Most American adults enjoy an alcoholic beverage on occasion, whether it’s a glass of wine when going out for dinner or drinking on an almost daily basis. Naturally, they don’t believe they have a drinking problem or suffer from alcoholism—but where’s the line? At what point does an occasional indulgence become a problem, and is there a difference between heavy drinking and alcoholism?
The short answer is yes, and while the line isn’t always obvious, some indicators can help you feel comfortable about your own drinking habits—or know when to seek help.
Let’s start by defining alcoholism. Alcoholism isn’t necessarily present in a periodic or heavy drinker; instead, alcoholism (also called alcohol dependence) is a physical addiction to alcohol. People with alcoholism will feel a strong craving for alcoholic drinks on a near-constant basis, an inability to control their drinking once they’ve started, increased tolerance for the effects of alcohol, and will exhibit withdrawal symptoms if they stop drinking alcohol for a time.
You may also have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), or may abuse alcohol in a problematic way, without being a formal “alcoholic.” Drinking too much in isolating situations, or drinking to a level that impacts your relationships can still be a problem for your physical and mental health, as well as your social relationships and career performance.
Warning Signs of an Alcohol Problem
So how can you tell if your drinking is problematic? These are some powerful warning signs:
- You drink more alcohol than intended. People with an alcohol use disorder frequently struggle to control their drinking. If you drink at a party where you intended to stay sober, or if you end up drinking far more beverages than you originally intended, it could be a bad sign.
- You’ve tried and failed to curtail your drinking in the past. Have you pledged to cut back on alcohol, or to stop drinking entirely? If so, how long did this commitment last? If you find it difficult to stop drinking, it’s usually a sign of a problem.
- You’re frequently sick from hangovers. It’s natural to experience symptoms of a hangover, including tiredness, sluggishness, and headaches, after a night of heavy drinking. However, if you spend a disproportionate number of mornings feeling sick from the effects of a hangover, it’s a wake-up call that you’re spending too much time drinking.
- Your daily life is impacted by your drinking. Your daily life shouldn’t be harmed by your drinking. For example, your career goals and performance should remain on track independent of your drinking habits, and your social relationships shouldn’t be harmed by your drinking. If you find your drinking is negatively impacting the way you live your daily life, it could be a problem.
- You’ve sacrificed hobbies or responsibilities to drink. Have you abandoned plans to meet with a friend to go to drink? Or have you used drinking as a substitute for other hobbies and pastimes? Drinking alcohol shouldn’t interfere with your other plans; if it does, or if you notice yourself tempted to abandon your existing plans to go drink, it’s time to get help.
- You have to consume more alcohol to feel its effects. After consuming a drug on a frequent enough basis, you’ll develop a tolerance to it. It will take greater quantities of the substance to have the same effects on you, which is dangerous for several reasons. If you find it taking more and more drinks to make you feel drunk, it usually means you’re drinking a problematic amount.
- You have strong cravings for alcohol. You might be excited for a weekend of partying, or you might think fondly of a special cocktail at your favorite bar, but that’s different from a physical craving for alcohol, which oftentimes arises unexpectedly and pushes you toward any drink with alcohol in it. If you experience these strong cravings, it could be a sign that a problem is developing.
- You notice withdrawal symptoms when trying to cut back. Many people with an alcohol use disorder do try to cut back their drinking. If you do, and you notice symptoms of withdrawal, such as strong anxiety, headaches, shakiness, nausea, insomnia, and sweating, it’s usually an indication that you’ve developed a physical dependence on the substance. While withdrawal symptoms do eventually subside, you may need help getting through them.
Note that enjoying a few drinks on a regular basis doesn’t put you in “alcohol abuse” territory. However, if you notice any of these signs, either in yourself or in someone you care about, it may be time to seek help. Resolving an alcohol use disorder isn’t easy, but it is possible with the right combination of treatments and plenty of social support in place.