December 7th, 2021

How Do I Know if I Have a Drinking Problem?

by Maria Sullivan

December 7, 2021

alcoholic man sleeping on couch

How do you know if you have a problem with alcohol? Has the line been crossed between social drinking or moderate drinking, perhaps, into problem drinking or heavy drinking? There are different warning signs and red flags that you can look for and which can help you to identify whether you are at risk of a serious drinking problem, such as alcoholism and alcohol dependence.


It is important to know that individuals who can partake in social drinking, or moderate drinking, are individuals who are not necessarily thinking about when their next drink will be outside of a given social drinking interaction or moderate drinking episode. Social drinkers, or moderate drinkers, typically consume one standard drink or up to a couple of alcoholic drinks in any given drinking situation or episode, often using the alcohol to relax, fit in, and celebrate. Social drinkers take part in their drinking in low-risk patterns and on rare occasions.

Social drinkers, or moderate drinkers, are typically drinking for enjoyment, and commonly know when to stop drinking. If you find yourself thinking about the next drink you will have often, and even outside of a drinking situation, consider that as your first ‘red flag’. If you have ever attempted (maybe even more than once) to ‘cut back’ on your excessive drinking and had no meaningful success, then you can consider this another warning sign or red flag [that you may have a more serious drinking problem].

Alcohol and Society

In our society, the truth of our drinking habits can be easily glossed over with help from the media and advertisements, and the social acceptance of alcohol that has developed tremendously over time, albeit despite alcohol being very addictive and also very dangerous. American drinkers continue to normalize alcohol consumption and it is acceptable in our culture. This would never be tolerated with other drugs and addictive substances. Alcoholic drinks are advertised on all major media platforms and alcohol is readily available in common spaces such as the supermarket, restaurants, gas stations, airports, and all the way to the sports arena where folks go to watch baseball, football, and other games.


It may be very well difficult to clearly identify whether someone’s drinking habits with alcohol are considered harmful drinking habits- especially given the notion that drinking is in fact a very common, social activity looked at often as a way to “connect” with others (until it negatively impacts oneself or someone else).

Look at your drinking habits

It can be empowering to allow oneself to be open to the possibility that some of the following information surrounding alcohol use and dependence may ring true to someone’s very own personal drinking habits. If you yourself are looking for answers to whether or not you have a drinking problem, take a further look at the article presented here and if you can relate to any of the following topics, warning signs, and/or you feel your quality of life has diminished as your drinking has progressed over time, then consider following through with what feels best for you. There is help and support for those who want a safe route to becoming sober again. Treatment is out there and available to help you (or another person you know and love) take life back and improve quality of life, professional life, quality of everyday life, as well as family life which is often negatively impacted by a person’s misuse or abuse of alcohol. 

What is heavy drinking?

Do you want to know what heavy drinking is?  For women, it’s three or more drinks/units per day, or seven drinks/units per week. For men, it’s four or more drinks/units per day, or fourteen drinks/units per week. If you drink more than the daily or weekly limit, your doing excessive drinking, or problematic drinking.

Take note:

-A drink/unit of alcohol is 8g or 10ml of pure alcohol, which equals:

-A half pint of lower to normal-strength lager/beer/cider (ABV 3.6%)
-A single small shot measure (25ml) of spirits (25ml, ABV 40%)

-A small glass (125ml, ABV 12%) of wine contains about 1.5 units of alcohol. 

So what if I am noticing excessive drinking?

The terms excessive drinking and problematic drinking can factor into what we know as Alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse refers to a pattern of behavior where a person drinks excessively despite the negative consequences.

Read the questions below- as these are common signs indicating that your drinking habits have become problematic:
1. Am I spending a lot of time thinking about drinking?
2. Am I spending a lot of time planning out/purchasing alcohol for my drinking?
3. Are people upset with me and telling me how I may have a drinking problem?
4. Have I tried to cut back on my drinking unsuccessfully?
5. Is my drinking affecting my relationships (family, work, school, legal problems, etc.)?

 

I think my drinking may be problematic… are there other warning signs to consider?

Other signs that you may have a drinking problem include:

  1. Feeling guilty or ashamed about your drinking.
  2. Lying to others or hide your drinking habits.
  3. Needing to drink to relax or feel better.
  4. “Blacking out” or forgetting what you did while you were drinking.
  5. Regularly drinking more than you intended to.

Alcoholism

Alcoholism is the most severe form of problem drinking. Alcoholism involves all the symptoms of alcohol abuse, but it also involves another element: physical dependence on alcohol. If you rely on alcohol to function or feel physically compelled to drink, you are an alcoholic. 

There are two major warning signs for alcoholism:

  1. Tolerance: Are you able to drink a lot more than you used to in order to get buzzed or feel relaxed? Are you able to drink more than most people without getting drunk? These are warning signs that you can pay attention to, known as red flags which means you are headed into or are facing alcoholism. 
  2. Withdrawal: Do you wake up needing a drink to stop shakiness? Do you drink in order to feel less foggy/tired in the morning or throughout the day? Drinking to counteract withdrawal symptoms is a sign of alcoholism.

Other common symptoms of alcohol withdrawal:

-Anxiety or nervousness
-Depression
-Fatigue
-Shaky hands
-Shaky legs
-Jumpiness
-Mood swings
-Hot/cold flashes
-Irritability
-Foggy head (not able to think clearly)
-Nightmares
-Difficulty falling or staying asleep.

It may take a few hours or even days for these symptoms to show up, and they may get worse the days following. 

In a worst case scenario, alcohol can cause delirium tremens. Delirium tremens are the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal. If this develops an individual can experience agitation, fever, hallucinations, confusion, and seizures. Due to this very possible circumstance for a heavy drinker, people who drink heavily and are looking to end their dependence and addiction should seek assistance medically, to be treated safely throughout the process of detoxification. 

What are Risk Factors for Developing Alcohol Addiction?

Risk factors for developing problems with alcohol arise from various factors, including your genetics, how you were raised, your social environment, and your emotional well-being. Some racial groups, such as American Indians and Native Alaskans, are at an even higher risk than others for developing drinking problems, alcoholism, or alcohol addiction. People with a family history of alcoholism or who grow up around heavy drinkers are more likely to develop drinking problems. People who suffer from mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, or bipolar disorder are particularly at risk of alcohol problems, because alcohol is often used to self-medicate. If you check yes to any of the following questions, you may want to consider seeking help with your drinking habits:

  1. Do I consume alcohol to cope with difficult emotions or to avoid feeling bad?
  2. Do I consume alcohol despite physical dangers?
  3. Do I consume alcohol despite my mental health?
  4. Do I repeatedly neglect responsibilities at home, work, or school because of my drinking?
  5. Do I experience repeated legal problems on account of my drinking?
  6. Do I drink after stressful days to relax?

Physical effects of alcohol on the body

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, continued and persistent drinking increases risk for serious health conditions and complications, including the following:

-Heart disease 

-Stroke

-Liver disease/cancer

-Bowel cancer

-Breast cancer

-Mouth cancer

-Pancreatitis

Excessive drinking, binge drinking, or heavy drinking over a period of time can weaken your immune system. This means your body is more susceptible to illness and health complications from drinking. The health consequences from drinking vary person to person, but by no means is any one single person entirely “safe” from the toxic substance of alcohol, especially if someone is not just a social drinker, or moderate to casual drinker.  Even just drinking an excessive amount of alcohol on one given occasion, increases your risk of catching an infection. This is because the alcohol has slowed down your body’s ability to ward off any infections that may present themselves. This can be true for up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

Is my drinking cause for any of my social problems?

On top of physical health problems, long-term alcohol misuse or alcohol abuse can lead to social problems for some people, such as interpersonal issues with friends/family, work-related issues causing unemployment, homelessness, and domestic abuse, for some primary examples. Ultimately, alcohol inhibits the brain functioning when it is ingested and therefore alcohol makes you a different person.
Drinking alcohol can make each person act differently, depending on a person’s own personality and the internal and external problems they may be dealing with. An individual drinker may become more angry or violent, more promiscuous, and/or more likely to engage in risky behaviors such as drunk driving or driving under the influence. These behaviors can lead to dire consequences such as loss of relationships or partnerships.


Aside from becoming a different person when you drink, alcohol makes people unavailable to those they are close to. Relationships require both parties to spend quality time and have quality communication in order to flourish and maintain balance and stability. For those who abuse alcohol, this can become a challenge. Alcohol becomes priority- the most important part of an individual’s life if it gets to that point. For example, you may only become interested in partaking in activities that involve drinking or that you know you can find a way to have drinks in order to be engaged in said activity or situation.


Alcohol also causes secrecy- lying becomes the new norm for most drinkers who are trying to hide how much they are drinking and when. Ultimately, the loss of time spent with those you consider close to you, and the lying that develops within those relationships, harms your relationships, and causes distrust from the other parties.


It is very possible that relationships or partnerships (of any kind, really) can come to an end when said person in your life finally realizes your secretive behavior. If your partner, family member, or best friend discovers that you have been sneaking your drinking, they may decide that the relationship is too broken to be salvaged. All the negative consequences build up over time the more secrecy is being had, and that can make it just the more challenging to sustain relationships with those people who are now scared, worried, or angry with your drinking. 

Alcohol and Pregnancy

Since 1981, the U.S. Surgeon General advised that there is no known safe amount of alcohol use during pregnancy and, that due to the risk of birth defects, women who are pregnant or are considering pregnancy should abstain from alcohol.


As stated in an article by the National Institute Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, “alcohol can disrupt fetal development at any stage during a pregnancy—including at the earliest stages before a woman even knows she is pregnant” (niaaa.nih.gov). Alcohol passes from the mother’s bloodstream to the developing baby’s bloodstream- and very easily. “Alcohol present in a developing baby’s bloodstream can interfere with the development of the brain and other critical organs, structures, and physiological systems.”


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one out of 100 children are born with FASD (Fetal alcohol syndrome) annually. The damage of FASD caused by a mother’s drinking during pregnancy is permanent and preventable.

Alcohol Poisoning

Signs of alcohol poisoning include the following:

-Vomiting

-Slow Breathing

-Confusion

-Seizures

-Pale or Blue skin

-Unconsciousness

-Cold and clammy skin

You should call the emergency number for assistance if any of these signs appear. It is not at all advised that you leave someone else showing these symptoms, alone with themselves. They may be experiencing these symptoms due to the levels of alcohol inside their blood, and they will continue experiencing an increase in symptom effects for an additional 30 minutes or so just after the last drink that was had. At this point symptoms worsen and the risk for needing medical attention increased even more. 

What if I’m worried about someone I know?

It can be difficult to spot the signs of alcoholism in someone else, as alcoholics are often secretive about it and can become angry if confronted by someone about their drinking or drinking habits.
However, if someone close to you is showing any of the following signs, it may be that they’re suffering from alcoholism:

  1. A lack of interest in previously normal activities
    2. Appearing intoxicated more regularly
    3. Needing to drink more to achieve the same effects
    4. Appearing tired, lethargic, or irritable
    5. They don’t say no to alcohol
    6. Anxious, depressed or other mental health concerns observed.
    7. Becoming secretive and/or dishonest

If someone close to you is displaying signs of alcohol addiction, it can be difficult to know what to do. You are likely worried about them and probably frustrated that they don’t seem to want to help themselves, or you may be very well afraid for their health status and overall quality of life and well-being. These feelings are extremely common and normal for people interacting with someone who is an excessive drinker. Just know that there is help for both alcoholics and those caring for them. What should you try first?


Be honest with your friend, family member, or loved one about their drinking habits. Express your feelings honestly and gently, finding the most approachable way to try and encourage them to seek a doctor for guidance and help. It can be very difficult for alcoholics to admit they have a problem in the first place and being supportive and non-judgmental can help them to feel safe.


You may not “reach” the point that you hope to during the first confrontation or conversation with someone who is drinking a lot. The first conversation may very likely open the door (although it may feel closed even more so than before the talk due to the person’s defensiveness and ability to deny and avoid their real problems) to the possibility for someone to know that help, support, and care is out there. It often takes a few tries for a drinker to be “reachable” in conversation. If someone cares enough about themselves and/or those they love, at some point it is likely they will at least try to take the help that is out there for them – even just including the support from a close loved one who they can talk to and begin sharing their struggles with. 

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