Alcohol’s Effect on the Brain and its Role in the Progression of Alcoholism

We all know someone who struggles with alcohol, whether they are in the problem drinking stage, alcohol dependence stage, or active addiction stage. But how does one progress from one stage to another? How confident are we that we will not progress beyond the stage we are currently in? We may think that we are safe from developing a problem with alcohol, and maybe we are, but as individuals continue to drink alcohol over time, progressive changes can occur in the structure and function of their brains. Let’s take a closer look.

Alcohol Use Disorder

Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) can be diagnosed when a person has an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences. A person with AUD does not know when or how to stop drinking and the thought of consuming alcohol becomes an obsession. This does not occur overnight, and it is not a decision that someone makes. Addiction is a habit that becomes deeply entrenched and self-perpetuating, rewiring the circuitry of the brain as it is repeated.

Alcohol Addiction is a Progressive Disease

Alcohol Addiction is a progressive disease. Not meeting the diagnostic criteria today does not mean you will never go on to develop alcohol use disorder, alcohol dependency or alcohol addiction. Take this time to assess your relationship with alcohol if you have not already. Do you have control as to when, and how much, you drink? Do you drink to manage your stress? Do you drink to cope when you are sad, lonely, or hurt? Do you drink in isolation from others? If you answered yes to any of the following, you may have a problem with alcohol.

Physiological Effects of Alcohol Abuse

At one time or another, we have all experienced the dreaded “hangxiety,” the feelings of shame, guilt, worry, and anxiety that accompany a hangover, along with physiological symptoms such as dehydration, thirst, headache, and nausea. The long-term detrimental effects of alcohol abuse are well-known and include high abuse potential, development of high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, liver disease, digestive problems and seven different cancers, including breast, mouth, throat, esophagus, voice box, liver, colon, and rectum. With all of these risks and dangers associated with drinking alcohol, what keeps us coming back for more? What’s the hook?

Dopamine and the Reward Center of the Brain

The reward center is a part of the brain that drives our behaviour towards pleasurable stimuli, such as food, sex, alcohol, drugs, and sleep, and away from painful stimuli such as physical pain, conflict, and negative experiences. The reward center uses dopamine, the “feel good” neurochemical to drive these behaviours, so each time we experience something we like, dopamine is released, motivating us to repeat that same behaviour again and again. This reward system’s purpose is to drive behaviours that are needed for our survival. Unfortunately, some things like drugs and alcohol also can increase dopamine levels in the brain, triggering the reward system into thinking we need it to survive.

Dopamine’s Role in the Progression of Alcohol Addiction

When we start drinking alcohol, the reward system in our brain releases dopamine which might feel like warm fuzzies, euphoria, giddiness, and confidence. As complex as the brain is, it cannot tell that the reward circuit is being hijacked by a toxin (alcohol) rather than a pleasurable stimulus needed for survival (sex, food, connection). As we continue to drink alcohol, our reward system continues to release dopamine. Our brain knows that we do not need an overabundance of dopamine as this can lead to other mental health issues such as anxiety, ADHD, and schizophrenia. In response, then, the brain stops producing so much dopamine and our dopamine levels plummet, along with our mood. To combat the feelings associated with depressed mood and other negative feelings, we begin consuming even more alcohol as an unconscious effort to boost our dopamine levels and get that euphoric feeling back. Eventually, we stop feeling euphoric and require alcohol to balance out dopamine levels in our brains just to feel “normal.”

How to Hijack Your Brain and Body and Stop Depending on Alcohol to Feel Good

You have decided to cut back on alcohol, or stop drinking completely and are thinking, where do I go from here? Below we will discuss some general information about what you can expect when recovering from alcohol abuse and what you may gain by seeking professional help.

You Will Feel Worse Before You Feel Better.

By no longer consuming alcohol, you will no longer be getting that boost of dopamine, and your dopamine and GABA (not explored in this blog) will plummet leading to negative effects on your body and mind. The symptoms experienced will vary depending on how long you have consumed alcohol and at what pace alcohol was consumed. You must speak to your general practitioner before quitting alcohol because if severe enough, the effects could be life-threatening. Once you receive
the go-ahead, you can expect to experience symptoms such as headache, anxiety, depression, sleep issues, excessive sweating, cravings, and reduced energy. These symptoms may last anywhere from 72 hours to one week.

Cravings Will Start Strong – but They are Short-Lived. Learn to Ride the Wave.

A craving is a strong urge to consume alcohol, often as an automatic response to an internal or external trigger. Learn to identify your triggers. These could be specific people, places, things, memories, painful experiences, negative emotions, celebrations, etcetera. A craving lasts on average only three to five minutes so it is important to override your emotional brain, the one urging you to drink, and take control using your thinking brain, the one motivating you to stop in the first place. Have a list of coping strategies available and work on distracting yourself when you begin to experience a craving.

Coping Strategies to Manage Your Triggers

What helps you during moments of annoyance, frustration, and distress? What actions do you take to reduce your stress levels? If you are lying awake at night, do you have strategies to help relax your mind and body? When you experience negative emotions is your immediate response to suppress that feeling or convince yourself that you should not feel that way? If you use alcohol to regulate your emotions and physiological arousal, chances are you are going to struggle to manage your triggers, but that does not have to be the case. The power is within you.

  • Try box breathing or progressive muscle relaxation.
  • Call a friend or family member and talk about it.
  • Prioritize your diet, exercise, and sleep regime. This is what your body needs.

Needing Help on Your Road to Recovery?

While no two roads to recovery are the same, white-knuckling sobriety, that which is attempted without counselling or outside support, is rarely successful and has high incidences of relapse.


Because the core issues that lead to substance abuse and addiction are often not addressed. Sure, when we drink alcohol dopamine is released and we want to drink more to feel better. But why do we drink so much and under what circumstances do we succumb to binge drinking behaviours? What happened? Why depend on alcohol and not our internal and external resources to meet the same needs? Perhaps we do not know any better.

At Incentive Counselling, we help you identify your triggers, teach you the skills to manage your cravings and develop a relapse prevention program that works for you. The core issues that may have caused or contributed to your drinking behaviours will be explored and, together, we can create a treatment plan that deals with all issues necessary for a successful recovery. Common issues that often complicate a person’s recovery includes unresolved trauma, grief, and loss, people-pleasing behaviours, low self-esteem and self-worth, lack of healthy boundaries, skills deficits in communication and assertiveness, inability to regulate one’s emotions, codependency, perfectionism, feelings of shame and guilt, toxic relationships, and comorbid disorders.

Studies show that isolation, not drugs or alcohol, breeds addiction. Know that you are not alone on your journey to recovery and maybe you are not ready to give up alcohol. That’s okay! We have a team of counsellors who would be honoured to hear your story and meet you where you are at. Give us a call or book through our online booking system to arrange a time that best suits you and let’s talk about your relationship with alcohol.