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What Is Alcoholism – Is it a Physical or Mental State?

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

Looking up the dictionary definition of an alcoholic reveals that it is a person who suffers from a condition known as alcoholism. Looking up alcoholism does not provide such a clear-cut answer. What is alcoholism? Is it a physical condition, a mental state, or a combination of both? How individuals and organisations define alcoholism has been the source of much debate for more than 100 years.

When Alcoholics Anonymous was established in the late 1930s, the medical community's understanding of the condition was very limited. Alcoholism was treated only as a mental state in need of certain kinds of corrective action that inspired the alcoholic to stop drinking. Thus, the 12-step programme of Alcoholics Anonymous was developed.

As helpful as the 12-step method is for alcoholics, researchers noticed throughout the 60s and 70s that the method did not work for everyone. Some of those researchers began looking into alcoholism as a physical disease. Their research swung the pendulum of treatment in the opposite direction, resulting in some clinicians treating only the physical aspects of alcoholism while completely ignoring the psychological.

Fast forward to the 21st century and we now understand that alcoholism is both a physical and mental problem. The reason is simple: any amount of alcohol in the body impacts normal functioning. Furthermore, when alcohol reaches the brain, it affects both the electrical impulses that the brain sends to the rest of the body and the thought patterns of the drinker. This results in both physical and mental effects.

Alcoholism as a Physical Condition

What is alcoholism as a physical condition? It is a condition in which the body has become accustomed to certain levels of alcohol in the system at all times. This creates a secondary condition known as physical dependence. The body is so used to the presence of alcohol that it has had to adjust in order to keep the body's vital functions operating. It then becomes dependent on that alcohol to keep working.

Here are just a couple of examples of what this looks like physiologically:

  • Heart Rate – Every human being has an established heart rate that can be compared to medical norms. A normal heart rate indicates good cardiovascular health. However, the introduction of alcohol to the system forces the heart to work harder to overcome the sedative effects of alcohol. This leads to increased heart rate. This is why withdrawing from alcohol can lead to a dangerously high heart rate and eventually cardiac arrest.
  • Body Temperature – Most people mistakenly believe that drinking increases body temperature. It does not. You might feel warmer after drinking because blood vessels dilate and send more blood to your skin, but sending more blood to the surface actually reduces your core temperature. The bodies of alcoholics have to work much harder to maintain a safe core body temperature to compensate for alcohol. Again, this is why withdrawing from alcohol causes an unusual spike in body temperature.

When a person's body becomes dependent on alcohol for normal functioning, physical cravings result. Those cravings are the body's way of telling the person it needs alcohol to keep functioning. Without that alcohol, withdrawal symptoms will start within a few hours of taking the last drink. They will only get worse unless the person consumes more alcohol.

Alcoholism as a Mental Condition

What is alcoholism as a mental condition? It is a condition in which the normal thought patterns have been altered by persistent drinking, to the extent that the individual is unable to think clearly about anything relating to alcohol consumption or his or her condition.

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For example, it is fairly routine for an alcoholic to live in complete denial. Alcoholics tend to believe that they can stop drinking anytime they want to. They also tend to believe that drinking is the only thing that enables them to cope in a world that has turned them from productive citizens into victims. All of these thought patterns are perceived as entirely reasonable in the mind of the alcoholic, even though they are completely unreasonable according to common societal standards.

Just as alcohol affects physical things such as heart rate and body temperature, it also affects the electrical impulses within the brain that create thought and emotion. People addicted to alcohol see life in very different ways. They also respond differently on an emotional level. This is why alcoholics often feel anxious or nervous; it is why they routinely express strong feelings of anger, paranoia, or depression.

Lastly, alcoholism as a mental condition creates psychological cravings that are as real as the physical cravings. The alcoholic believes, sincerely and with his/her whole heart and mind, that he/she cannot go on living without drinking. His/her mind has been conditioned to accept a certain level of alcohol; it cannot function without it.

Alcoholism as a Family Condition

What is alcoholism as a condition that relates to the family? It is a condition that can easily devastate the physical and mental health of the alcoholic's spouse, partner, children, siblings, and extended family members. It is truly a family condition because it affects everyone who has regular contact with the alcoholic.

One of the many benefits of our research over the years has been a better understanding of how alcoholism affects family members. Consider the following:

  • Spouses/Partners – The spouses and partners of alcoholics usually suffer the most. They are the ones who physically care for their alcoholic loved ones; they are the ones who suffer physical and emotional abuse, face the financial problems created by the alcoholic, lose trust in the alcoholic and everyone else around them, and have to pick up the broken pieces of the lives of their children.
  • Children – The children of alcoholics are physically and mentally damaged as well. Some suffer physical abuse at the hands of an alcoholic parent; others are emotionally damaged to the extent that they learn to mimic the behaviour of their parents when they become adults themselves.
  • Siblings – The siblings of alcoholic teenagers suffer by having to see a brother or sister go through drinking problems. They tend to be fearful that they could wind up in the same trouble, and that fear may interfere with other personal relationships and their performance at school.

What is alcoholism if not a physical and mental condition that destroys families? That's exactly what it is. Alcoholism is a devastating condition and one that should not be ignored under any circumstances. If you or a loved one exhibit any signs of a drinking problem, no matter how minor, you need to get in touch with us right away. Contact us on our 24-hour helpline or through this website. We will help you figure out what is going on and, if necessary, connect you with a local treatment provider who can help you get your life back on track.

What is alcoholism? It is a physical and mental condition that ruins relationships, steals financial resources, and destroys physical and mental health. Don't take any chances with it. Contact us today so we can get you going on the road to recovery as soon as possible.

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