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Alcoholism Causes and Risk Factors

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Table of Contents

Why can some people drink alcohol without issues while others face challenges? What are alcoholism causes and risk factors, and how do they affect addiction treatment and relapse?

Addiction & Causes

Alcoholism is more than frequent or excessive drinking; it’s a complex addiction.

Alcohol addiction is a brain disorder that involves changes in the brain’s reward system and chemistry. This reward system motivates us to seek and repeat behaviors beneficial for survival and well-being, such as eating, drinking, socializing, or learning.

However, when we use addictive substances like alcohol, the reward system becomes overstimulated and dysregulated.

Alcohol affects the brain by increasing dopamine levels and other neurotransmitters involved in pleasure and reward. This creates a powerful sensation of euphoria and relaxation that makes us want to drink more.

At the same time, it acts as a depressant on the central nervous system, which is why it can have sedative effects. Over time, chronic alcohol use can also negatively impact other neurotransmitter systems, including GABA and glutamate.

The more you drink alcohol, the more the brain adapts to its presence in your body, making you less sensitive to its effects. This means you need to drink more alcohol to achieve the same level of pleasure and reward, leading to alcohol tolerance or dependence.

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Causes of Alcoholism

Alcohol use disorder is a complex condition with multiple and interrelated causes. No single factor can explain why some people develop alcoholism and others do not.

Instead, it results from genetic, psychological, social, and environmental influences that vary from person to person.

Psychological Factors in Alcoholism

Psychological factors play a pivotal role in predisposing some individuals toward alcoholism. Among these:

Mental Health Conditions: Depression, anxiety disorders, and trauma are significant contributors. These conditions often create emotional distress, which some individuals might attempt to alleviate through alcohol consumption.

  • Self-medication: Using alcohol to relieve emotional pain or suppress mental health symptoms is termed self-medication. While it may provide temporary relief, in the long run, it exacerbates the problem, leading to dependency.
  • Traumatic Experiences: Experiences like sexual abuse or severe trauma can lead to alcohol abuse as a coping mechanism.

These factors may sometimes overlap. For instance, self-medication can result from trying to cope with trauma or manage symptoms of a mental health condition.

Personality Factors

Certain personality traits may amplify the risk of alcohol abuse:

  • Impulsivity: An inability to resist urges or delay gratification might make one susceptible to binge drinking or frequent alcohol consumption.
  • Sensation-seeking: Individuals with this trait often chase novel experiences, and alcohol might provide this new thrill.
  • Low self-esteem & Stress: Those with diminished self-worth or under extreme stress might consume alcohol to cope, escalating their risk of dependence.

Behavioral Factors

Individual behavior can also have a profound impact on alcohol use patterns. For example:

  • Experimentation: The initial choice to try alcohol, often influenced by peer pressure or curiosity, can set a trajectory for future drinking habits.
  • Persistent Use: Continuation of alcohol use despite evident negative consequences can lead to alcohol addiction.
  • Binge Drinking: Patterns of excessive drinking in short spans increase health complications and dependency risks.
  • Drinking history: If someone drinks alcohol frequently and for extended periods, their chances of developing alcohol use disorders increase.

With all that said, addiction often strips an individual’s sense of agency and decision-making, making their behaviors less about choice and more about the brain’s altered chemistry and compulsions.

Genetic Factors

Research has consistently indicated that a genetic predisposition can lead to alcoholism. Specific genetic variations, notably in the ADH and ALDH genes, may amplify alcoholism risks.

However, many genes are likely involved in predisposition to alcoholism, and their effects can be nuanced and dependent on environmental interactions.

Remember that genes alone aren’t decisive; environmental factors interact with genetic factors.

Familial Factors

Family dynamics play a role in alcoholism risk. A person with a family history of alcoholism stands at a higher risk due to a combination of genetic, behavioral, and environmental influences.

Environmental Factors

The immediate environment also influences alcohol use:

  • Prevalence of Alcohol: Growing up where alcohol misuse is routine can normalize unhealthy drinking behaviors.
  • Societal Attitudes: Societies that glamorize drinking or where alcohol is readily available often see higher rates of alcohol abuse.
  • Alcohol Advertising: A high exposure to alcohol ads or more alcohol ads can subconsciously encourage an individual’s drinking behavior.

Religious Factors

Religious beliefs can either act as a protective factor or a risk. Some religions actively discourage or even prohibit alcohol consumption.

On the other hand, other religions may incorporate drinking into rituals or ceremonies, which could influence drinking behaviors.

However, adherence to these teachings varies among followers, so religious beliefs alone don’t guarantee immunity from or potential for alcoholism.

Social and Cultural Factors

Social and cultural factors are the norms, values, beliefs, and expectations shaping people’s behavior in different situations. They can positively or negatively impact alcohol use, depending on how they encourage or discourage drinking.

One of the most common social and cultural factors that affect alcohol use is social acceptance or pressure to drink. Many drink to fit in, please others, or avoid feeling left out.

Drinking can also be seen celebrating, socializing, or relaxing. However, these reasons can also lead to excessive or problematic drinking, especially if people feel pressured to drink more than they want or need.

The influence of friends or colleagues (peer pressure) can also push individuals, especially during their emerging adult drinking behavior, to begin drinking or increase their alcohol intake.

Age Factors

The age at which one starts drinking plays a crucial role. The early initiation of adolescents who start drinking may make them more prone to alcohol-related issues in their adult life.

Educational Factors

Knowing the risks can help. People with more education often have fewer problems with alcohol abuse because they’re more informed.

Higher education often correlates with better awareness of the risks, leading to more informed decisions regarding alcohol use.

Career or Occupational Factors

Another factor that can affect alcoholism risk is career or occupational factors. These aspects of your work influence your stress level, satisfaction, and well-being.

Some careers or occupations may have a higher risk of alcoholism than others, depending on how they affect your physical and mental health.

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Known Specific Risk Factors

As mentioned, alcoholism is a multifaceted condition with several recognized and extensively researched risk factors. Here are some of the prominent ones:

  • Childhood Trauma:
    • Exposure to traumatic events during formative years increases vulnerability to alcohol abuse in adulthood.
    • Example: A child who has experienced neglect or abuse might consume alcohol later in life to numb emotional pain.
  • Parental Substance Abuse:
    • Growing up in a household where alcohol or drug abuse is prevalent predisposes individuals to similar behaviors.
    • Example: A teen might normalize binge drinking if they regularly observe their parents engaging in such behavior.
  • Peer Influence:
    • Social circles have a significant impact, especially during adolescence and young adulthood.
    • Example: Being in a friend group where heavy drinking is expected might pressure individuals to engage in similar behaviors to fit in.

These risk factors emphasize the urgency of targeted interventions. Recognizing these factors’ presence can help craft specialized support mechanisms and preventative measures for populations more susceptible to alcoholism.

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How Alcoholism Risk Factors Affect Treatment and Relapse

Understanding these individual risk factors can help inform personalized treatment approaches for alcoholism.

For example, a person with a genetic predisposition to alcoholism may benefit from medication-assisted treatment, which can reduce their cravings and withdrawal symptoms.

Alternatively, individuals who have undergone traumatic or abusive events may find trauma-focused therapy helpful in overcoming and recovering from their previous experiences.

Suppose someone is dealing with another mental health condition alongside their addiction. In that case, dual diagnosis treatment can be beneficial in addressing both issues simultaneously.

By targeting the root risk factors of alcoholism, treatment programs enhance recovery outcomes and minimize relapse chances.

Find Your Path to Sober Living with Design for Recovery

Navigating the challenges of alcoholism is daunting, but you don’t have to do it alone. A structured, supportive environment can make all the difference in maintaining sobriety and building a new life free from alcohol.

Various recovery programs, such as Design for Recovery, offer tailored approaches to help individuals achieve sober living.

Design for Recovery offers more than just a place to stay. We offer a community dedicated to your long-term recovery and well-being.

Why Design for Recovery is Your Best Choice:

  • Structured Environment: Regain stability in your life with routines that prioritize sobriety.
  • Deep Community Bonds: Surround yourself with peers who understand the recovery journey and provide genuine support.
  • Safety First: Our sober living home provides a safe space away from triggers, ensuring you remain on your path to recovery.
  • Experienced Guidance: Benefit from the wisdom of those who’ve walked this path before, offering insights and guidance at every step.

Remember, recovery doesn’t end once you leave a treatment center. It’s an ongoing process that requires dedication, support, and the right environment. Join the Design for Recovery community and set the foundation for a fulfilling, alcohol-free life.

Discover Life at Design for Recovery Now


The 5 of the most common factors that contribute to alcoholism are:

  • Genetic Factors
  • Environmental Factors
  • Psychological Factors
  • Social Factors
  • Biological Factors

These factors interact and influence each other, making some people more vulnerable to developing alcoholism than others.

Some of the risk factors for alcoholism include:

  • Family history of alcoholism.
  • Starting to drink at an early age.
  • Having a mental health disorder.
  • Experiencing trauma or stress.
  • Having low self-esteem or self-control.
  • Being exposed to peer pressure or social norms that encourage drinking.

There is no single cause that makes a person drink alcohol. Reasons might include:

  • To relax.
  • To cope with emotions.
  • To socialize or have fun.
  • To fit in or escape problems.
  • Curiosity or experimentation.

Alcoholism is a chronic disease caused by complex biological, psychological, social, and environmental interactions.

Meanwhile, the effects of alcoholism can be devastating and far-reaching, affecting the physical, mental, emotional, and social health of the individual and their family and friends.

Some of the effects of alcoholism include liver damage, heart disease, cancer, brain damage, memory loss, depression, anxiety, insomnia, violence, accidents, legal problems, financial problems, and relationship problems.

The effects of alcohol varies based on the following:

  • Amount and type of alcohol consumed.
  • Person’s body weight and gender.
  • Presence of food in the stomach.
  • Speed of drinking.
  • Use of other drugs or medications.
  • The person’s mood and expectations.
  • The environment and situation in which they drink.

Increased risk factors include:

  • Excessive alcohol intake.
  • Binge or heavy drinking patterns.
  • An intense craving or urge to drink alcohol.

Potential psychological causes include:

  • Personality traits like impulsivity, sensation-seeking, or aggression
  • Low self-esteem or self-worth
  • Poor stress management.
  • Mental health disorders, e.g., depression.
  • Distorted perceptions of reality or denial.
  • A history of trauma or abuse

There is no definitive answer to this question, as different people have different levels of susceptibility to alcoholism depending on their genetic makeup and environmental influences.

However, some general factors that may increase the likelihood of developing alcoholism include

  • Being male
  • Having a genetic predisposition to alcoholism
  • Lack of social support or positive models
  • Young age
  • History of mental health issues or other co-occurring disorders
  • Ethnic or cultural affiliations
  • Lower education or income levels.
  • Peer or family influences

While these factors increase risk, they don’t determine someone’s fate. Someone with all these factors might never develop alcoholism, and someone without any might.

“Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5 | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” Alcohol Use Disorder: A Comparison Between DSM–IV and DSM–5 | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA),

“Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorder | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA),

Gilbertson, Rebecca, et al. “The Role of Selected Factors in the Development and Consequences of Alcohol Dependence.” PubMed Central (PMC),

“Risk Factors: Varied Vulnerability to Alcohol-Related Harm | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA).” Risk Factors: Varied Vulnerability to Alcohol-Related Harm | National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 10 Apr. 2023,

“Age of Alcohol Initiation and Progression to Binge Drinking in Adolescence: A Prospective Cohort Study – PubMed.” PubMed, 1 Jan. 2018,

Crum, R. M., et al. “Level of Education and Alcohol Abuse and Dependence in Adulthood: A Further Inquiry.” PubMed Central (PMC),

Mandavia, Amar, et al. “Exposure to Childhood Abuse and Later Substance Use: Indirect Effects of Emotion Dysregulation and Exposure to Trauma.” PubMed Central (PMC), 13 Sept. 2016,


Edited by: David Beasley

David Beasley - Design for Recovery

David Beasley is a certified RADT (Registered Alcohol/Drug Technician). David, moved to California from North Carolina after many failed attempts to get sober.

Medically Reviewed by: Charley Allen

Charley earned his Masters of Clinical Psychology from Antioch University, Los Angeles, and is a California Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT).He teaches mindfulness to both adults and children in group setting such as schools, corporate workplaces, and medical treatment facilities.

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