A glass full of alcohol sits beside a half-drunken bottle
You can go to any number of websites for signs of a drinking problem but many of these symptoms can be divided into a few clear patterns.
Photo Credit: GigabiTz / iStockphoto.com

Do I Have a Drinking Problem?

Despite common belief, alcoholism doesn’t necessarily involve hitting “rock bottom.” It’s true that many people don’t realize just how serious their drinking problem is until their life spirals out of control, but many more are able to keep their routines relatively intact as they feed their addiction.

However, just because you’re a “functional alcoholic” doesn’t mean you’re not an alcoholic — and the sooner you can address that, the better it will be for your health and relationships. But how do you know whether your drinking is problematic? Is alcoholism a one-size-fits-all condition?

If you suspect you might have a problem, you’re already on the right track: looking further into problem drinking patterns, definitions, and warning signs is a positive and proactive move. Start with a good understanding of what alcoholism involves, so you can take an honest look at your own habits and get onto a healthier path.

Early Signs of a Drinking Problem

You can go to any number of websites for checklists that will calculate how deep your drinking problem goes, but many of these symptoms can be divided into a few clear patterns:

Loss of Control

This is a broad term, and if you’ve ever had more than you planned on (and paid the price), you’re not alone.

However, a single episode of drinking to excess and losing all your inhibitions is much different than a string of regrettable nights fueled by booze. Getting into situations that put your safety at risk, dealing with regular blackouts, or finding yourself in marathon drinking sessions when you hadn’t intended on doing so all point to a problem.

Perseverance Despite Problems

A major sign of addiction is sticking with the unhealthy behavior, even when you realize it’s causing problems in your life.

Many people on the cusp of alcoholism begin to have confrontations with the law or a falling-out with friends and family due to their drinking. Whether you're drinking has landed you in jail or simply strained your work relationships, drinking that interferes with your social, work, family, or school life is definitely a red flag.

Severe Changes in Your Behaviour

It’s no secret that alcohol is intoxicating, an effect that will almost certainly change anyone’s demeanor. But while some people get a little giddy when they’ve had a drink or two and others might open up in conversation a bit more than usual, some people get extremely upset, manic or violent.

If you find that your personality swings wildly when you’ve had a few, and people are concerned and confused at your unpredictable behavior, there is caused to be concerned about an alcohol use problem.

Withdrawal Symptoms

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Hangovers are unpleasant, but entirely expected after a spell of unchecked drinking. But how do you feel when you haven’t been drinking for a while?

If you have trouble sleeping, restlessness, nausea, sweating, or heart palpitations when you have no alcohol in your system for a few days, you very likely are facing an alcohol dependence. If you experience hallucination and tremors (delirium tremens) or seizures, your addiction will call for medical intervention.

Determining Your Risk of Dependence

The NIAAA draws a baseline for problem drinking: more than 14 drinks a week for men, and more than seven per week for women.

Moderate drinking for men is no more than two drinks per day, and for women, the limit is one drink per day; men who drink more than four drinks on a given day and women who drink more than three are at a higher risk for developing an alcohol use disorder.

How, when, and where you drink can also play a part in your risk for dependence and alcohol-related illness. Even if you don’t fall into the heavy drinking category, keep these facts in mind to help you stay in a healthy zone:

Light Drinking During the Week Won't Make up for Heavy Drinking on Weekends

Binge drinking is binge drinking any way you cut it. Having a handful of drinks on Friday night and again on Saturday will tax your liver and nurture a desire for inebriation that may just lay dormant over the course of the week until you can do it all again.

The fact is, heavy drinking raises your risk of several diseases and greatly increases your chances of drinking more in the future.

Social Drinking Is Not Always Healthier Drinking

Having a drink out with friends a couple of times a week is a nice way to unwind and reconnect, but what about drinks with friends seven days a week — or seven “social” drinks at once, for that matter?

Generally, people are more willing to excuse habits when they’re practiced in a group as harmless, rather than an addiction. Unfortunately, research shows that regular social drinking — especially if it begins as a coping mechanism — can gradually lead to alcohol dependence.

Decreasing Your Risk of Alcoholism

The best way to keep your risk low is to be conscious about each and every drink you have. Being honest about your drinking and believing in yourself and your virtues can give you a huge boost of willpower when tempting situations pop up.

  • Write it down. Keep a written record if it helps you to track your drinking and stay within your daily limits, and be sure to jot down how you’re feeling when you’re drinking — this will help you see whether or not you’re using alcohol to cope with stress or emotions. Journaling has been shown to help people create and maintain habits for life.
  • Use positive affirmation. Reminding yourself of the benefits of sobriety, from more stable moods to more energy and fewer health issues, can be a powerful tool to stay on track. Say it out loud, write it on your bathroom mirror, or post it on your phone’s home screen; the more often you see your reasons for curbing your drinking and all of the benefits that have come with that, the more likely you will stick with it.
  • Stay active. The more you engage your body and mind, the less opportunity to distract yourself with a drink or two. If you used to enjoy a particular sport or hobby before your drinking got in the way, now is the time to get back to it. Alternatively, try something new and challenging, like running, rock climbing, painting, or guitar — anything that keeps your hands busy, your feet moving, or your brain working hard.

If you find that you can’t do it on your own, don’t despair — there are dozens of techniques, therapies, resources, and caring communities that can help you overcome your habit and change your life for the better.

Begin by talking to your doctor — a confidential, knowledgeable, and compassionate ally – who can point you in the right direction.