Ever since people first crushed and fermented grapes, the dark hand of alcoholism has been present. When the first games of chance and competition were born – so too was the addiction to gambling.
We can well imagine that abusing cannabis came, even as it was used for medicinal and religious purposes in the 3rd millennium BC.
And breathing in the toxic smoke from burning tobacco was a daily human habit, well before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas in 1492 and brought it back to Europe.
But now, in our digital age, technology has accelerated our addictions.
And the stress and isolation brought to us by COVID-19 have pushed many to addictions they never thought they had.
Alcohol and cigarettes can be delivered to our doors from digital orders placed on mobile phones. The Dark Web and chemistry have conspired to create hazardous new psychoactive substances that pose as cannabis, available with a few keystrokes on a laptop. An Internet poker or roulette game can be found 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The Internet has sped us down the path of over-shopping, over-eating, and over-playing competitive games.
Ever adaptable and flexible, the Internet has even created new addictions – such as Internet pornography and anonymous sex “dating”.
If we are unlucky enough to fall down these digital “rabbit holes”, what are the results? Alice’s Wonderland? Or: failing health and finances; anxiety; depression; isolation, fractious and failing relationships, lost schooling and jobs; self-harm; and suicidal thoughts. “Jails, institutions and death” – as Alcoholics Anonymous warn us. A life without meaning, purpose or dignity.
But just as addictions have been accelerated by technology and new ones invented, technology has also enabled us to make recovery more convenient, available, cheaper, effective, and timely.
The longest journey for people suffering from addictions has been from the “bottle” to the therapy room. Any number of “barriers” stood in the way. Not enough time, not enough money, not enough knowledge of which therapist to see or what recovery involves.
But the biggest barrier of all to entering recovery was shame.
Now, therapy can be done on the Internet: information about therapists can be Googled; prices compared; social service agencies offering low-cost therapy or even free therapy can be found, and rich information and video testimonies on the recovery journey can be reviewed.
Best of all, Zoom therapy can be conducted with a therapist “once removed” from the personal space of the client by computer screens – and in the comfort of the client’s own living room or bedroom. Clients could even maintain much of their anonymity. In this safe space, shame may deign to take a back seat.
With digital recovery free from barriers, even if the sufferer is still reluctant to seek help, they may be more inclined to reflect on why they remain reluctant to get and receive help. If they do start to reflect honestly – they have started their first step on their recovery journey.
But more can be done with digital recovery.
I would submit that the next significant step in using the Internet to accelerate recovery is to bring the therapist to the clients where they are – on the sites that feed their addictions and perpetuate their suffering.
A therapist could join as a “player” in Animal Crossing, Fornite, a poker or roulette game. They can then engage suffering players in unthreatening and therapeutic conversations. Perhaps PornHub will produce an avatar “ambassador” – a therapist who guides users through a porn compulsiveness assessment? Perhaps the GrabEats avatar therapist will help customers with alcohol and calorie counts, consumption and portion control, alcohol use and dietary information – and motivational conversations to help customers build their resolve.
Engaging suffering people in their digital space opens a whole new avenue for the helping professional to guide someone towards a path of meaning and purpose.
Therapists may wish to think “Digital” – and harness the power of technology to enrich people’s lives – even if technology can also impoverish them.
What comes to mind when someone mentions alcohol? For many, alcohol is often associated with the temporary avoidance of daily struggles. Whether or not we have the habit to drink, it is a known fact that people may tend to have “blackouts” whenever they’re really drunk – and are unable to recall anything during these periods of time. As for young adults, perhaps it could also be attributed to their keen desire to look “cool” and to show off their high alcohol tolerance to their friends. However, alcohol can be addictive, and frequent heavy drinkers run the risk of becoming alcohol-dependent and hence developing alcohol use disorders. But what actions can we take if we find ourselves constantly wanting to submit to such an altered state of being, and seeing the appeal in losing control of ourselves as a form of escapism?
What is an Alcohol Use Disorder?
According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.;
DSM–5; American Psychiatric Association, 2013), an alcohol use disorder is essentially characterised by “a problematic pattern of alcohol use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress as manifested by at least two of the following, occurring within a 12-month period”:
Alcohol is often taken in larger amounts or over a longer period than was intended.
There is a persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
A great deal of time is spent in activities necessary to obtain alcohol, use alcohol, or recover from its effects.
Craving, or a strong desire or urge to use alcohol.
Recurrent alcohol use resulting in a failure to fulfil major role obligations at work, school, or home.
Continued alcohol use despite having persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of alcohol.
Important social, occupational, or recreational activities are given up or reduced because of alcohol use.
Recurrent alcohol use in situations where it is physically dangerous.
Alcohol use is continued despite knowledge of having a persistent or recurrent physical or psychological problem that is likely to have been caused or exacerbated by alcohol.
In regards to the disorder’s severity, it is safe to say that an individual categorised under the ‘mild severity’ category would display two to three of the above symptoms, while those under ‘Moderate’ would display four to five. For persons who develop six or more of such symptoms, they would, unfortunately, be diagnosed to be severely alcohol-dependent.
In the development of alcohol abuse, we need to recognise that the physiological and psychological reward system in our brains are what contributes to the clouding of negative consequences and effects associated with alcohol dependence and addiction. In other words, the possibility for change is tough, and the learnt habit can be hard to kick. Positive and negative reinforcements play a major role, especially in the beginning stages of alcohol abuse. Positive reinforcement occurs when the chances of an individual performing an activity (in this case, drinking) is heightened due to his previous experience of feeling rewarded by the “high” he or she obtains when getting drunk. On the contrary, negative reinforcement occurs when the probability of alcohol-seeking behaviour increases upon allowing the drinker to avoid certain situations or negative stimuli. Therefore, it can be said that alcohol abuse is fuelled by the physiological and psychological reward system, thus increasing one’s motivation to consume more alcohol, though sometimes a little too much.
Alcohol addiction can be greatly detrimental to our lifestyles, as well as to our physical and mental health. Known to be a depressant, alcohol can have a significant impact on our brain’s activity. If you’re drinking unhealthy levels of alcohol in an attempt to manage other mental health conditions such as anxiety or depression, stop it immediately! Alcohol affects neurotransmitters in your brain, potentially worsening your pre-existing condition. As such, it is crucial that we help people with alcohol use disorders to move past their addiction to a more fulfilling lifestyle.
What forms of treatment can I consider?
Alcohol abuse can be treated with psychiatric or psychological intervention, sometimes a combination of both.
When it comes to psychiatric medications, psychiatrists may prescribe medications used primarily to treat alcohol withdrawal by targeting the GABA neurotransmitters in the brain, allowing the brain to restore its natural balance when the person abstains from alcohol. Another common medication prescribed mainly affects the individual’s alcohol metabolism. The drug increases the concentration of acetaldehyde, a product formed when alcohol is broken down. The buildup of this acetaldehyde induces undesirable effects such as vomiting, hence holding the person back from consuming large amounts of alcohol. However, despite these drugs being the commonly prescribed medications, it is extremely dangerous for one to source and consume them without first consulting a professional psychiatrist. Everyone’s case is different, and people may have differing medication needs.
Another form of treatment one can consider is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT is an effective method which focuses on helping one identify and uproot negative or irrational thoughts and/or behaviours. Being highly solution-focused, such forms of therapy can include trying to help these individuals to recognise situations in which they are inclined to drink, and how they can better repress themselves. As such, the main goal would be for these people to recognise their problematic behaviour, and subsequently cut down on and adhere to healthy alcohol consumption levels. Since the impact of alcohol abuse is usually not limited to the individual, family therapy may also be recommended at times, especially if the individual’s alcoholic behaviour causes others distress.
With economic growth and increased globalisation, alcohol consumption generally increases as it gets more affordable and popular as a drink for celebratory or social occasions, and even for stress-relief. This same trend has been observed in Singapore – where the per capita alcohol consumption in Singapore has nearly trebled from 2005 to 2015, and a study released in 2016 estimated the prevalence of binge drinking in Singapore to be 9.6 per cent of the population. Among young adults in the recent decade or so, the number of alcohol-related incidents including verbal abuse, physical abuse, domestic violence, as well as property damage and vandalism have also increased. According to the Institute of Mental Health, a nation-wide study in 2010 found that one in 19 of those aged 18 to 34 struggle with alcohol dependence, abuse and disorders. The study also highlighted that the chances of alcohol-use disorders in this age group were twice that of age groups above 35. In this article, we will thus explore why drinking is becoming more prevalent, and the types of alcohol-related harm that young adults are increasingly vulnerable to.
For sure, individuals don’t become an alcohol addict overnight – they usually start with binge drinking, which is the worrying trend among young adults. Binge drinking is defined as the heavy consumption of alcohol within a short span of time with the intention of being inebriated. Binge drinking can be classified under mainly two categories: extensive drinking on a single occasion, or continuous drinking over days or weeks. It isn’t a rare sight to see youths gathering on a Friday night or weekends to go clubbing – places where most drinks have high alcohol content. Even with the COVID19 pandemic at present, young adults can still be seen to gather in small groups to drink and socialise. As a matter of fact, more people have turned to drinking in order to cope with the COVID19 situation. On a global scale, studies have shown that alcohol sales and consumption has risen. As an example, according to a recent study conducted by the USA Nielsen Company, there has been a 240% increase in internet alcohol sales, including hard liquor. Needless to say, it is not surprising that more Singaporeans would pick up drinking in order to cope with their unpleasant emotions and distress as well.
Frequent binge drinking may lead to alcohol dependence or addiction, especially when these individuals start consuming larger amounts of alcohol in order to obtain the same “high”. So why are more young adults exposed to alcohol drinking? Firstly, Singapore’s progress and prosperity have brought about lifestyle changes of youths and young adults compared to their parents’ generation. The increasing independence and thrill-seeking behaviours of these younger people might also include experimenting with alcohol. Secondly, globalisation has undermined many of the traditional controls on alcohol, making it widely available and aggressively marketed and promoted throughout society.
People who begin drinking early in life run the risk of developing serious alcohol problems, including alcoholism, later in life. They also are at greater risk for a variety of adverse consequences and poor performance in school or at work.
Overall, alcohol-related harm doesn’t merely include alcohol poisoning or eventual liver failure. Rather, it can also refer to:
Other related long-term diseases due to chronic heavy drinking
Unintended sexual behaviours, including sexual assault
Accidents such as those caused by drunk-driving
Crime, including violent crimes and homicide
To reiterate, binge drinking can very well lead to alcoholism and it shouldn’t be taken too lightly. Identifying people at greatest risk can help stop problems before they develop. Young people are at greater risk of alcohol-related harm than adults. Excessive alcohol drinking as a teenager can greatly increase the risk of damage to the developing brain and also lead to problems with alcohol later in life. For those of you that find yourselves increasingly inclined to drink high amounts of alcohol, do consider taking proactive steps to reduce your intake. It may require strong willpower and determination initially, but things will be easier once you take the first step. Go for alcohol addiction treatment therapy or counselling, if it can give you the push you need to counter your drinking habits, or connect with like-minded people through peer support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous. By curbing and reducing your alcohol consumption to safe levels, you will be doing both your physical and mental health a favour.
Dr. Barry L. Jackson, 2016, Drinking & Alcohol-Related Harm Among Young Adults, video recording, Mental Health Academy
Chodkiewicz J., Talarowska M., Miniszewska J., Nawrocka N. (2020) ‘Alcohol Consumption Reported during the COVID-19 Pandemic: The Initial Stage’, Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2020, 17(13), 4677; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17134677 (Accessed 22/08/2020)