Introduction to Alcohol Research
The above is the title to the book by Daniel Yalisove (Allyn & Bacon: N.Y., 2004). We have so many myths about alcohol floating around it is helpful to examine what the research says so that we can sort out the inaccurate myths from the realities. All the following quotes are from this book.
Everyone knows two basics: One, a lot of people drink and have done so for thousands of years. Two, some of those who drink cause a tremendous amount of damage to themselves and others. So, the key question before us is why do some abuse alcohol? This is a complex problem and no simple answer exists. Therefore, anyone who claims to have a simple answer is being simplistic and is not being helpful.
Why do people drink?
People drink because it has a variety of positive results. We should never forget this basic reality. When we are treating an alcoholic and are expecting them to stop drinking, we first must acknowledge that we are expecting them to give up something that they value, enjoy, and/or are addicted to and we need to think in terms of what we can find to help compensate for this loss.
However, we also need to acknowledge that alcohol consumption, in moderation, is a positive. People who drink in moderation live longer than those who abstain from the use of alcohol! So, we should encourage the moderate consumption of alcohol. The BIG problem is that a significant number of people don’t drink in moderation! But for those who do so, it reduces plaque deposits in arteries protecting us from arteriosclerosis, protects against blood clot formation, which protects against heart attack and atherosclerotic ischemic stroke, and it promotes blood clot dissolution, which protects against heart attack and atherosclerotic ischemic stroke (p. 51). “Alcohol has a pharmacologic effect of reducing negative emotion…alcohol consumption enhanced mood for normal drinkers…alcohol reduced anxiety both by self-report and by physiologic measures…the experimental evidence suggests that at low does for normal drinkers, alcohol serves to facilitate positive mood and relieve negative affect and that these effects are due primarily to pharmacologic effects rather than expectancy” (p. 160).
However, heavy drinking increases the risk for heart muscle disease, for disturbed heart rhythm, for high blood pressure, and for hemorrhagic stroke. “Exposure to alcohol disrupts the normal development and maturation of the immune system” (p. 52). “Heavy drinking is associated with anemia, a condition caused by a lower than normal number of functional red blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen to and remove carbon dioxide from cells thorough out the body. Disruption of this process, anemia, causes fatigue, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, reduced mental capacity, and abnormal heartbeats…Certain types of white blood cells are also reduced by heavy alcohol consumption and compromise the body’s ability to fight infection…With excessive alcohol consumption, the brain shows physical changes. There is brain shrinkage…it is clear that prolonged use of alcohol leads to neurocognitive deficits in the areas of problem solving, forming visual association, spatial memory, tactual learning, and abstraction ability” (pp. 52-53).
This is just the tip of the damage iceberg! To this you have to add the following:
Keep in mind that most people are aware of some of the above and still they go out and drink excessively. So, why is someone so self-destructive?
In conclusion, the brain of the alcoholic does not function normally and therefore when you try to help them you have to take this into consideration. For the therapist to assume the attitude that I stop drinking, therefore, so can my client, is a vicious and non-empathic approach to the client. For the therapist to utilize logic in helping the client see the mistakes in their behavior is equally ridiculous. Mind you, both of these approaches can be helpful, but only within a context that recognizes the complexity of the problem and is responding to that complexity with a program of treatment that takes into full consideration all the causes of the clients drinking and develops a program tailored to the complex needs of that individual client.