Recently released figures show that the number of deaths caused by alcohol has risen dramatically in the past ten years. In fact it has almost doubled – from 4144 in ’91 to 8380 in ’04 (The UK Office for National Statistics Online).
The difference is even more profound among men than women. Oddly, the age range with the highest level of deaths caused by alcohol was men between the ages of 35 and 54, not the younger groups, as you might imagine.
But again, the rate of death for this age group in women too, has nearly doubled in the same time period from 9.3 to 17.9 per 100 000 of the population.
Alarming figures, as I’m sure you’ll agree. But a serious question which arises from this is, why? Are we really drinking that much more than we were ten years ago? Are our health services failing us?
Of course it is important to remember also that these figures are only for deaths directly attributable to alcohol. There will have been many more where alcohol was only an indirect cause (for instance someone killed in a car accident in which the other driver had been drinking).
There’s been a few articles around lately in which various people have suggested that Heroin should be made available on the NHS (that’s the free UK health service for non-UK readers). One of these is Dr Richard Simpson, the former Scottish drugs minister, BBC NEWS – Call to trial heroin on the NHS.
Cleveland Police Det Supt Tom Stoddart supports the idea, suggesting that it would help to get those most addicted off the drug without them engaging in crime to fund it. BBC NEWS – call to offer heroin on NHS.
Now what these people don’t seem to realise (maybe they should do a little research), is that heroin is already supplied on prescription through the NHS, and has been for many years. It’s rare for anyone to get it, and they usually have to demonstrate that the normal Methadone prescription isn’t helping them. But I myself have worked with a number of people being supplied pharmaceutical heroin on prescription. Its nothing new.
Does it actually help people get off the drug though? That’s arguable, for some people, yes. But for others, it just allows them to get on with their lives without having to raise vast sums of money (usually illegally) to fund an addiction which is seemingly beyond their control. Here’s one woman who’s been on a prescription for over two years – “I get my heroin on the NHS“
Coping with cravings is the key to tackling alcoholism. If you can manage to not give in to your cravings, or you can adapt so that you don’t get so many cravings in the first place, then there is no more addiction is there?
How you view your own cravings will determine how much power they have over you. If you believe that a craving won’t naturally go away once it has started, or if you think that the only way to deal with a craving is to drink, then of course you will be fairly powerless over them. This is the cognitive component of your addiction.
Making yourself aware of what things in your life tend to give you cravings, and therefore how you might avoid those situations, becomes a vital skill. For those ‘triggers’ that you can’t avoid, you can learn how to deal with them differently.
Lets say there are four types of cravings:
- a reaction to withdrawal symptoms
- escaping from unpleasant feelings (boredom, depression, anxiety etc.)
- a response to a learnt association (people, places etc)
- enhancing a positive mood
Each type requires a different approach to deal with it. And each person’s approach will be unique to them.
There are six recognised methods for dealing with cravings when they occur:
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Emotional Intelligence is now a fairly popular term, it refers to your ability to understand and deal with your feelings in an adaptive and mature way. When we let our emotions dominate our behaviour without any awareness, it can become a huge problem.
Alcoholism and addiction are fundamentally rooted in an inability to effectively deal with your emotions, a lack of understanding about where they have come from, and what to do with them.
As such, people turn to alcohol or drugs to anaesthetize their emotions, to hide from them. But of course, merely dulling them or hiding from them does not make them go away. In fact, it often makes them worse.
So one of the key elements in beating addiction is to develop your emotional intelligence. By becoming more aware of your feelings, what has caused them, and the best way to deal with them, you can hopefully reduce your dependency on drink or drugs.
Is there a genetic component to addiction? It would seem so – the genes for excessive alcohol consumption have been identified.
But how any genetic predisposition can be distinguished from the more behavioural, learnt element is virtually impossible – and when it comes to individual people trying to break out of their addiction, the distinction tells us nothing much of any use.
“Your father was an alcoholic, so unfortunately you inherited that genetic trait.”
“Oh great news, so how does that help me to stop drinking?”
If substances have been used from an early age, then this often becomes the preferred way of coping with difficult feelings. Obviously, we learn most of these skills from our parents, our siblings or our friends as we grow up. So if these people were not themselves dealing with their emotions very effectively, then that is likely to be what we learnt also.
Thus addiction is passed from generation to generation via learning, not just biology.
The process of changing your habits towards alcohol is not something that happens overnight. You are learning new skills to replace your old behaviours, and this will take some time. How long it takes of course varies from person to person.
Firstly you have to decide how you will know when you have changed? What will be the signs that you have been successful? These are questions that most people find difficult to answer. Ok, so you don’t drink so much any more, you feel a bit more clear-headed and happier – but have you made the changes in your life that you really wanted at the start?
So, to answer the main question another way – you might well see reductions in your level of consumption within a week or two, but that may not mean you have made enough changes to sustain that improvement.
Usually when people decide to seek help for their alcohol problems, it is not just the actual level of their drinking that bothers them, it’s their emotional problems, their ability to cope with the stress in their lives, the number of crises they create. So reducing consumption is only one part of the overall changes someone might be hoping for.
So perhaps the initial question is a little too vague to be answered accurately. Being more specific in your expectations will lead to more informative answers. So maybe ask some questions like these instead:
“How long will it take me to learn other ways to relax?”
“How soon can I expect to communicate better with my family?”
“When will I be able to get through a whole day without even thinking about a drink?”
“Will I feel that I’m a good person again soon?”
There is no commonly agreed definition of what binge drinking is, in terms of an actual amount of alcohol defined by the medical profession. But we all know what it means: drinking much more than you would normally drink in any one occasion.
This is not limited to alcoholics of course. However, binge drinkers don’t drink every day, and so they may not consider that they have an alcohol problem.
The effects of binge drinking on the individual, on those around them and on society generally are widespread. The health implications are serious, including alcohol poisoning and accidental death.
The social functioning and work performance of binge drinking individuals suffers markedly. Hangover related absenteeism and poor job performance was estimated to cost the US economy $148 billion in 1998.
Violence, accidents and crime rates soar on weekend nights as a result of heavy drinking – 80% of hospital emergency admissions at night are intoxicated by alcohol. Of course the biggest cause of accidents and death related to alcohol consumption is the motor car.
This problem is no longer restricted to men. Younger women particularly are now drinking until they are very drunk, at least as much as young men. The incidence of unwanted or unsafe sexual activity reported by young women increases dramatically when they and those around them have been drinking excessively. After binge drinking, one in seven 16 – 24 year olds have had unprotected sex, one in five have had sex they regretted later and one in ten have been unable to remember if they had sex the previous night (Health Education Authority (HEA/BMRB 1998b) Sexual health matters: Research survey).
Are you drinking too much?