Alcohol & Sex Addiction

Alcohol addiction, or alcoholism, is a common form of addiction.

This doesn’t mean that it isn’t serious, and addiction to alcohol causes significant damage to a person’s long-term mental and physical health and well-being.

However, what often makes an addiction to alcohol even more serious and difficult to treat is when it co-occurs alongside another mental health condition. This could be a condition like anxiety or depression, or it could be another addiction to drugs, gambling, or something else.

Another form of addiction that alcoholism is sometimes linked with, and co-occurs with, is sex addiction.

These co-occurring addictions can cause a person serious issues in their personal life and professional life, and it’s important to understand how they interact. So, what are the facts?

Below, you will find information about:

  • Alcoholism
  • Sex addiction
  • Co-occurring disorders
  • The relationship between sex addiction and alcohol addiction
  • Treatment for sex addiction and alcohol addiction

What is Alcoholism?

Beer

Alcoholism, also referred to as alcohol addiction or alcohol dependency, is a form of alcohol use disorder.

It is characterised by several key indicators, mainly: uncontrollable cravings for alcohol, and withdrawal symptoms from alcohol.

As well as these indicators of alcoholism, there are many signs and symptoms related to the condition. For example, someone living with alcoholism is more likely to binge drink, and therefore is more likely to black out or pass out after a period of heavy drinking.

Alcoholism is a hugely damaging condition, and it impacts a significant number of people in the UK and across the rest of the world. It has serious consequences on the short-term and long-term physical and mental well-being and can lead to a reduced life expectancy and reduced standard of living.

Specifically, alcohol addiction is linked with physical health conditions like liver disease, stroke, and heart attacks. When considering the impact of alcohol addiction on mental health, it is associated with the onset or worsening of depression, as well as having links to anxiety, OCD, and personality disorders.

In addition to this, alcoholism (and related conditions like alcohol abuse, and alcohol poisoning) costs UK taxpayers billions of pounds a year, as the NHS covers the cost of the condition’s impact on the population’s health.

So, alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol characterised by cravings and withdrawal symptoms. It is damaging to your physical and mental well-being. It is a serious social issue and costs the NHS a huge amount of resources and expenditure.

Symptoms of Alcoholism

Person looking sad

Alcoholism is a different experience for every individual living with the condition. However, there are many commonalities in the symptoms that people with alcoholism present with.

Some of these are as follows:

  • Giving alcohol an increased priority level: someone with alcoholism will go out of their way to ensure that they have access to alcohol. This might mean that they only arrange or attend social events that are alcohol-related, such as a trip to the pub.
  • Increasing tolerance to alcohol: if you drink alcohol in moderate amounts regularly, your body begins to become more familiar with the substance and will start to build a tolerance to it. The more you drink, the more tolerant you become – this means that people with alcoholism often have higher levels of alcohol tolerance and will therefore drink more in order to get drunk.
  • Lack of control around alcohol use: someone who is living with alcoholism may struggle to control their actions in the presence of alcohol. This could include continuing to drink when they’ve really had enough. This lack of control worsens as the person gets more drunk because alcohol can impair decision-making.
  • Cravings for alcohol and withdrawal symptoms: one of the main reasons why people with alcoholism drink more than people who don’t have the addiction is due to the presence of cravings and withdrawal symptoms. These cravings can kick in at unexpected moments and can be difficult or impossible to control. Meanwhile, withdrawal symptoms will begin to emerge when alcohol hasn’t been consumed for a certain period of time and can be uncomfortable and painful.

What is a Co-occurring Disorder?

A co-occurring disorder is a second condition that is sometimes, but not necessarily, linked to the first condition. A co-occurring disorder will often be hard to diagnose because its impacts are obscured by the first condition.

This means that the first condition is harder to treat because the effect of the co-occurring disorder is not being correctly acknowledged.

That might seem very complicated, so here’s an example.

A common form of a co-occurring disorder that is present alongside alcohol addiction is clinical depression.

Research has shown that people who struggle with alcohol, and people who are addicted to the substance, are also more likely to develop depression. At the same time, people with depression are more likely to use and abuse alcohol.

However, often someone who is living with an addiction to alcohol will seek treatment for that addiction, but not receive (or even have acknowledged) their other condition.

Clinical depression, however, is a co-occurring disorder and this would impact how the alcohol addiction would be treated, meaning that it would be extremely relevant.

Without recognising and also treating the co-occurring disorder, the treatment for alcohol addiction may not be as successful.

What is Sex Addiction?

Sex addiction is a complex and controversial topic. Because of this, it isn’t necessarily straightforward to define.

Some medical practitioners, and academics, believe that sex addiction cannot correctly be characterised as an addiction. Others believe that it can fit into the category.

Broadly, sex addiction is a term that is used to refer to the experience of intense cravings, desires, or fantasies for sexual activity, to such an extent that they impact and interfere with a person’s everyday life and activity.

So, sex addiction is a hyper-fixation on sexual activity which has social, mental, or physical consequences.

What Causes Sex Addiction

Despite research into the topic, there is no clear understanding of what causes sex addiction. For many people who live with sex addiction, the cause of their condition is unique to them.

Sometimes, sex addiction can stem from previous negative sexual experiences. These can lead a person to seek control over their own sexual behaviour, and this can result in a hyper-fixation on engaging in sexual activity.

Alternatively, the addiction can lead on to unhealthy, toxic relationships with family or friends. If a person feels like they did not receive the correct amount of love, support, and attention previously in their life, this can lead them to seek it through unhealthy forms of behaviour in the future.

Sex addiction, then, can be means by which a person ‘makes up for’ lost emotional contact or intimacy in the past.

However, there are other explanations for the causes of sex addiction that are linked to neurobiology, and the balance of chemicals and hormones.

Research from 2015 suggests that sexual behaviour and activity, and a person’s ability to control this, can be affected by an imbalance of the natural levels of dopamine.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain, and works as a person’s ‘reward centre’. When we do something pleasurable or are rewarded, that positive feeling we get is due to dopamine.

Dopamine levels increase during and after sexual activity, and so an imbalance in a person’s natural dopamine levels can be linked with abnormal perceptions of sex. This is how imbalanced dopamine levels can be a cause of sex addiction.

Symptoms of Sex Addiction

Compulsive sexual activity, and therefore sex addiction, has a wide spectrum of identifying symptoms.

Like with any addiction and any mental health condition, the symptoms that come with sex addiction are not a set list and are unique to each individual in terms of intensity and severity.

Some of the common symptoms of sex addiction are characterised below:

  • An intense focus on sexual activity; especially relating to fantasies, impulses, and behaviour
  • Repeatedly seeking out sexual activity in order to fulfil such impulses
  • An inability to reduce preoccupation with sexual activities, impulses, and fantasies
  • Difficulties emerging in personal, romantic, or professional relationships as a result of the preoccupation with sexual activity
  • Prioritising sex and sexual experiences over other important responsibilities or commitments
  • Experiencing elevated and frequent feelings of guilt or shame in association with your sexual activity, and any issues it may be creating in your relationships

As stated, each person with sex addiction is going to experience these symptoms in different ways, and to varying degrees. The symptoms of sex addiction are not a universal experience.

The Relationship between Alcohol & Sex Addiction

Alcohol and sex addiction share a complicated relationship. They are not related in any linear way: one is not a precursor to the other.

However, it isn’t uncommon to find that people who are seeking treatment for sex addiction also have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Or, vice versa – it isn’t uncommon to find that people who are seeking treatment for alcohol addiction have an unhealthy relationship with sex and sexual activity.

Digging deeper into this relationship, research has shown that alcohol impacts the part of the brain that deals with inhibitions and decision-making.

If someone with sex addiction is experiencing cravings or impulses to satisfy sexual fantasies, drinking alcohol can reduce their inhibitions and make them more likely to act on their impulses.

This creates a relationship between alcohol and sex addiction whereby the use of alcohol enables a person to fulfil their sexual impulses more easily due to their reduced inhibitions and impaired decision-making.

Leading on from this, we know that sex addiction can often result in complicated emotions including guilt and shame. Alcohol is also used by many people as a means of numbing feelings of guilt or shame, and these are common in people with sex addiction.

Therefore, alcohol can both be used as a crutch to enable a sex addiction, and as a means of coping with the fallout from the sex addiction. Due to this, people with sex addiction can find that they begin to rely on alcohol, consuming it in higher amounts with more frequency.

This can eventually lead to alcohol dependence, or alcohol addiction, as a co-occurring disorder.

For these reasons, it should be clear to see the ways in which alcohol is related to sex addiction, and how sex addiction and alcohol addiction can in fact be co-occurring disorders that link in with one another.

Identifying Co-occurring Disorders

At home support

Co-occurring disorders are rarely straightforward to diagnose. This is because the symptoms of one disorder can become tangled in with, and mistaken for, the symptoms of another disorder.

For example, imagine that someone attends a local rehab clinic in order to receive treatment for sex addiction, and they’re also living with anxiety as a co-occurring disorder.

Their anxiety condition could be missed by the person administering the treatment because it has some overlap with the symptoms of sex addiction (feelings of guilt and shame, a breakdown in relationships).

This means that even though the person has two conditions, they are only receiving treatment for one. If this happens, the treatment is going to be less effective because it is not forming an accurate picture of everything that’s happening in the person’s life.

So, in order for a person to receive the best possible treatment, it is always important that they are assessed for a co-occurring disorder in addition to the condition they are seeking treatment for.

That co-occurring disorder might not be present, but if it is present and it’s missed, that can derail a treatment programme.

Sex Addiction as a Co-occurring Disorder with Alcohol Addiction

Alcohol

We have already covered the links between alcohol and sex addiction, as well as the reasons why someone with sex addiction might be more likely to develop an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

But, what impact does sex addiction have on alcohol addiction as a co-occurring disorder, and what does this mean for treatment?

As co-occurring disorders, people with both alcohol addiction and sex addiction can find both harder to manage. This is because the two conditions can feed into one another, making each other’s symptoms even more difficult to deal with.

On top of that, sex addiction can make a person’s issues with alcohol harder to treat, because the alcohol has become entangled with a second condition.

This doesn’t mean that either is untreatable, but it does mean that it is important to recognise when sex addiction and alcohol addiction are co-occurring.

Treating Sex Addiction & Co-occurring Alcohol Addiction

Therapy

Once both co-occurring disorders have been correctly identified, both sex addiction and alcohol addiction have certain similarities when it comes to treatment.

The major difference is that treatment for alcohol addiction will have a physical component, with the detox phase and the withdrawal phase. This can be physically dangerous, so it is recommended that you have professional medical support on hand.

After the detox and withdrawal phase, the treatment for both conditions starts to have a lot of similarities. Both will focus on therapy, relapse prevention, and support.

For both addictions, a period of therapy (normally cognitive behavioural therapy) will help you to come to terms with your addiction, as well as understand the causes of your addiction.

Through this, you will be better equipped to understand your own behaviour in the past, present, and future. This means that you stand a better chance of controlling your behaviour, and recovering from addiction is all about being in control of your own behaviour.

Other forms of therapy will be available if they are better suited to you and your needs. For example, if your addiction has taken a substantial toll on your relationships you may want to consider family therapy or couples therapy as an option.

During therapy, you will create a relapse prevention plan. This will aim to help you from slipping back into old behaviours, by recognising what situations or emotions trigger addiction-affirming behaviour. Then, you can avoid or manage these triggers in a helpful and healthy way.

If you do relapse, the relapse prevention plan will support you to get back onto your recovery journey without the mistake of imploding the entire process.

Finally, treatment for both sex addiction and alcohol addiction will point you towards self-help support groups.

These could be Alcoholics Anonymous, or Sex Addicts Anonymous as key examples. These groups will act as motivational support to keep you on track, and will also be a place where you can listen to and learn from others’ experiences.

Get Help Today

For more support and advice, please contact our dedicated helpline at Rehab 4 Alcoholism on 0800 111 4108.

References

[1] Alcohol Dependence, Co-occurring Conditions and Attributable Burden https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/51/2/201/2888174

[2] Neurobiology of Compulsive Sexual Behavior: Emerging Science https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4677151/