What is Problem Drinking?

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Many people may fall into the category of being a problem drinker without realizing it. Understanding the distinction between alcoholism and problem drinking is essential. If you show signs of problem drinking, it could be initially less impactful to your life. 

For example, someone who’s an alcoholic might be more likely to drink and get behind the wheel. If you’re a problem drinker, you might engage in fewer risky behaviors, but if you don’t recognize the situation for what it is and take steps to get it under control, it could evolve into a worse problem. 

The following highlights what you need to know about problem drinking, the signs, and symptoms and how it might differ from alcoholism. 

Americans and Heavy Drinking

A national survey found that almost one-third of Americans could be technically considered heavy drinkers, but only 10% would qualify as having an alcohol use disorder, which is alcoholism. 

People who drink too much aren’t necessarily alcoholics or dependent on alcohol, which is an important distinction. 

Excessive or heavy drinking is a more accurate term for many people in the U.S. There are several categories that a heavy drinker can fall into. 

For example, heavy drinkers are technically men who have more than 15 drinks in a week or women who have more than eight. Excessive drinkers can also include binge drinkers. Binge drinking is having more than five drinks on one occasion if you’re a man or more than four if you’re a woman. 

Anyone who drinks while pregnant or under the age of 21 is considered an excessive drinker. 

Data from the CDC and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration shows that around 70% of all American adults drink alcohol, and 30% report drinking excessively. Approximately 3.5% may have an alcohol use disorder. 

All of this can then lead to problem drinking.  

Problem drinking isn’t an official diagnosis. Instead, it’s a broad term that can be used to refer to people who abuse alcohol but don’t necessarily need structured treatment for a disorder. 

Problematic drinking can have a negative effect on your life. You might not have to have alcohol, but when you do drink, there may be adverse outcomes. 

For example, your personality could be different when you drink, or you might miss work because of a hangover. 

Problem drinking could affect your relationships, or you might feel anxious or depressed after drinking. 

What Is an Alcohol Use Disorder?

An alcohol use disorder is a diagnosable medical condition. It’s also known as alcoholism. For a problem drinker, having a bad situation, such as something embarrassing happening because of drinking or getting a DUI, could be enough for them to change their drinking habits. A lot of problem drinkers will also outgrow it as they get older. 

With an alcohol use disorder, you can’t stop without help. That help can include treatment in a rehab center, working with a healthcare professional or addiction counselor, or participating in a self-help program like Alcoholics Anonymous. 

Another distinction between an alcohol use disorder and problem drinking is that an AUD means you’re more likely to experience withdrawal symptoms. 

Withdrawal symptoms occur because your body is dependent on alcohol. You may have physical symptoms if you try to stop drinking or cut back, and sometimes these can be severe, requiring medical attention. 

A problem drinker, in almost all cases, wouldn’t experience withdrawal if they stopped consuming alcohol. 

A problem drinker can go long periods without alcohol, but when they once again drink, they might have harmful behaviors or unwanted consequences. 

Can Problem Drinking Turn Into Alcoholism?

There is sometimes the theory that problem drinking could ultimately lead to alcoholism or an alcohol use disorder. It can be the case that for some people who have signs of problem drinking, if they don’t make a change, they could develop an alcohol use disorder. 

The more your body becomes used to constant exposure to alcohol, the more likely psychological addiction and physical addiction can occur. 

With the physical addiction, you become dependent. 

Some experts believe there are stages of alcoholism. Stage one is experimentation with alcohol, and it may include binge drinking. 

Stage two could be increased drinking. Instead of just drinking on certain occasions, for example, you might drink every weekend. 

The third stage of this model is problem drinking, and the fourth stage is alcohol dependence. 

Common Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Some of the signs of alcohol abuse or problem drinking you may notice in yourself or others include:

  • Feeling like it would be best for you to cut back or stop drinking
  • Being criticized by the people around you for your drinking or having people show concern
  • You feel guilty about your drinking
  • You feel like you need to drink to get through the day or unwind at the end of the day
  • You regularly drink heavily or binge drink
  • There are effects on your home or work life

Drinking too much can affect your physical and mental health in multiple ways. Moderate drinking is defined as no more than one standard drink a day for women and no more than two for men. 

If you feel like you’re going beyond that, even if you don’t yet see problem drinking patterns, you could be headed down a dangerous path. 

It’s a good idea if you feel like your drinking is or could become a problem to start taking conscious steps to reduce your intake. 

Have a particular plan for how much you’ll drink. Create goals for yourself, and share your goals with friends or family to help you stay accountable. You can also alternate alcoholic drinks with ones that don’t have alcohol if you’re at a party or out with friends. 

It’s better to try and get a handle on things while you still can because it does appear, based on the research we have available, that problem drinking can become something more when it goes unchecked. 

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