Why Alcohol Use Disorder is a Chronic Disease and How to Manage it

Depressed Woman Looking Outside Train Window
July 25, 2019
|   Updated:
November 3, 2023

Whether it’s environmental, genetic, lifestyle-related or all three, the gravitational pull individuals may feel toward alcohol can start as a means to “feel good” and lead to a dependence on the substance in order to feel normal. While society often promotes drinking in social situations, featuring it in television, movies, music and more, there is a stigma attached to Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Among the harmful misconceptions associated with alcoholism are the beliefs that individuals choose to drink and lack the willpower to stop, attributing it to a vice, rather than a chronic disease–as it was declared in 1956 by the American Medical Association (AMA).

Why Alcohol Use Disorder is a Chronic Disease

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines Alcohol Use Disorder as a chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. Alcohol, along with most addictive substances, causes the brain to release high levels of dopamine, chemicals that are associated with pleasure or reward. Over time, the continued release of these chemicals can cause changes in the brain’s reward, motivation and memory systems, which may cause individuals to feel physically and psychologically dependent on the substance, The Center on Addiction notes.

These changes in the brain can remain for a lasting amount of time, even after drinking is discontinued. As with other chronic physical and psychological disorders, Alcohol Use Disorder involves a risk of relapse. For example, the rates of relapse for asthma and high blood pressure are both 50% to 70%, while relapse rates for substance use disorders are 40% to 60%. By viewing Alcohol Use Disorder as a chronic, or ongoing, condition, treatment providers and those undergoing treatment can account for potential relapses and recognize sobriety as an ongoing journey, not a destination.

How to Manage Alcohol Use Disorder

As discussed above, part of what makes Alcohol Use Disorder a chronic condition is the potential for relapse. While there is no cure for Alcohol Use Disorder, there are a variety of different tactics that treatment providers and individuals can use to manage alcohol addiction and strengthen recovery skills, says Executive Director of Positive Sobriety Institute Dominic Angres. For treatment providers that follow a chronic disease management model, like the Positive Sobriety Institute, full or partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient, independent living and continuing care programs allow clients the chance to engage in abstinence and recovery on a long-term basis, while promoting independence.

  • Full or Partial Hospitalization Programs: Depending on the treatment provider and the recovering individual’s unique needs, clients may opt for a full or partial inpatient program while they are navigating the beginning stages of sobriety. While seeking help is the first step to recovery, going through the motions of withdrawal and detox can be one of the most challenging. In this critical stage of recovery, the journey is focused on healing the mind, body, and spirit, as a whole. Veering from a traditional 28-day inpatient treatment program, full or partial hospitalization programs are more flexible and cater more toward the individual. This entails counseling sessions to help patients understand the psychology of addiction, deal with the underlying causes, manage alcohol cravings, and learn coping mechanisms to overcome life’s challenges.
  • Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP): For individuals who have either gone through the detox stages of Alcohol Use Disorder or whose clinical assessment determines that they do not need one, intensive outpatient programs are a viable option for recovery. While the amount of time that patients spend on the program will be unique to the individual, the American Society of Addiction Medicine suggests at least nine hours of treatment per week. This part-time regimen allows individuals to begin maintaining work and daily life routines and responsibilities in their recovery.

Positive Sobriety Institute’s Intensive Outpatient Program includes individual and group therapy in order to receive support on both individualized issues and circumstances, and connect with professionals and peers in recovery. “Self-care and doing the work is equally as important for the therapist as it is for the patient,” Angres says. “We lead by example in a lot of ways and what comes from the heart reaches the heart. There is a certain sense of authenticity that comes with genuinely connecting with others, and that cannot happen without being healthy yourself.”

  • Independent Living Programs: As a means of easing back into the responsibilities of everyday life, Sober or Independent Living Programs allow individuals to go to work and re-engage with the world outside of the treatment center. As a transition between residential treatment centers and life on one’s own, this step typically requires patients to pay rent and food, perform household chores and engage in certain scheduled activities to keep sobriety top of mind.
  • Continuing Care Programs: When patients feel confident in their sobriety journey to begin living on their own, it’s important that care programs of some sort continue in order to prevent relapse. This can include one-on-one check-ins with treatment providers or support circles either in person, face-to-face or via remote communication, including phone calls, video conferencing or alcohol monitoring. Four out of five treatment providers strongly recommend Soberlink’s remote alcohol monitoring system as a means of continuing and enhancing treatment. “I find Soberlink to be a very tangible and straight-forward method of accountability … Ultimately, the patients that use Soberlink are making an active effort to do what they say they are going to do when they are going to do it,” Angres says.

By viewing Alcohol Use Disorder as a chronic disease, treatment providers can gain a new perspective on how to provide care by offering avenues to disrupt the cycle of abstinence, relapse and treatment, and equipping patients with the proper tools to continue their sobriety journey.

About the Author

Soberlink supports accountability for sobriety through a comprehensive alcohol monitoring system. Combining a breathalyzer with wireless connectivity, the portable design and technology includes facial recognition, tamper detection and real-time reporting. Soberlink proves sobriety with reliability to foster trust and peace of mind.

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