By Sarah Krussell, MA, LPC, LLP, CAADC
According to Dietary Guidelines for Americans published by the US Department of Health and Human Services and the USDA, moderate drinking is defined as two drinks or less per day for men, and one drink per day or less for women. Heavy drinking is defined as fifteen or more drinks per week for men, and eight or more drinks per week for women. Many people may regularly consume alcohol at or above these levels, or know someone who does. Studies suggest that alcohol consumption has also increased significantly in the United States throughout the pandemic; this may lead some people to wonder if they may have problematic drinking patterns. So how do we know if someone’s drinking has become an addiction, or is a “problem” rather than just normal or moderate alcohol use?
One way to determine if someone’s alcohol use has become a problem is to look at any possible life impacts from the use of alcohol. When a treatment provider is diagnosing a substance use disorder, they look at eleven possible symptoms or concerns. These questions will usually be asked by a therapist, doctor, addiction specialist, or psychiatrist to help with making a proper diagnosis.
- The alcohol has been consumed in larger amounts than intended or for longer periods than intended. An example of this would be someone who plans to go have a drink with a friend, or one glass of wine with dinner; but often ends up consuming more than they planned to, often to excess.
- The person has attempted to either quit drinking or reduce drinking but has not been able to do so successfully.
- The person spends a great deal of their time either drinking or recovering from the alcohol, including spending time recovering from “hangovers”.
- The person has regular cravings or a strong desire to drink, or thinks about alcohol a significant amount of time.
- The person has had difficulty with work, school, or home obligations. Examples of this could include showing up late or calling in sick, not completing homework or work projects on time, or not taking care of chores at home due to alcohol use.
- The person has had problems with social or interpersonal relationships due to alcohol use. Examples of this could be arguing with others while intoxicated, or family or friends asking for the person to cut down or quit drinking.
- The person has stopped or reduced important social, occupational, or recreational activities due to alcohol. Examples of this could include not attending work events, practices or meetings for groups they are a part of due to alcohol use.
- Using alcohol in dangerous situations more than one time. This could be driving while under the influence, but could also be in any other dangerous situation while intoxicated.
- Continuing to use alcohol despite it causing problems with either your physical or mental health. An example of this would be someone continuing to drink despite knowing it may impact a health condition like diabetes, or that drinking increases their depression or anxiety symptoms.
- Increased tolerance for alcohol, which is defined as needing more alcohol than in the past to get “buzzed” or drunk. Or, if someone is drinking less than normal, noticing that it does not have the same effect as it used to.
- Withdrawal symptoms when stopping the use of alcohol or cutting back. Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can be very serious and range from feeling mildly ill and shaky, all the way to having seizures or hallucinations. Any withdrawal symptoms should always be medically managed by a physician.
If you have read through these symptoms and feel as though you may have some problematic drinking habits, the next question may be: What do I do now? The good thing is that there are many options in terms of treatment and support. There are many levels of treatment depending on the severity of the alcohol use and your preferences, including inpatient treatment, outpatient treatment, therapy, medications, and sober support groups. There are many different paths to recovery, and finding the path that is the best fit for you will give you the best chance at recovery.
A good place to start is having an open conversation with your primary care physician to discuss your alcohol use habits, and any concerns you may have. Your primary care physician can be a great resource to help you find what treatment would be the most beneficial, and they can also offer referrals to treatment providers or therapists with a specialty in treating addictions. A specialist in addictions can help with identifying the severity of your concerns, and determining if more intensive treatment might be beneficial for you.
Therapy and treatment groups can also be a great source of support and assistance with creating an individualized plan to help you be successful. Sober support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (12 step focus), Smart Recovery (secular and science based), and Celebrate Recovery (religious based), can be a good source of support from others who are struggling with the same concerns that you are. Sober support meetings are generally free or low cost and can also be accessed online during the pandemic as well. Help is available and recovery is possible!
U.S. Department of Agriculture and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Dietary
Guidelines for Americans, 2020-2025. 9th Edition. December 2020. Available at DietaryGuidelines.gov.
Hauck, Grace. “Americans Are Using Alcohol to Cope with Pandemic Stress: Nearly 1 in 5 Report ‘Heavy Drinking’.” USA Today, 22 Sept. 2021, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/health/2021/09/22/covid-19-pandemic-heavy-drinking-survey-alkermes/5798036001/Accessed 25 Jan. 2022.
Volkow, N. D. (2022, January 16). Covid-19 & Substance use. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/comorbidity/covid-19-substance-use#Ref
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, February 16). Alcohol questions and answers. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved January 25, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm