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)
Alcohol. A beverage that many people enjoy drinking; be it for socialisation or as an escape from reality. However, it is also a beverage that can harm your health and adversely affect many lives. Indeed, alcohol abuse has become increasingly rampant, where it is one of the leading causes of disease and death, with 5.3% of all global deaths and over 200 diseases and injury conditions resulting from the harmful use of alcohol. Worryingly, it is also a phenomenon that has affected Singapore, with 9.6% of Singaporeans engaging in binge drinking (as of 2016) and an increasing number of Singaporean young adults battling Alcohol Use Disorders (AUD). As such, alcohol abuse has become a growing cause of concern.
There are many reasons why alcohol consumption is increasing. Alcohol consumption has been perpetuated by the media in recent years, with an increase in advertising and marketing of alcohol. For instance, in Australia, people are exposed to about nine alcohol televised advertisements every month. In turn, exposure to such advertisements causes alcohol consumption to be glorified and promoted, where people have unrealistic positive expectations towards alcohol, believing that it boosts one’s mood and invokes cheerfulness and confidence. Additionally, alcohol consumption has also increased due to peer pressure. Be it a work engagement or partying with friends, people often find it hard to say no to alcohol, as that rejection may cause disapproval among colleagues or friends. Thus, many people engage in risky drinking behaviour to socialise and develop their relationships.
However, a more significant reason behind alcohol consumption is feelings of anxiety or having anxiety disorders. People with anxiety disorders have 2 to 3 times the risk of having alcohol use disorders (Smith & Randall, 2012). Many people tend to use alcohol to reduce social anxiety, as they believe that alcohol is an excellent aid to speak up and gain more confidence around others. Similarly, people use alcohol as a form of self-medication to overcome anxiety symptoms and stress, relying on it as a coping mechanism. However, contrary to popular beliefs, alcohol exacerbates rather than alleviates anxiety symptoms. This worsened anxiety makes them drink more and have more alcohol-related problems, which causes further anxiety and stress.
Alcohol abuse also causes anxiety. Drinking alcohol builds a tolerance to de-stressing effects of alcohol. This creates a temporary sense of relaxation but later leads to feelings of depression and anxiety. This is because the prolonged use of alcohol can act as a stressor and activate the body’s stress response system, changing neurotransmitter levels in the brain and causing an increase in stress and anxiety. As such, alcohol can worsen anxiety symptoms.
Therefore, anxiety and alcohol abuse tend to fuel each other in a vicious feed-forward cycle of co-occurring addiction and anxiety, which is difficult to break out from. As such, integrated treatment for both anxiety and alcohol use should be readily available.
There have been existing parallel or subsequent attempts to treat both anxiety disorder and AUD (i.e. treatment for anxiety disorders first, followed by AUD). However, studies have found that parallel treatments have caused worse alcohol outcomes compared to just seeking one treatment. This is possible because the cognitive load of receiving two separate treatments may be confusing or overwhelming for people, causing them to feel anxious or turn back to drinking as a coping mechanism. As such, these type of treatments causes a “co-morbidity roundabout”, which is a metaphor of mental health problems resurfacing when attempting to tackle substance disorders (and vice versa), thus failing to break out from the vicious cycle of these co-morbid disorders. Therefore, it is clear that both anxiety disorder and AUD are inter-related issues, and an integrated treatment approach is vital to tackle both disorders.
Stapinski et. al. (2015) carried out an integrated treatment for comorbid social anxiety and AUD, where participants undergo both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and motivational interviewing. Moreover, it involves core components such as building coping skills, developing alternative reinforcers and preventing relapse. This provides participants with useful skills such as enhancing social support networks, correcting misconceptions towards the benefits of drinking, reducing avoidance of social situations and developing healthy coping skills to manage triggers for drinking or anxiety.
This study took place over ten 90-minute sessions, where 117 participants with both social anxiety and AUD took part in this study. 61 of the participants received integrated treatment (both AUD and social anxiety) and 56 of the participants received treatment for AUD only. Results showed that both treatments enabled a great reduction in alcohol use and dependency. However, participants that underwent the integrated treatment were observed to have a greater decrease in social anxiety symptoms and a greater increase in overall quality of life. More importantly, these results remained constant even after a 6-month follow-up. This means that integrated treatment has long term effects on overall functioning and quality of life.
While the above has proven that integrated treatment is indeed useful in overcoming social anxiety and AUD, the road to recovery is a long and arduous journey, where there are a lot of physical and mental challenges suffered by both the clients and their families. Hence, these issues could be more easily overcome or even avoided if there are early intervention and support to at-risk youths.
Over the years, the number of youths drinking alcohol has increased. According to the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (2004), the number of youths that engage in binge drinking increase tremendously between the age of 18 and 21 (from 18% to 35% respectively). Furthermore, 18-year-olds who drank alcohol as a coping mechanism or who had anxiety disorders were 1.8-3.8 times more likely to drink. Both groups had a greater risk of transitioning from low-risk alcohol use at age 18 to high-risk alcohol use at age 21.
There are many motives that may drive youths to drink alcohol. A primary reason is that youths are at a phase where they are transitioning to adulthood. Adulthood brings more stress and anxiety due to changes such as new relationships; along with new responsibilities and challenges such as living in a dormitory and budgeting. Additionally, this phase of life also provides youth with more autonomy and drinking opportunities (e.g. clubbing, drinking games). With these drastic changes in life, youths often drink to enhance positive moods, socialise with others, conform to social groups, or as a coping mechanism to overcome stress or anxiety. This causes harms associated with alcohol to peak in early adulthood, emphasising the importance of early intervention to avoid these detrimental consequences.
An ongoing programme called “Inroads Study” (Stapinsky et. al., 2019) aims to provide early intervention to youths with anxiety disorders and AUD. It seeks to enhance anxiety coping skills and address coping-motivated drinking. Moreover, this programme is specially tailored to make it more relevant and appealing to youths. This includes making the programme available online, which is preferred by youths as it is more convenient, affordable and reduces stigma. Participants can freely access online therapy sessions and modules about tackling challenges often faced by youths. Thus, such interventions can address the interconnections between anxiety and alcohol use, as well as reach out successfully to youths in a relevant and appealing manner.
Prevention programmes are also forms of early intervention that may benefit younger youths (i.e. 13- or 14-year-olds) that have a ‘high-risk’ of developing substance disorders, even if they do not currently have a substance disorder. It is vital to identify early onset of problems faced by youths and nipping them in the bud, providing them with early support and teaching them relevant life skills. This prevents problems faced by youths from developing into more severe adulthood problems such as substance disorders, chronic mental health problems and delinquency.
One such prevention programme was organised by Edalati & Conrod (2019), who first identified at-risk youths through the Substance Use Risk Profile Scale; where those with higher levels of certain personality traits (e.g. sensation seeking and negative thinking) were at higher risk of abusing substances before the onset of use. Afterwards, these youths attended coping skills workshops, CBT and motivational interviewing. Results showed that the programme proved effective in reducing alcohol use, alcohol-related harms and emotional and behavioural problems (i.e. symptoms of anxiety and depression). This shows the importance of early intervention and prevention programmes.
In conclusion, it is apparent that there are interconnection and the longstanding link between anxiety and alcohol use, where this co-morbidity can cause huge effects on one’s physical and mental wellbeing. Thus, this raises the importance of integrated treatment, allowing both conditions to be resolved at the same time. Furthermore, early intervention is extremely vital to offer support to youths and prevent potential disorders from occurring. More importantly, all this shows that alcohol is not the answer to relieve stress and anxiety, and can only serve to exacerbate rather than resolve our problems. Thus, such action could be done to reduce excessive alcohol use in our society, such that harmful usage and effects of alcohol could be prevented.
Smith, J. P., & Randall, C. L. (2012). Anxiety and alcohol use disorders: Comorbidity and treatment considerations. Alcohol Research: Current Reviews, 34(4), 414–431.
Stapinski, L. A., Rapee, R. M., Sannibale, C., Teesson, M., Haber, P. S., & Baillie, A. J. (2015). The clinical and theoretical basis for integrated cognitive behavioral treatment of comorbid social anxiety and alcohol use disorders. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 22(4), 504–521.
Golding, J., & ALSPAC Study Team (2004). The Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (ALSPAC)–study design and collaborative opportunities. Eur J Endocrinol. 151, U119-U123.
Stapinski, L., Prior, K., Newton, N., Deady, M., Kelly, E., Lees, B., Teesson, M., & Baillie, A. (2019). Protocol for the Inroads Study: A Randomized Controlled Trial of an Internet-Delivered, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy-Based Early Intervention to Reduce Anxiety and Hazardous Alcohol Use Among Young People. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 8(4), 1-14.
Edalati, H., & Conrod, P. J. (2019). A Review of Personality-Targeted Interventions for Prevention of Substance Misuse and Related Harm in Community Samples of Adolescents. Frontiers in psychiatry, 9, 770.
Episode 7 of En Ullae S2 is a harrowing tale of Ramesh’ descent into utter despair due to his alcohol addiction. After the lilting trill of a happy alcohol buzz wears off, people in the throes of addiction often experience a sense of bitterness and desolation. It’s an artificial stimulant that when consumed, releases endorphins, neurotransmitters that promote a feeling of euphoria and help reduce stress.
Some instances of alcoholism are undergirded by an anxiety disorder, according to Dr Rajesh Jacob. He posits that people attempt to “treat” symptoms of anxiety by self-medicating with alcohol, ameliorating the discomfort of social situations through chemically induced disinhibition and happiness. They become chattier, and won’t choke during conversations – an alluring prospect for chronically anxious people.
Ramesh, now advanced in age, wistfully recounts how he fell into alcoholism. At 15, he and his friends would entertain themselves with drinks and idle chatter at a ‘kopitiam’, a Singaporean colloquialism for ‘coffee-shop’. Dr Jacob reminds us that despite being a stimulant, long term alcohol abuse invariably leads to depression or anxiety. Alcohol addiction can stem from a variety of factors – from the ‘angry, drunk father’ to early over-exposure to alcohol, and everything in between. Hassan Mansoor, a recovering alcoholic, confesses that his first foray into Bacchanal pleasure was during his secondary school years(junior high) for you Americans). He doesn’t remember the time with rose-tinted glasses, though – his adolescent years were marked by incessant violence, physical altercations and poor academic performance. He’d thought it made him look “cool”. Beer, whiskey, “Boon Kee Low”, “Paddy”, its name derived from its roots as a rice wine, and “Deer”. All of them cheap highs.
We’re then treated to a vignette in which a listless Ramesh, rake thin, gets into an argument with his doe-eyed girlfriend over whether wine should be drunk at lunch. Both of them are adamant that they hold the moral high ground – Ramesh, with his insistence that wine is “not hard liquor”, and Reena, with the awareness that his alcoholism is ruining not only their relationship but himself. We learn that the long-suffering Reena has tolerated Ramesh’s equivocations and excuses for four years, and she’s at the end of her tether.
(Click on the link for a version with English subtitles. Remember to click on the ‘Settings’ button to reveal the English subtitle selection. https://www.mewatch.sg/en/series/en-ullae-s2/ep7/954631 ) Dr Jacob explains that genuine awareness of an alcohol problem can only legitimately come from within, and external criticism is met with a wall of anger and irritation. In the early stages of alcohol addiction, one usually does manage to induce some level of happiness. As the disease progresses, drinking no longer “feels good” and chemical dependence means that consumption is imperative to avoid withdrawals. Alcohol withdrawal symptoms include hand tremors, which can set in as quickly as 4 – 6 hours from the last drink, insomnia, anxiety, psychological cravings, palpitations and sweating. Alcohol addiction is a vicious cycle, according to Dr Jacob.
Most people suffering from alcohol addiction start off with social drinking, which isn’t a problem in itself. However, addiction is a chronic, progressive disease which Dr Jacob measures with three factors of varying severity: drink frequency, duration of drinking, and cravings. Ramesh admits that his family life and relationships suffered. Getting blackout drunk was a nightly affair, which left his wife paranoid of his infidelity, when in fact he was unconscious in a ditch somewhere. He wouldn’t remember the events leading up to the loss of consciousness, a form of anterograde amnesia. Eventually, his wife takes out a Personal Protection Order (PPO) against him, the Singaporean variant of a restraining order.
The spiral into full throttle addiction isn’t a pretty sight. Just being in the presence of his drinking buddies would catalyse a night of binge drinking, invariably followed by a hangover in the morning made all the more unbearable by guilt over the slow rot of his cherished relationships. Work performance suffered, many a medical certificate was sought, culminating in joblessness.
Dr Jacob explains that addiction leads to productivity impairments at work. A sure sign of dependence is the need for a drink in the morning to curb tremors and imbibe him with enough energy to perform as a barely functioning alcoholic. Day drinking and surreptitious alcohol breaks are common. When in active addiction, one’s happiness (in the form of craving relief) takes precedence over that of others, and empathy goes out the window. Ramesh is reduced to a pitiable state, cajoling once close friends to spot him the occasional tenner – in their eyes, he is reduced to a shadow of his former self. Now jobless and without an income, he burdens his children with the restitution of his loans – he is now too functionally impaired to perform any meaningful work. His wife is now the sole breadwinner, and the guilt in his voice is apparent, even today.
Ramesh only manages to stop drinking for some length of time at 48 due to chest pains. After a successful heart bypass, he turns to drink again. Then comes the second bypass, which he sullies with an infection brought on by his inveterate drinking. Alcohol and heart medication should not be taken together, but his addiction blinds him to a sanguine truth. It is only after last-ditch surgery is performed that he cultivates some restraint, managing to abstain from drink when he recuperates for a month in the hospital. He is 68 when he finally gets into recovery.
All manner of physical ailments accompanies alcohol addiction. “From the head to the feet”, Dr Jacob says. The brain is atrophied such that fits, falls, bleeding, subdural hematomas and dementia become common. Liver cirrhosis brings about jaundice and bloody stool. Peripheral neuropathy, a feeling of pins and needles in the hands and feet arises from damage to nerves outside the brain and spinal cord. Even sexual performance suffers. If diabetes is comorbid, the body becomes much poorer at sugar control.
Dr Jacob recommends a ‘biopsychosocial’ model for treating alcohol addiction. “Bio” refers to medical treatment in the form of total abstinence (detoxification) and medication. “Psychosocial” refers to psychological counselling to treat addiction, medication to reduce cravings, and therapy sessions with the family. In short, a treatment model that aims to target likely risk factors for relapse.
Nobody takes their first drink and thinks, “This’ll be the death of me”. Fortunately, if people suffering from alcohol addiction take a step back and consider their mind, their physical body, and their loved ones, and combined with proper support and therapy, recovery is possible.