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Psychosocial Drivers of Alcoholism: Uncovering Key Influences

Table of Contents

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a chronic disease characterized by compulsive alcohol consumption, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not drinking.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, approximately 14.5 million adults aged 18 and older in the United States had AUD in 2019. Alcoholism can affect individuals from all walks of life, regardless of age, gender, race, or socioeconomic status.

Alcoholism is a complex condition with various causes, effects, and consequences. In the following sections, we will explore the different factors contributing to alcoholism.

What are the Causes of Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a complex disorder with various biological, psychological, and environmental factors contributing to its development.

A. Biological Factors:

  • Genetics: Research has shown that genetic factors can play a significant role in the development of alcoholism. Individuals with a family history of alcoholism are at a higher risk of developing the disorder. Studies have shown that children of alcoholics are more likely to develop AUD than those without a family history of alcoholism.

  • Brain chemistry: Alcohol affects the brain’s chemistry, increasing dopamine levels, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. This increased pleasure response can lead to addiction and compulsive alcohol use.

  • Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders: Pregnant women who drink alcohol can cause a range of developmental disorders for their offspring, which can have lifelong consequences.

B. Psychological Factors:

  • Mental health disorder: Anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) commonly co-occur with alcoholism, creating a cycle of self-medication and addiction.

  • Stress and trauma: Many individuals turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism for stress and trauma, which can lead to compulsive drinking.

  • Addictive behavior: Certain personality traits and brain chemistry may make some individuals more prone to addiction and compulsive behaviors.

C. Environmental Factors:

  • Home environment: Growing up in a household where alcohol abuse is present can increase an individual’s risk of developing alcoholism. Other family members and relationships can influence an individual’s alcohol use behavior.

  • Peer pressure: Social influence and the desire to fit in, particularly among young adults, can also contribute to alcohol use and addiction.

  • Cultural and societal factors: Cultural attitudes towards alcohol and the availability of alcohol in a person’s environment can influence their likelihood of developing alcoholism.

D. Other Factors:

  • Mixing alcohol and drugs: Drug use, particularly when combined with alcohol, can lead to addiction and other harmful effects.

  • Exposure to stressful life events, such as trauma or financial difficulties, can increase the risk of alcoholism.

By understanding the various risk factors contributing to alcoholism, individuals and their loved ones can take steps toward prevention and seeking appropriate treatment.

What is the Psychology Behind Drinking?

Alcohol consumption can be driven by various environmental and psychological factors. Drinking alcohol can activate the reward system in the brain, resulting in pleasurable sensations and reinforcing the behavior. Understanding the psychological causes of alcoholism can help individuals recognize triggers and develop healthy coping mechanisms.

A. Pleasurable Chemical Response

Alcohol ingestion can cause the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter linked to pleasure and reward, in the brain. This can lead to a pleasurable sensation, reinforcing the behavior and increasing the likelihood of future alcohol intake.

Dopamine release can also be associated with the development of alcohol dependence and drug addiction. Substance abuse and drug abuse can also contribute to the release of dopamine, leading to a higher probability of substance addiction.

B. Reinforcement of the Reward System

Drinking can activate the reward system in the brain, causing the individual to associate alcohol drinking with pleasurable sensations. The brain then reinforces the behavior, increasing the likelihood of future alcohol use.

Mental disorders and mental illnesses can exacerbate the reinforcement of the reward system and contribute to addictive behavior.

C. Human Behavior

Human behavior plays a significant role in consuming alcohol. Peer pressure and social norms can influence an individual’s decision to drink, particularly in young people during early adolescence.

Additionally, stress and anxiety can prompt some individuals to drink as a coping mechanism. Family members, relationships, and environmental influence can also impact drinking habits, particularly in individuals with a family history of alcohol problems or family violence.

Understanding the psychological motivations behind alcohol use can help individuals recognize triggers and develop healthy coping mechanisms, including support groups and moderate drinking.

What are the Psychological Effects of Alcohol?

Alcohol intake can have various psychological effects, which can differ depending on the amount and duration of use. These effects can be short-term or long-term.

A. Short-Term Effects

Short-term psychological effects of alcohol use can include:

  • Impaired judgment and decision-making

  • Reduced inhibitions

  • Slowed reaction time

  • Increased risk-taking behavior

  • Memory impairment

  • Mood swings

  • Aggression or violence

  • Depression or anxiety

  • Sleep disturbances

B. Long-Term Effects

Long-term alcohol use can have significant psychological effects, which can be irreversible in some cases. These effects can include:

  • Mood disorders, including depression and anxiety

  • Cognitive impairment and memory problems

  • Decreased executive function and problem-solving abilities

  • Increased risk of developing dementia

  • Changes in personality and behavior

  • Increased risk of suicide

  • Alcohol-induced psychosis

  • Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome

It is essential to seek help from a medical professional if you or someone you know is experiencing any of these psychological effects of alcohol use.

What are the Psychological Factors Influencing Alcoholism?

Alcoholism is a multifaceted disorder influenced by several psychological factors, such as:

A. Peer Pressure

Peer pressure is a psychological factor that can significantly impact the onset and maintenance of alcohol use. Adolescents, in particular, are more susceptible due to their heightened vulnerability to external influences and social acceptance.

The need to conform and belong to a particular social group can lead individuals to engage in binge drinking and heavy drinking, resulting in unhealthy drinking behaviors.

B. Mental Health Difficulties

Mental health difficulties, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), can contribute to the development of alcohol use disorder.

Individuals with mental disorders may turn to alcohol as a coping mechanism to self-medicate and alleviate their symptoms. Unfortunately, alcohol use can exacerbate these symptoms and increase the risk of developing a co-occurring disorder. Therefore, it is crucial to provide integrated treatment to address mental and substance use disorders simultaneously.

C. Addictive Disorders

Addictive disorders, such as gambling addiction, sex addiction, and drug addiction, share commonalities with alcohol use disorder. Individuals with these disorders may possess personality traits such as impulsivity, sensation-seeking, and compulsivity, which can drive them to engage in addictive behaviors like binge drinking.

As a result, individuals with addictive disorders are more susceptible to developing alcohol use disorder, and a comprehensive treatment approach is necessary to address all underlying conditions.

Successful interventions and treatments for alcoholism involve evaluating the psychological factors and developing personalized treatment plans to address the underlying conditions contributing to alcohol use disorder.

What Factors Affect How Alcohol Affects a Person?

Alcohol can affect people differently based on various factors, including biological, cultural, and personal values.

A. Biological Factors

Biological factors can play a role in how alcohol can affect a person. For example, women have a lower body water content than men, leading to higher blood alcohol concentrations after consuming the same amount of alcohol as men.

Additionally, genetic factors may predispose individuals to alcoholism, making them more susceptible to the negative effects of alcohol.

B. Cultural Factors

Cultural attitudes towards alcohol can also influence how it affects an individual. In some cultures, drinking alcohol is considered taboo; in others, it is an integral part of socializing and celebrations. Cultural values and beliefs can affect the frequency and amount of alcohol consumed, leading to differences in tolerance and response to alcohol.

C. Personal Values

Personal values and beliefs can also impact alcohol use. Individuals who prioritize their health or hold strong beliefs about the negative effects of alcohol may be less likely to engage in heavy drinking. Conversely, those prioritizing socializing and relaxation may consume alcohol more frequently and in larger quantities.

Considering these factors is crucial when evaluating a person’s alcohol intake and potential negative consequences. By identifying and addressing these factors, individuals can work towards developing healthy relationships with alcohol and minimizing the harmful effects associated with excessive drinking.

Seeking support from a professional or group therapy may also be beneficial in managing alcohol-related issues.

Importance of Seeking Help for Alcoholism

Alcoholism is a treatable condition, and seeking help is essential for individuals who are struggling with this disorder. Professional treatment is recommended for individuals with severe alcohol use disorders or those experiencing withdrawal symptoms.

Early intervention and treatment are crucial to preventing the progression of alcoholism and its harmful effects on a person’s mental and physical health.

NuView Treatment Center is a leading care provider for individuals struggling with addiction. Its team of professionals and addiction specialists utilizes a holistic approach to treatment that addresses the underlying causes of alcoholism and co-occurring mental health disorders.

Its goal is to provide clients with the tools and support they need to achieve lasting recovery and a healthy, fulfilling life.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Genetic factors can play a role in alcoholism. Research has shown that some individuals may have a predisposition to alcoholism due to their genetic makeup.

Yes, individuals with mental health problems may turn to alcohol as a form of self-medication, which can lead to the development of alcoholism.

A mental health professional can provide therapy and support to individuals struggling with alcoholism and can also help address underlying mental health conditions or problems that may be contributing to their alcohol use.

Close family members, including parents and siblings, may model unhealthy alcohol consumption patterns or have a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, which can increase the risk of alcoholism in other family members.

Alcoholism can have a significant impact on a person’s physical, emotional, and social well-being, including health problems, relationship problems, poor performance at work or school, and even life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

When quitting drinking, seeking support from a mental health professional, attending support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, and making lifestyle changes to avoid triggers and maintain sobriety can all be effective strategies to overcome an alcohol problem.

Yes, various factors, such as genetic predisposition, environmental influences, and social and cultural attitudes toward alcohol, can all increase an individual’s susceptibility to alcoholism.

Yes, individuals struggling with alcoholism may struggle at work or school due to the negative impact of alcohol on their cognitive and physical abilities.

Social factors such as peer pressure, stress, and a lack of social support can contribute to alcoholism by increasing the likelihood of using alcohol as a coping mechanism.

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Nature Reviews. Genetics and alcoholism. (2013).

Access Neurology. Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience, 3e: CHAPTER 16: Reinforcement and Addictive Disorders. (2015).

Oxford Academic. Mental health and alcohol use: a cross-sectional study of the Finnish general population. (2014).

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2021). Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder.

American Psychological Association. (2015). Understanding alcohol use disorders and their treatment.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (n.d.). Alcohol’s Effects on the Body. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from

Mayo Clinic. (2021). Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved September 13, 2021, from

Chassin, L., Pitts, S. C., & Prost, J. (2002). Binge drinking trajectories from adolescence to emerging adulthood in a high-risk sample: Predictors and substance abuse outcomes. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 70(1), 67-78.

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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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