The four stages of alcoholism represent a natural progression from casual drinking to full-blown addiction.
Stage One: Infrequent Binge Drinking
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of alcohol consumption that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 grams percent or above. For men, this level is usually reached by drinking five or more drinks within two hours; for women, it’s usually four. Although the lines can get blurred between occasional social binge drinking and a cycle of problematic alcohol consumption, this is often the first step to full blown AUD. First-time or “occasional” binge drinkers may not be aware or mindful of the long-term risks for addiction. Although people at this level may not be constantly preoccupied with thoughts of drinking, their level of consumption can create changes in the brain’s chemistry that facilitate dependency.
Stage Two: Drinking To Cope with Stress and Adversity
Whether it’s acute trauma or everyday stress, many Americans use alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with the adverse circumstances in their lives. It may start off with a drink or two at the end of the workday to “relax” or “unwind”. Over time, these coping methods leads to constant preoccupation to the point where every minor point of adversity is remedied through drinking. Drinkers at this stage of alcohol abuse will routinely dismiss concerns of others over their drinking and rationalize their increased alcohol consumption as a natural response to life’s adversity. During this stage, relationships may start to become strained and everyday obligations may start to be neglected. Data from the NIAAA as well as multiple other studies indicates that drinking actually exacerbates stress rather than healing it.
Stage Three: Withdrawal and Psychological Consequences
By the third stage of alcoholism, full-blown dependency has set it in, paving the way for a variety of mental health issues, including but not limited to depression and anxiety.
Common behaviors exhibited during this stage include:
- Withdrawn or isolated behavior
- Erratic changes in mood and temperament
- Hostility and aggression
- Deep guilt and self-pity
- High-risk behaviors
- Constant preoccupation with alcohol
These behaviors and actions can lead to full-blown chaos in the person’s life, including legal problems, incarceration, family estrangement, job loss, and more. At this point, loved ones and friends should start the process of intervening in the loved one’s drinking and try to guide them toward treatment.
Stage Four: Physical Changes and Medical Issues
Alcohol comes for the brain first, but the body soon follows. In the final stages of alcohol addiction, the body becomes increasingly vulnerable to profound and potentially deadly physical changes, including but not limited to cirrhosis of the liver, jaundice, heart disease, weight gain, hypertension, diabetes, and much more. This is the most critical stage, and the one in which most alcoholics find themselves before they seek help or hit rock-bottom. It’s also the stage in which they develop serious long-term psychological issues that can impact the rest of their lives. Alcoholics will drink daily to avoid the regular discomfort of withdrawal, often while still insisting they don’t have a drinking problem.
Alcoholism Statistics In The Untied States
Excessive drinking kills approximately 88,000 Americans per year according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A recent study published in JAMA Psychiatry reports that one in eight Americans meets the criteria for alcohol use disorder (AUD). Prolonged and untreated alcohol abuse destroys virtually every aspect of a person’s life, including their physical and emotional health, their relationships with their family and loved ones, their careers, and their overall quality of life. There are, however, multiple stages of behavior and psychology leading up to the worst stages of this disease, during which sufferers can either get help on their own, or their loved ones can step in and intervene in their alcohol abuse.
Intervening in a Loved One’s Alcoholism
There are several red flags that loved ones of alcoholics should be mindful of during the course of this process. Understanding the four stages of alcoholism and how they progress can help loved ones of alcoholics better empower themselves to help get the one suffering into alcohol treatment and recovery. If you or someone you care about is going through the four stages of alcoholism, don’t ignore the signs. Get help now.