For some people alcohol can be part of many occasions but like many drugs it’s addictive, both physically and psychologically.
The NHS estimates that around 9% of men in the UK and 3% of UK women show signs of alcohol dependence1. This means that drinking alcohol becomes an important, or sometimes the most important, factor in their life and they feel they’re unable to function without it.
What is alcohol dependence?
Alcohol dependence, sometimes known as ‘alcoholism’, is the most serious form of drinking problem and describes a strong, often uncontrollable, desire to drink.
Drinking plays an important part in the day to day life of alcohol dependent people, which could lead to building up a physical tolerance or experiencing withdrawal symptoms if they stop.
There are varying degrees of alcohol dependence and they don’t always involve excessive levels of drinking. If you find that you ‘need’ to share a bottle of wine with your partner most nights of the week, or always go for a few pints after work, just to unwind, you’re likely to be drinking at a level that could affect your long-term health.
You could also be becoming dependent on alcohol. If you find it very difficult to enjoy yourself or relax without having a drink, you could have become psychologically dependent on alcohol. Physical dependence can follow too, that is your body shows withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating, shaking and nausea, when your blood alcohol level falls.
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Alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence?
The terms alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are often used interchangeably, when in fact medically speaking, there is clear distinction between the two. Both involve the serious misuse of alcohol likely to cause real damage to health and wellbeing. But while people with alcohol abuse problems usually manage to carry on their lives with some semblance of normality, once dependence kicks in, the alcohol takes over.
Alcohol abuse refers to regular excessive drinking which has a more tangible negative effect on people’s lives2. Examples of this include failing to fulfil work, family or social obligations as a result of recurrent drinking; encounters with the law or emergency services arising from excessive alcohol use or regularly combining alcohol with physically hazardous situations, such as driving or operating machinery.
If you are worried that you are abusing or misusing alcohol, visit our page on binge drinking.
As outlined above, when dependence sets in, alcohol takes over the central role in someone’s life and they usually end up giving up important activities and relationships because of their drinking. One of the early signs of dependence is when you need more alcohol to achieve the desired effect. As dependence gets more established, people end up spending most of their time thinking about alcohol or engaging in activities necessary to obtain, use, or recover from the effects of drinking. Then, as dependence takes over, people notice that they get the shakes if they don’t have a drink. And so they simply have to keep drinking to avoid experiencing these withdrawal symptoms.