Most people drink at least some alcohol, according to U.S. government studies. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that 87.6 percent of people age 18 and over drank alcohol at some point in their lives. About 56.9 percent of people in that same age bracket had an alcoholic drink in the past month.
Alcohol seems to be everywhere. From commercials on television to the ease with which you can buy it at grocery or convenience stores, alcohol is an accepted part of American life. Almost every restaurant serves alcohol or has a bar for patrons to enjoy a cocktail. Dates, parties and weddings all seem to involve alcohol. There seems to be no aspect of life left untouched by alcohol.
It may seem strange to wonder if you are a social drinker or an alcoholic, but sometimes that social drinking can become problematic. Let’s take a look at the differences between social drinkers and alcoholics and examine the gray area where social drinking may be changing into alcoholism.
Social Drinking vs. Alcoholism
There are no hard and fast rules about what constitutes a social drinker, an alcoholic and someone in between who abuses alcohol but may not yet be an alcoholic. Psychology Today offers insight into what may constitute each category of drinking.
- Social Drinkers: Social drinkers are people who drink when they attend social functions but who do not drink to excess or drink alone. They may drink occasionally or every time they go out with friends. Their drinking follows the standard accepted definition of “low-risk” drinking, which is an average of seven drinks per week for women and no more than 14 drinks per week for men. Their behavior poses no risk to their health or well-being, nor does it have major ramifications on their work, family, career or health status.
- Problem Drinkers: Problem drinkers drink more than what’s described as low-risk drinking patterns, but they can stop at any time. They may drink to excess on occasion or go through bouts of heavy drinking. Yet when they’re told to stop by a doctor or agree to stop because their behavior is worrisome, they can stop on their own with little difficulty. Problem drinkers should consider stopping drinking altogether, because it can be a fine line between problematic drinking and alcoholism.
- Alcoholism: Alcoholism is a disease in which no matter how hard someone tries to quit drinking, they can’t. They may be told that their drinking is harming their health or that if they don’t quit, their spouse will leave or they will lose their job. They still can’t quit drinking. Changes in the brain and throughout the body cause strong cravings for alcohol when they try to taper off or cut back. Drinking may be an all-day affair, with an alcoholic staying drunk throughout the day and night. Alcoholics may engage in risky behaviors such as driving while impaired. When drinkers become alcoholics, they need medical care and intensive treatment to help them overcome the physical, mental and spiritual impacts of addiction.
Most people have little to worry about if they consider themselves social drinkers. There are some warning signs, however, that social drinking is turning problematic.
Signs of Problem Drinking and Alcoholism
Reading through definitions isn’t the best way to figure out if you’ve got a problem with alcohol or not. Many people know deep down inside when they’ve reached the point of needing help. Asking yourself a few simple questions can help you figure out if what you do is social drinking vs. alcoholism.
- Do you drink alone? A drink by yourself every now and then isn’t necessarily a problem. Hiding your drinking from loved ones and friends, however, can be a sign of alcoholic behavior. If you used to drink only with friends and now you find yourself pouring a drink while you cook dinner, another when you eat dinner and still another to have by your side while you watch your favorite television show, you may have turned into a problem drinker or an alcoholic.
- Do you drink excessively at each sitting? Remember the rule of thumb that one drink per day for women is acceptable and two for men. The CDC defines one drink as 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine or a 1.5-ounce “shot” of hard liquor. If you frequently drink a lot more than these servings each day, you may have a problem with alcohol.
- Do you plan your days around your drinking? It’s normal to look forward to an evening out with friends or to relaxing with a cocktail and conversation. But if your entire day revolves around when it’s time to drink, or you can’t stop counting down the hours until you’re going to have your first drink, it may be a sign of a problem.
- Has your doctor told you to cut down on your drinking? Ignoring medical advice to cut down on your drinking or to avoid alcohol can be a sign of a serious addiction problem. Most people make positive choices to safeguard their health. Choosing behaviors contrary to your doctor’s orders means you aren’t considering all the ramifications of drinking. Some health issues that may trigger a warning to cut down on your drinking include liver problems, high blood pressure, migraine headaches and diabetes. Some medications also react poorly with alcohol and come with a warning not to drink while taking them. Various tranquilizers, opioids and antidepressant medicines interact with alcohol and intensify effects like drowsiness. If your medication is stamped with a warning label not to drink while taking it and you continue to drink, you may have a problem with alcohol dependence.
- Do you drink because you’re bored? Drinking to relieve boredom, stress or loneliness every once in a while isn’t a problem per se, but if you drink all the time because you don’t know how to handle these feelings, that can be a problem.
- Do you miss work or school because of drinking? Social drinkers don’t miss work or school because they need to sleep off last night’s binge. Missing work, school or other important commitments because of your drinking is another sign of a problem drinker or an alcoholic.
- Do you need a drink to get going in the morning? Needing a drink first thing in the morning to soothe jittery nerves is a warning sign. If you wake up drunk, or wake up already thinking about your next drink, it’s time to seek help.
If you found yourself answering “yes” to any of these questions, it may be time to seek help for your drinking.
Why Do People Become Addicted to Alcohol?
Some people can drink every weekend and never have a problem. Others take their first drink and find they can’t stop. Why do some people become alcoholics and others do not? There are several reasons why this occurs, including:
- Genes: Research shows there is indeed a genetic component to alcoholism. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, genes account for about half the risk of becoming an alcoholic. There are several genes that increase your risk of becoming an alcoholic. And while genes do play a part in the development of the disease, they do not necessarily cause alcoholism to develop. If you have the genes for alcoholism, societal and environmental factors still play a part in the development of alcoholism.
- Family: Your family environment also affects the likelihood of developing alcoholism. In addition to the genetic component, your family also influences your attitudes and behaviors towards drinking. If family members were problem drinkers or alcoholics, heavy drinking was more acceptable in your family than in other families, which may predispose you towards drinking at an earlier age.
- Social Factors: It’s not just family who influences your choices to drink or not. Your friends — and even to some extent your community — also influence drinking behavior. People who are surrounded by friends and neighbors who drink are more likely to abuse alcohol.
- Pleasure-Reward System: Each of us is “wired” differently with unique brain chemistry. Some people respond readily to the pleasure-reward system in the brain. Dopamine, the “feel good” chemical, is released when you drink, making you feel happy. When you stop drinking, dopamine levels drop. Some people seek stimulation for the pleasure-reward system more than others. They turn to alcohol, drugs or other behaviors to feel good again.
Alcoholism is a complex disease. There’s no one factor you can point to and say, “There it is! That’s the reason I became sick!” Understanding the reasons for your disease is important. Insight helps you become more compassionate towards yourself and others, but it doesn’t stop you from drinking.
Cutting Back for Social Drinkers and Problem Drinkers
If you are a social drinker teetering on the brink of problem drinking, there’s time to rein in your impulses before your drinking turns into full-fledged alcoholism. For those who can still say “no” to their next drink, it may be time to cut back on your drinking or stop drinking altogether.
Social drinkers who occasionally indulge in a glass or two of alcohol at parties or on weekends will probably find that it’s no problem to just say no and substitute another beverage. Friends may urge you to just have one drink, but you’ll probably have no problem turning their comments aside and choosing what you’d like to have instead.
Problem drinkers may have a tougher time. Some may need to seek professional help to cut back or quit. You can begin to cut back on your drinking if you still have the power of choice, limiting yourself to social drinking or a once or twice yearly drink. For those who cannot even do this, it’s time to get professional help.
Help Available for Problem Drinkers and Alcoholics
Problem drinkers who need help quitting can find support and encouragement from several sources:
- Alcoholics Anonymous: You do not need to be a diagnosed alcoholic to join AA. All you need is a desire to stop drinking. 12-step programs such as AA are free, and they meet in most towns throughout the United States. They are anonymous, which means you use only your first name at the meetings. No one is going to tell your boss or your family that you attended a meeting. To find an AA meeting near you, visit their website or look in your town newspaper or online for local meetings.
- Individual counseling: Psychotherapy or personal counseling has helped many people stop their problematic drinking. There are different types of therapy, each with their own methods. Cognitive-behavioral therapy will help you get to the root of the problem by changing how you think, while other types explore your reactions, family dynamics and more. You can find therapists who specialize in working with problem drinkers by reviewing their credentials in your insurance company’s website or from the therapist’s website.
- Group counseling: Group counseling offers both support and counseling for people trying to quit drinking. Like individual therapy, group therapy follows different methods and guidelines. Many private therapists also run groups for their clients. You can find group therapy by calling local therapists or asking for references from your doctor.
- Family physician: Your family physician is a good person to talk to if you aren’t sure whether your social drinking has turned into problem drinking or alcoholism. They can also make sure you are healthy enough to quit on your own and that you do not need supervised detox to stop drinking safely. Make an appointment with your doctor and be honest with them. Tell them how much you drink and why you may be concerned about your drinking. Doctors only want what’s best for their patients, and they want you to be healthy. They are also a good source of referrals for counseling and/or rehab if you need it.
Should I Go Into Rehab?
Alcohol rehab offers a safe and supportive environment to regain your sobriety and work on your recovery. For those who feel they’ve moved from social drinker to problem drinker or alcoholic, rehab is a great place to begin your recovery.
Rehab centers offer different types of recovery. Some centers offer inpatient recovery, which means you live on site for a specific period of time — usually 30, 60 or 90 days — and focus on your recovery while you’re in residence.
Most rehab begins with detox. Detox is the process by which your body safely withdraws from alcohol. Alcohol causes numerous changes throughout your body. We mentioned earlier that it changes the pleasure and reward center of the brain, causing large amounts of dopamine to be released. It also changes your nervous system and circulatory system.
Frequent drinking can raise your blood pressure and suppress other neurochemicals that control your nervous system, brain function and more. Withdrawing from alcohol too quickly can cause these chemicals to rebound. Some that were suppressed for a long time surge abruptly and can cause blood pressure to spike. Others may drop. The result can cause many health problems, some of them significant or even life-threatening.
A supervised detox center means a doctor or other health professional monitors your vital signs while you safely withdraw from alcohol. Medicines may be given to you to help your body adjust to life without alcohol.
After withdrawing from alcohol, your mind will be clear again and you’re ready to work on your recovery. Recovery includes working on issues that may have led to your drinking, finding ways to live alcohol-free and healing your body, mind and spirit so you no longer need alcohol to get through your day.
Where to Get Help: The 12 Keys Difference
12 Keys offers holistic rehab and recovery for people suffering from drug and alcohol problems. Located along the Florida waterfront, we offer a safe, comfortable and beautiful place for you to recover from your problems.
The 12 Keys method is different from other drug and alcohol recovery programs. We treat everyone individually and draw from many different disciplines in therapy, healing and addiction, and recovery to create an individual program for your recovery. Healing body, mind, spirit and family creates a solid base from which you can start to recover.
We keep the ratio of clients to therapists low so our staff can get to know you as a person. You can always find someone to talk to, and you get a lot of personal attention during your recovery program.
Recovery at 12 Keys starts with a phone call to our admissions team. After admissions, you’ll be supervised while you detox from alcohol. Our staff includes a board-certified doctor who specializes in addiction and recovery. All of our therapists are trained in both traditional therapy and recovery work and the unique 12 Keys method.
After detox, you’ll attend your first recovery meetings. We’ll help you find a sponsor. We’ll also work with you to create a program that may include individual and group counseling, biofeedback and other types of therapy.
There’s also plenty of time for rest and recreation. Because 12 Keys is located along the Florida waterfront, the weather is usually great and you can spend a lot of time outdoors on our beautiful property. We include group activities like horseback riding, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding and more to help you make friends and learn new things while you’re here.
We also encourage you to learn new skills to take good care of your health. Exercise is included in recovery, and you’ll have plenty of time to work out and learn new activities. Delicious meals are also included in your stay.
12 Keys also encourages family involvement in your recovery. Alcoholism is a disease that impacts families as well as individuals, and your family needs to be an important part of your recovery. We encourage family involvement, and visitors are welcome while you stay with us.
Not every social drinker turns into a problem drinker, and not every problem drinker turns into an alcoholic. But if you find that you’re ashamed of the way you behave when you drink, you can’t stop drinking once you start, or you’re really struggling with the aftereffects of your drinking, it’s time to get help.