Do I have an alcohol problem?

It’s not always easy to recognise when your alcohol consumption is becoming excessive, but with the right support and mindset, you can implement healthy drinking habits and enjoy alcohol sensibly. If you are not sure whether you have an alcohol problem, have been spoken to by concerned family friends about changes in your drinking habits, or are curious about what healthy alcohol consumption looks like, this article can help.

In this guide, we discuss the difference between casual drinking, problematic drinking and alcohol addiction, how to know if you do have a problem with excessive alcohol consumption, and what to do if you are concerned.

Casual drinking

Occasional drinking, often referred to as social drinking, is a perfectly healthy pastime for the majority of people. Casual drinking typically involves having a few drinks on occasion, when spending time with family and friends, or relaxing at home. The important aspect of casual drinking is that the person always drinks responsibly, never ‘crossing the line’, and does not feel like they need alcohol in order to relax or enjoy themselves.

While moderate consumption of alcohol on occasion is perfectly safe for most people, it is not advised to consume alcohol when taking certain medications or suffering from certain conditions. Alcohol can actually interact with certain medications to cause physical or mental reactions, for instance, it can cause depressive episodes in those on particular antidepressant or anxiety medications. Always read the label on any new medication you are taking before consuming alcohol and ensure that drinking is not likely to exacerbate any ongoing health conditions you have, for instance, if you suffer from epilepsy or asthma.

If at any point your casual drinking tips into problem drinking, it is time to regain control and curb your alcohol consumption.

Problem drinking

Regardless of whether you would describe yourself as sensitive to alcohol or as someone who can handle consuming a large quantity of alcohol with little physical effect, if you regularly exceed the NHS recommended weekly alcohol allowance, or if you purposefully binge and cause yourself to become intoxicated to dangerous levels, then you would be considered to have a drinking problem.
From a health and wellbeing perspective, drinking becomes a problem when you regularly consume an excess amount of alcohol, whether or not you experience intoxication or alcohol poisoning. This is because excessive alcohol consumption increases your chances of developing chronic disease and long term health problems, such as high blood pressure, heart disease, weight gain, liver disease, and cancer.

If you think you have a drinking problem, it’s a good idea to address this immediately and limit the amount of alcohol you drink to recommended levels or even cut it out altogether for a period of time until your body is healed and you feel capable of regulating your intake.
Speaking to a friend or family member, and asking them to support you in regulating your alcohol intake, is a great way to take responsibility for problem drinking and ensure someone is on hand to help you implement healthier habits.

Alcohol abuse

If you find yourself feeling like you need to drink alcohol almost every day in order to relax, calm down, or feel happier, then you are experiencing alcohol dependence, a form of alcohol abuse. It’s quite common for you to also feel unable to control yourself around alcohol during a dependence, especially if others are drinking around you and inviting you to drink. If your alcohol consumption is disrupting your life in any way, and you are regularly exceeding the NHS guidelines on how many units are safe to drink per week, then you may be suffering from alcohol abuse and could be vulnerable to developing alcoholism.

When does casual drinking or problem drinking turn into alcoholism?

What we as individuals consider to be ‘acceptable’ levels of casual drinking will be influenced by our cultural and societal norms, as well as our experience with family, friends, and peers. For some, social drinking could mean having a couple of beers with their colleagues on Friday. For others, it may be splitting a couple of bottles of Chardonnay with friends over brunch. The most important thing is that you do not exceed the NHS recommendation for weekly alcohol consumption, and that you do not find yourself feeling like you need a drink or experiencing symptoms of discomfort or illness following a drink.

Concerned your casual drinking habit may be turning into alcohol dependence or alcoholism? There are clear signs to watch out for. If you feel like you need a drink rather than want one, are increasing your alcohol consumption significantly or binge drinking then you need to consider whether you should seek treatment for alcohol addiction.

Alcohol dependency and alcoholism often accompany changes in behaviour towards family and friends. You may have found yourself sneaking in a few extra drinks, lying to your family about how much alcohol you have consumed, or feeling guilty about the number of drinks you have had. Your expenditure on alcohol may have increased, and you may be hiding or hoarding bottles and lying to your significant other about the amount you’ve spent. You may also be seeking to hide the physical evidence of drinking by upping your intake of coffee, brushing your teeth more regularly or chewing gum to hide the smell on your breath.

These behaviours can cause damage to your relationships and mental health, driving a wedge in between you and your loved ones due to the dishonesty and secrecy involved. Often, treatment for alcoholism is accompanied by couple’s therapy or relationship counselling, in order to address the damage done during your period of addiction and help the relationship heal over time.

The common belief is that if you find yourself questioning whether you do have a drinking problem, you probably do, or are developing one. It would be a good idea to introspect, record your drinks and analyse the ‘after’ effects after a night of drinking. Remember that help is available and support is accessible – all you need to do is reach out.

Symptoms of alcoholism

This short quiz could help you truly understand whether you have a drinking problem.

Quiz - Do I have an alcohol problem?

Getting help

Admitting that you need help is the very first step on your journey to recovery. There are many ways to get the help and support that you need – self-help programs, support groups, rehabilitation, or mental health treatment. You can research your options by referring to this useful guide from NHS.