What Are the Common Characteristics of an Alcoholic?

an alcoholic woman

An “alcoholic” is a person with a substance use disorder, which is a diagnosable behavioral health disorder. Here, you or your loved one suffers from a defined series of mental health symptoms including seeking behavior, reliance, cravings, and an inability to stop using. That usage is scientifically linked to a mix of genetic traits, behavioral traits, mental health, personal behavior and coping mechanisms, and environment. So, nearly anyone is vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction. However, once people become addicted, they often share a number of characteristics and traits. These link to both the “addictive personality” hypothesis and the fact that addiction causes many similar side effects across people.

The following common characteristics of people with alcohol use disorder are not a way to diagnose someone. However, they do point out traits that are common in people who are struggling.

DSM-5 Criterion for Substance Use Disorder

The DSM-5 lists multiple criteria for diagnosing substance use disorders. This includes alcoholism. We’ll cover these first because you’ll see overlaps with “characteristics” listed later.

The person:

  • Takes a substance in larger amounts or for longer than intended
  • Wants to cut down or stop using
  • Spends a significant amount of time using, recovering from using, or acquiring a substance to use
  • Experiences cravings and urges
  • Lets substance use get in the way of responsibilities
  • Lets substance use cause problems in relationships
  • supplants hobbies and recreational activities with the substance
  • Uses the substance again and again despite all repercussions or personal endangerment
  • Uses the substance even when it actively harms a mental or physical condition
  • Needs more of the substance to get the same results
  • Experiences withdrawal if they stop using the substance

Essentially, alcoholism means that someone is experiencing significant repercussions on their daily life.

an addict man having mood swings

Characteristics Common in Substance Use Disorders

People with substance use disorders can be very diverse. However, you can look for many of the following characteristics.

  1. Mood Swings – People who struggle with substance abuse often experience mood swings, especially anger, stress, and paranoia, at significantly higher rates than the average population. With alcohol, that’s because the alcohol impacts the GABA receptors in the brain, reducing the brain’s ability to regulate mood and increasing anxiety and stress over time. In addition, someone who is drinking a lot is likely living in constant state of hangover and fatigue and that will negatively impact stress levels.
  2. Chronic StressLong-term stress is a significant contributor to alcohol abuse. This means that persons who are very often stressed are very often likely to self-medicate. And, alcohol is one of the easiest substances you can buy to temporarily reduce stress. Of course, as stated above, it’s long-term bad for stress. However, that can be hard to see for people who work in high stress jobs, who have trouble dealing with trauma, or who don’t cope well with stress. Isntead, they are very likely to look for a quick and supposedly easy way out of that stress.
  3. Impulsivity – Impulsivity or high likelihood of risk-taking behavior is one of the most common traits across all people with substance use disorder. If people have trouble saying no, they are significantly more likely to abuse alcohol. That’s also true because it means they are more likely to be sensation seeking, meaning they seek out highs in order to feel good, to celebrate events, and to feel alive. Impulsivity does not necessitate substance abuse but most people who abuse substances are impulsive or risk-taking. In addition, that behavior gets worse as they have more problems with substance use disorder.
  4. Non-conformity – People who are non-conforming, anti-social, or who don’t fit in are very likely to be vulnerable to substance abuse. That’s for two reasons. The first is that being anti-social can result in social alienation. For example, persons who are LGTBQ are significantly at risk. However, people with mental health disorders who don’t have friends also fall into this group. People who have difficulty with aggression, with managing their mood, with managing their emotions, with looking traditionally pretty, etc., will also fall into this group. Sometimes non-conformity is easy to see. Other times, it can simply be a matter of that person having difficulty connecting with others or feeling like they belong. However, the more negative someone’s relationships with their parents, the law, or other figures of authority are, the more likely they are to have problems with substance abuse. That also holds true when people are chronically shy or unable to talk to people at parties, because they will start to use alcohol as a social lubricant.
  5. Mental Health Disorders – There are millions of people with mental health disorders who don’t struggle with substance abuse. However, an estimated 40% of all people with a mental health disorder struggle with substance abuse. That’s often because mental health disorders increase the other risks of substance abuse like feeling alienated, struggling with mood, chronic health problems, chronic mental health lows, etc. Therefore, people with mental health disorders are significantly more likely to use alcohol to attempt to self-medicate their problems.
  6. Low Mood – People who are struggling with substances often go through periods of being down or have a low or negative mood. That can come from before the substance abuse and may contribute to the original substance abuse. However, it can also come as a result of substance abuse where someone who is addicted will feel emotional blunting, will not care or invest too much outside of when they are drinking, and may cycle between extreme highs and lows between when sober and struggling with hangover or withdrawal and when drunk. The longer people drink, the worse this gets. Here, alcohol actually changes the brain and how it processes serotonin and dopamine, so you eventually won’t have enough when you’re sober.
  7. Manipulation – Not everyone who drinks heavily will manipulate others. However, it’s a significantly common trait. Here, manipulation may be to get out of blame, to pretend they are not struggling with alcohol, to get money, or to otherwise enable continuing their addiction. People with an alcohol use disorder will use stories, half-truths, and outright lies to get their way. They might outright blackmail you and they might use very unfair tactics – even if those tactics are not the norm for the person using them.
  8. Unexplained Disappearances – People who struggle with alcohol use disorder will often have to explain where they were, what happened to money, or what they did with their time. They often can’t do so. In some cases, that may even be because they don’t remember it at all. People who get blackout drunk might even do things like cut their hair with no memory of it – meaning they can’t actually explain it. If someone has these kinds of unexplained disappearances it’s a good idea to take them to a hospital, even if you don’t think it’s about alcohol. However, disappearances and money vanishing are very significantly likely to point to substance abuse.

If your loved one is showing the characteristics of alcohol use disorder, it doesn’t mean they are using other drugs. However, it’s important to talk to your loved one, to talk about safely using substances, and to get help when and where you need it.

Stairway Recovery Homes has multiple sober living homes located in Los Angeles, CA. We provide community-based recovery homes for both men’s sober living and women’s sober living. After leaving outpatient addiction treatment, a sober living environment is a good choice for extra support in staying sober.

About Jim Sugel

SEO and Digital Marketing Expert Jim Sugel is an SEO and Digital Marketing Expert in addition to having achieved the coveted Google Partner status for PPC expertise. Prior to focusing on Digital Marketing, Jim worked in Information Technology roles at a variety of national firms as a software engineer and consultant, resulting in many years of professional coding and consulting experience. Jim holds a Bachelor of Science, cum laude in Computer Science and Psychology from Loyola University Chicago. After relocating to Southern California from his native Chicago, he became involved in the recovery industry here, discovering a natural niche in helping treatment centers with Digital Marketing and other technology projects. Jim is the Founder and CEO of Airtight Digital, a firm that specializes in digital marketing for the behavioral health industry. His other interests include hiking, canyoneering, urban exploration, and screenwriting. Jim now lives in beautiful and sunny Orange County, California.