There are both physical effects of alcoholism and psychological effects of alcohol abuse. Even the casual drinker may experience some physical
and psychological effects from drinking, but the heavy drinker can experience serious health problems related to alcohol. They can also experience severe psychological problems. And the alcoholic will continue drinking despite these problems, because they cannot control it.
It’s important to understand the effects of alcohol abuse on both the body and the mind, because successful treatment must address both of these issues. Otherwise, treatment will not be successful.
There are many physical effects of alcoholism. You are probably aware of the effects that occur when a person has been drinking a lot. Their speech may be slurred, their gait may be crooked, they may become disoriented or confused. Their reaction time slows and they become uncoordinated, making it unsafe for them to drive. They may experience digestive upsets such as abdominal pain, nausea, and vomiting. They may even experience “blackouts,” in which they don’t remember things they said or did while intoxicated.
The physical effects of drinking may carry on into the next day when the drinker may experience a hangover. They may be nauseous or have a headache. They may be groggy and feel generally unwell. Alcoholics often miss work or are late to work due to hangovers.
But the physical effects of alcoholism go beyond these immediate effects. There are long term health problems associated with alcoholism. Health problems associated with alcohol use include hyperglycemia, high blood pressure, heart problems, kidney disease, liver disease, pancreatitis, and increased risk for certain cancers. Some of these physical problems can be potentially deadly, such as cirrhosis of the liver. And again, alcoholics will continue drinking even when they have these health problems and they know that drinking is making them worse, because they can’t control their drinking.
One of the most notable psychological effects of alcohol abuse is depression. Alcohol is a depressant, and while many alcoholics drink in order to “self-medicate” for depression, alcohol really only makes depression worse. The depressant effect of alcohol can be felt right away, but it is also a long-term effect of alcohol use.
Alcohol use can also cause feelings of guilt and remorse, particularly in chronic drinkers who know they shouldn’t drink but can’t help themselves. It may cause anxiety in drinkers who know they have health problems that are worsening due to their drinking. Alcoholics may become irritable or angry when confronted about their drinking. Alcoholics typically do not know how to deal with their emotions, and often use drinking as a way of coping with difficult feelings. Unfortunately, as you can see, drinking often creates more difficult feelings.
Alcoholism may exacerbate any existing psychological problems, as well, such as anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder (manic depression), anorexia or bulimia, or other mental health problems. These problems can be very serious when not under control. Mixing alcohol with medication for mental health disorders can also be very dangerous.
Successful treatment must address all of the effects of alcohol abuse, both the physical effects of alcoholism and the psychological effects. The best treatment programs employ medical doctors to assess for and address any health problems related to alcohol abuse along with counselors to treat the psychological problems related to the condition. If the physical problems are not addressed, the alcoholic will not be able to focus on the psychological issues. If the psychological issues are not addressed, the alcoholic will likely begin drinking again. Therefore a holistic approach that takes the whole person into account is the most successful treatment model.