Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder and Treatment Options

If you or someone you love can’t stop or control your alcohol consumption despite its adverse impacts on your life, you may have alcohol use disorder. This post will help you understand this disorder, its symptoms, and treatment options.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder is also known as alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, or alcoholism. Regardless of what you call it, alcohol use disorder is an addiction — a chronic but treatable medical condition.

A combination of genetic, environmental, mental, and social factors could result in an alcohol use disorder. Research is still underway on most of the causes and risk factors.

Common risk factors include: 

  • Family History – Children of parents with alcohol use disorder are two to six times more likely to develop the disorder themselves. For many years, the belief was that addiction was genetic. It’s now understood that family environment and lifestyle influence addiction as well.
  • Trauma – There is a link between childhood trauma and an increased risk of developing alcohol use disorder. Trauma includes emotional, sexual, or physical abuse and emotional or physical neglect. It also includes other types of severe emotional stressors like parents’ divorce or a loved one’s death.
  • Social and Cultural Influences – Early exposure to people who drink regularly, like parents, friends, and other role models, could encourage an alcohol use disorder.

If you have alcohol use disorder, it likely means you drink frequently and/or excessively and have tried to stop but can’t. Your alcohol use also likely causes problems in your social life, relationships, or other aspects of your life, like your job or just completing daily tasks.

Other symptoms of alcohol use disorder include: 

  • An increase in alcohol tolerance
  • Alcohol cravings
  • Spending a lot of time seeking out, consuming, and recovering from alcohol use
  • Unsuccessful attempts to quit
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Drinking more than intended
  • Drinking despite negative impacts on relationships and health

To be diagnosed with alcohol use disorder, you must show two symptoms within 12 months. A medical professional will likely gauge your symptoms, then complete a physical exam, a cognitive evaluation, and possibly labs and imaging tests when diagnosing the disorder.

Treatment Options

The goal of treatment is to stop alcohol use to improve your overall quality of life. While alcohol use disorder treatment is not a cure, many people benefit from a treatment program.

There is no one-size-fits-all program. What may work for one person may not for another. As such, there are various options for alcohol use disorder treatment. Understanding all of your options is the first step toward recovery.

For people who need less intervention, there are outpatient programs. Those that need more support or a higher level of care should consider a residential program.

Alcohol treatment options include: 

  • Outpatient Programs – These programs can occur in various settings and typically requires less attendance than other programs. Outpatient programs are the lowest level of care and are typically the last “step” on the care continuum. For many, outpatient programs are tempting because they provide discretion.
  • Intensive Outpatient Programs – Intensive outpatient programs are similar to outpatient programs in that you can go home at the end of the day. These programs are “intensive” because they require a minimum of nine hours of treatment per week.
  • Partial Hospitalization Programs – These programs are “day programs.” This setting allows you to participate in treatment for most of the day, every day while living at home. Participants are not able to work while in attendance. Generally, these programs are about two weeks, after which you attend an outpatient program.
  • Residential Treatment Programs – This type of program provides 24-hour care in a structured and resource-heavy setting. These programs typically include group therapy, individual therapy, and medication management. Many centers also offer holistic and experiential therapies such as yoga, motivational interviewing, and equine therapy. There are 30-day programs, but many centers understand that some people need longer.

You should gather as much information as possible about the program before selecting a treatment option for alcohol use disorder. It is crucial that you feel respected and understood during your recovery process.

What to consider when selecting an alcohol treatment option:

  • Cost – Consider how much therapy costs. Determine if your health insurance will cover therapy — all, part, or none. Keep in mind that some facilities are self-pay and don’t take insurance. Sometimes, these facilities will offer fees on a sliding scale.
  • Understand the Approach – Understand the facility’s approach to an alcohol use disorder. For example, does the facility offer medication, treat co-occurring conditions, or take a trauma-informed approach?
  • Individualized Treatment – There is no one-size-fits-all treatment program for alcohol use disorder and recovery. Ensuring participants receive treatment tailored to their needs is crucial to long-term success.
  • How Success is Measured – Success rates can be misleading depending on how success is measured. Ask how long rates are tracked, how many participants return for a second round, and if relapse is factored into success rates.

Recovery is Possible

Understanding alcohol use disorder and how to treat it is an important first step toward recovery. Seeking professional help, being active in an aftercare program, and having supportive family and friends are essential to recovery maintenance. Use All Counseling’s online directory to help you find a therapist today.

Resources: Alcohol Abuse and Dependence Therapists, Addiction Counselors and Therapists

Resources and References:

Volkow, N. (2021). What Does It Mean When We Call Addiction a Brain Disorder?. Retrieved 5 February 2021

Treatment for Alcohol Problems: Finding and Getting Help | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). (2014).

Alcohol use disorder – Diagnosis and treatment – Mayo Clinic.

NIDA. 2020, May 25. Treatment Settings. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-adolescent-substance-use-disorder-treatment-research-based-guide/treatment-settings

Benton, S. (2011). Understanding Addiction Treatment Levels of Care. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-high-functioning-alcoholic/201106/understanding-addiction-treatment-levels-care

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