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).
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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