must produce more chemicals to try to counteract it, leading to excessive amounts of energy that create insomnia and anxiety.

4. Early-Stage Tolerance

Of all the stages of alcoholism, the fourth stage could be the most critical. This is the stage in which the person's body begins developing a tolerance to the drug. Dealing with an alcohol problem before tolerance sets in is a lot easier than trying to overcome it after tolerance has been established.

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What is tolerance? It is a physical condition in which the body gets used to a certain level of alcohol in the system. At that point, the drinker no longer derives the same amount of pleasure from drinking. In order to feel pleasure, the person must consume a larger volume of alcohol. Once tolerance sets in, it establishes a vicious cycle in which the drinker must continually up the volume in order to feel good.

5. Physical Alcohol Dependence

Persistent drinking in excessive amounts forces the body to have to adjust. And just like the brain, the rest of the body can get used to a certain amount of alcohol in the system. It finds a way to function despite the adverse effects alcohol is having on the body until, at some point, the body is unable to function normally without alcohol. Any reduction in alcohol consumption results in withdrawal symptoms as the body tries to adjust. This is a condition known as physical dependence. You will know you are physically dependent if you start experiencing withdrawal symptoms between drinking episodes.

6. Psychological Alcohol Dependence

A person who is physically dependent on alcohol is usually just days or weeks away from developing psychological dependence. Like the physical problem, the psychological problem results from the brain being used to a certain amount of alcohol in the system. A person who is psychologically dependent is convinced that he or she cannot exist without alcohol. Often an individual will falsely believe that alcohol is the solution to his or her problems rather than the cause of them.

7. Alcohol Addiction

The last stage of alcoholism is known as addiction. In this stage, alcohol is at the centre of everything the affected person does. The alcoholic drinks as the first order of business at the start of the day, continues drinking throughout the day and drinks as the last activity before bed.

What must be understood is that alcohol addiction is just as serious as an addiction to cocaine or heroin. In fact, some recovery specialists consider it even more dangerous. Alcoholism may be harder to overcome because of the:

  • social acceptance of alcohol
  • powerful cravings alcohol creates
  • dangerous withdrawal symptoms associated with detox
  • limited number of treatment methods to deal with it.

Alcoholism is a very challenging condition that requires professional help to conquer. Please note that while the range of treatment options may be limited, overcoming alcoholism is possible for anyone who is dealing with the problem. The right combination of treatment, support, and counselling can help even the most severe alcoholics take their lives back from this devastating condition.

We have described to you the seven stages of alcoholism. Now it is up to you what you will do with the information. If you suspect you may be in the midst of an alcohol problem right now, please do not delay to contact us. Getting things under control as soon as possible is key to your eventual recovery.

Likewise, if you are concerned that someone else might have a problem, please contact us as well. We can walk you through the alcoholism stages described in this post to help you get an idea of where your friend or loved one stands. It is the first step in helping your loved one get well.

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