Alcohol abuse was once considered a problem of willpower. Now, it is widely recognized as a medical problem with three primary roots causes: biological factors, psychological factors, and socio-cultural factors. This paper examines the three root causes, beginning with the foundation that genetic predisposition plays a tremendous role in substance abuse and alcoholism. If examines the biological factors impacting alcohol abuse, but goes beyond genetics to discuss brain changes that are the result of alcohol abuse. Next, it considers the psychological factors that relate to alcohol abuse, considering both psychological stressors and underlying character traits linked to alcoholism. Finally, it looks a socio-cultural factors linked to alcohol abuse.
Alcohol abuse is a complex, multi-faceted problem with many factors impacting the onset and expression of the disorder. Furthermore, alcohol abuse, while part of the disease of alcoholism, is not limited to alcoholism. "It's possible to have a problem with alcohol, even when it has not progressed to the point of alcoholism. Problem drinking means you drink too much at times, causing repeated problems in your life, although you're not completely dependent on alcohol" (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2014). Therefore, it is critical to look at factors that influence problem drinking, as well as alcoholism. These factors can be bunched into three main groups: biological factors, psychological factors, and socio-cultural factors. Biological factors impacting alcohol abuse include both inherited genetic risks that predispose people to alcohol abuse or other forms of substance abuse, but also changes that alcohol misuse can trigger in brain structure and functioning. Psychological factors impacting alcohol abuse are almost limitless, as any issue that creates a stressor for the alcohol abuser can contribute to the likelihood of alcohol abuse. Learned behavior, belief systems, and individual maturity are three significant psychological factors impacting alcohol abuse. Socio-cultural factors also impact alcohol abuse. The interaction between socio-cultural factors and psychology is often significant. For example, learned behavior plays a tremendous role in the psychological factors impacting alcohol abuse and socio-cultural behavior is where an individual learns behavior. Therefore, if alcohol or other substance abuse is normative behavior in a social group, one could expect any member of that social group to have a higher risk of developing alcohol abuse than a member of the rest of society. What these three factors suggest is that alcohol abuse is a complex disorder that does not have a single cause. Instead, when examining why a person abuses alcohol, it is critical to examine biological, psychological, and socio-cultural factors.
When people think of biological factors for a disease, they often think of inherited factors. As with other types of addiction, genetics do play a strong role in alcohol abuse; "genetics account for about 50% of the likelihood that someone will develop an addiction" (Horvath et al., 2014). In addition to genetic factors, alcohol interacts with the brain in a manner that facilitates the development of alcohol abuse. There are four fundamental ways that alcohol misuse changes brain function, which can promote alcohol addiction. First, "alcoholism changes the brain's natural balance (homestatis)" (Horvath et al., 2014). Next, alcohol abuse alters brain chemisty (Horvath et al., Biological, 2014). It also impact brain communication patterns (Horvath et al., Biological, 2014). Finally, it changes brain structure and functioning (Horvath et al., Biological, 2014). What is even more interesting is that these brain changes underlie many of the changes in behavior patterns that are associated with addiction. For example, changes to the cerebral cortex lead to an increase in impulsive behavior, which can make it more difficult for an alcoholic to abstain from drinking (Horvath et al., Biological, 2014). In addition, changes to the brain's reward center and the amygdala make it more likely that alcohol abusers will be cued to drink (Horvath et al., Biological, 2014). Changes to the hypothalamus, which controls stress regulation, can create a cycle whereby alcohol usage impairs the body's ability to regulate stress but stopping alcohol use creates stress, which is then relieved by alcohol usage (Horvath et al., Biological, 2014).
While alcoholism may be a biological disease, there is no question that psychological factors impact the behavior of an alcohol abuser and can make it more or less likely that an alcohol abuser will be able to achieve sobriety. What makes the psychological factors so difficult to define is the tremendous variety in human behavior. However, there are three primary psychological causes that are often linked with alcohol abuse: learned behavior; thoughts and beliefs; and emotional maturity (Horvath et al., Psychological, 2014). Alcohol abuse is often a learned behavior; while this delves into the area of socio-cultural causes as well, the reality is that alcohol abusers often come from families with histories of alcoholism or other addiction and have learned substance abuse as a coping skill (Horvath et al., Psychological, 2014). Furthermore, how a person views the alcohol usage is an important factor in alcohol abuse. Those drinkers who feel as if they are helpless to control their drinking behavior are less likely to become sober than drinkers who feel as if they have are able to control their behavior (Horvath et al., Psychological, 2014). As the previous statement suggests, there is an element of personal responsibility, not in determining the biological predisposition for alcoholism, but in determining the course of the disease, once developed, and individual outlook and attitudes impact whether a drinker will or will not take responsibility for their behavior. Developmentally immature human beings are more likely to develop substance abuse problems than mature human beings, because of a disconnect between actions and beliefs and values (Horvath et al., Psychological, 2014). In addition to these three primary factors, psychological stressors can contribute to drinking behavior, precipitating periods of alcohol abuse or misuse. These stressors include, but are not limited to: childhood abuse, domestic violence, job-less, and the illness or death of a loved one. A person with a biological disposition towards alcohol abuse should be considered at higher risk during times of stress.
Finally, socio-cultural factors impact the development of alcohol abuse. Certain cultural or social groups exhibit higher rates of alcohol abuse than other groups, and, while some of these differences may be attributable to genetic differences, some of the differences are linked to cultural experiences. For example, Native Americans, the Irish, Africans, and Afro-Caribbean people all display higher rates of alcoholism than average, and all of them had lands that were invaded and stole by conquerers, which impacted community stability (Horvath et al., Socio-cultural, 2014). Because culture is transmitted from generation to generation, even historic disruptions to community structure can impact modern-day community integrity and stability (Horvath et al., Socio-cultural, 2014). Furthermore, it is important to consider that culture is not merely ethnicity, but also dictated by surroundings. People who grow up in environments where alcohol abuse is a normal response and where there is low support for addiction recovery may find it more difficult to achieve sobriety. In general, one would expect to find greater rates of substance abuse in cultures that are marked by despair and hopelessness. This means that poverty, high rates of single-parenthood, low educational attainment, and other markers that may it less likely that socio-economic status will change, might impact rates of alcoholism. However, there are other social factors that may impact rates of alcohol abuse. For example, the cost of alcohol and the ability of youth to access alcohol may impact alcohol abuse rates, but might not impact overall substance abuse rates.
It was not long ago that society viewed alcoholism as a problem of character, and believed that only weak people with no will-power succumbed to alcoholism. Modern research has disproved that belief. First, it has determined that alcohol abuse is a highly genetic disease, with genetic disposition accounting for about 50% of all alcoholism. Furthermore, it has determined that…