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What Distinguishes Alcohol Dependence From Alcohol Abuse?

 In Blog, Side Effects of Alcohol Abuse

Alcohol addiction is a prominent topic of discussion among rehabilitation professionals. Not only does the disease stem from a widely accessible substance, but the severity of the problem isn’t always clear.

What’s left is a distorted understanding of what alcoholism looks like and how it must be treated. Of course, there are robust rehab programs to address the signs and symptoms of addiction. But, what if it’s not an addiction? What if it’s abuse? What if it’s dependence? What’s the difference?

Alcohol Abuse vs Alcohol Dependence

It’s easy to lump abuse and dependence together as if they were synonymous. After all, they sound like they are describing the same issue. And yet, this would be an oversimplification. There is, in fact, a line between these two definitions. One describes the beginning of a potentially dangerous addiction, while the other more accurately depicts the evolution of that problem. But which is which?

  • Abuse

Alcohol abuse generally refers to repeated alcohol use, in spite of negative consequences. An abuser will likely continue drinking, even when they experience significant social and personal backlash. Abuse can be further defined as a less severe stage of alcoholism.

  • Dependence

Alcohol dependence is an advanced stage of abuse. Dependence includes all of the symptoms of abuse but also leads to more significant and harmful behaviors. Someone who is dependent on alcohol will likely make personal changes that lead to drink-seeking behavior, higher tolerance, withdrawal, and subjective awareness of the problem.

Dependence is considered a more severe problem than abuse, and it often requires professional help in the form of detoxification and/or rehabilitation.

Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcoholism

Alcoholism is best understood as the final stage of a progressing problem. Tantamount to addiction, alcoholism is a state of total physical and mental dependence. A person suffering from alcoholism feels as if they need to drink in order to function. This can lead to disastrous personal and professional consequences, most especially when consumption begins to alter behavior. The most obvious indicators of alcoholism include:

  • Inability to control consumption
  • Prioritizing alcohol over family, friends, and work
  • Insatiable urge to drink
  • Substantial changes in mood in between consumption
  • Neglecting responsibilities

How It All Begins

Alcoholic tendencies, whether they manifest as abuse, dependence, or addiction, can have many origins. It’s not always about genetics, though they do play a role in addictive behavior. In actuality, over-consumption can arise from many social and personal issues like stress, grief, and anxiety. In some cases, abusive tendencies are simply born out of a fondness for drinking.


alcohol abuse vs alcoholism

The common thread among all these cases, however, is a loss of control or attention over a budding problem.

Implications on Health

Let’s break this down into one simple truth: abusive drinking affects physical and mental health. It really doesn’t matter how advanced the problem is, over-consumption of alcohol can have adverse short and long-term effects on overall health.

In the short term, alcohol can reduce brain activity, impede vision, lower inhibitions, and reduce reaction time. In the long term, alcohol abuse can have major impacts on the body that include liver disease, heart problems, bone loss, cancer, and brain defects — to name a few.

When to Seek Help

Even in the earlier stages of alcohol abuse, it’s wise to seek help. It is much smarter to stop a problem in its tracks than to wait until it has grown out of control. This seems like an obvious sentiment, and yet so many people avoid seeking help because they do not consider their behavior to be harmful. This, of course, can lead to a distorted view of reality — one that lends itself toward dependence or worse. Feel like you might have a drinking problem? Give us a call or send us an email, today. We would be happy to talk with you!

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