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Are You a Social Drinker or an Alcoholic?

Addiction Treatment
Jan Trobisch

Jan Trobisch

Am I An Alcoholic

In the U.S., 15.1 million people over the age of 18 have alcohol use disorder, more commonly called “alcoholism.” This number accounts for over six percent of adults in the nation. True alcoholics drink frequently and heavily, and they will suffer withdrawal symptoms if they cannot access alcohol. This tolerance that builds over time demands that the alcoholic drinks more and more to achieve the level of intoxication desired or to prevent the symptoms of alcohol withdrawal, such as nausea, vomiting, “the shakes,” agitation, anxiety and in severe cases, hallucinations.

Developing a tolerance and being hit with the alcohol withdrawal syndrome when abstaining from alcohol are definite warning signs of alcoholism.

However, not all people who drink heavily are alcoholics. A person who consumes 10 to 15 drinks a week may have a drinking problem but might not have the physical addiction to alcohol that’s a defining characteristic of alcoholism. Although the genetic mechanisms underlying alcoholism are only partially understood, other factors such as mental health status, social environment, history of childhood trauma and life stressors all conspire to put some people at a high risk of becoming an alcoholic.

This post will help clarify each type of drinking pattern and identify dangerous drinking habits that may be signs of alcoholism.

What Is a Social Drinker?

Social drinkers are those who consume alcohol in reasonable portions that do not display a risk of problem drinking or alcoholism. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), a low-risk pattern of drinking means consuming no more than seven drinks per week for females and no more than fourteen per week for men. In one sitting, a female social drinker can drink three or fewer drinks, and a male social drinker can drink four or fewer drinks.

It’s important to keep in mind that one “drink” may contain more alcohol than what’s actually defined as a single serving of alcohol. Some mixed drinks contain multiple types of liquor and should be accounted for as more than one drink based on their alcohol content. Beer and wine also vary widely in the amount of alcohol by volume (ABV) they contain. In general, one drink is defined as:

  • 12 fl. oz. of beer containing five percent ABV
  • Eight to nine fl. oz. of malt liquor containing seven percent ABV
  • Five fl. oz. of wine containing 12 percent ABV
  • 1.5 fl. oz. of liquor containing 40 percent ABV

Social drinkers can usually tell when they’re becoming intoxicated and know when they should stop drinking. When drinking socially, a person does not continue to consume drinks after they are already intoxicated. They’re aware of how many drinks they can consume before feeling drunk or being impaired.

As the name implies, social drinkers typically consume alcohol when they’re with friends or family, attending an event or out to eat. Consuming alcohol socially is an important part of American culture, as wine and spirits are typically enjoyed at weddings, graduation celebrations and other major life milestones. According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), over 86 percent of Americans over the age of 18 had consumed alcohol at least once in their life, and over 70 percent said they had consumed alcohol within the last year.

A Social Drinker Is Someone Who:

  • Drinks occasionally and limits themselves to one or two drinks
  • Does not feel the need to get drunk to have a good time
  • Does not get in trouble with the law because of alcohol
  • Doesn’t do or say things when drinking that they later regret
  • Doesn’t spend their waking hours thinking about drinking

When Can Social Drinking Become a Problem?

While social drinking is common and generally low-risk, it can become a problem when it leads to binge drinking or drinking in excessive amounts. Social drinking can also become an issue when it’s associated with vulnerable mental state — like if a person drinks to cope with stress, loneliness, anxiety or depression.

Additionally, about two percent of people who drink within the limits of “social drinking” actually have alcohol use disorder. Alcohol use disorder, or AUD, is a severe dependence on alcohol associated with compulsive drinking and inability to control drinking habits. AUD typically develops after a person begins “problem drinking.”

What Is a Problem Drinker?

“Problem drinking” occurs when a person drinks too much or binge drinks on a fairly regular basis. The drinking habits of a problem drinker may look similar to that of an alcoholic, or they may only look like someone who has a few extra drinks every weekend. Heavy drinking is defined by the Center for Disease Control as:

  • Eight or more drinks per week for women
  • 15 or more drinks per week for men

Binge drinking is defined by NIAAA as consuming enough alcohol to elevate your blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 g/dL within a single sitting, usually about two hours. For women, this is typically four drinks. For men, it’s typically five. A person with a BAC of 0.08 may experience impairment of motor skills, slurred speech, memory loss and an increased risk of injuring themselves or others. In California and many other states, a person is considered “legally intoxicated” with a BAC of 0.08.

A person who is a social drinker might participate in binge drinking on rare occasions, such as when they attend a party or wedding with an open bar. A problem drinker, on the other hand, will binge drink on a fairly regular basis. Another sign of problem drinking is when a person drinks on weeknights, drinks early in the day or drinks at a time that interferes with work or other responsibilities.

Problem Drinking vs. Alcoholism

The main difference between a problem drinker and an alcoholic is control — a problem drinker is able to quit drinking whenever they choose to, but an alcoholic is unable to quit drinking on their own despite their will to quit.

Problem drinking is actually a fairly common occurrence, with about 72 percent of people experiencing a period of heavy drinking during their late teens to mid-twenties. For most people, this period of heavy drinking lasts three to four years and peaks during college years or between age 18 and 24. During this stage of life, young adults are experiencing independence for the first time, begin going to bars legally and are often still experimenting with alcohol.

When a problem drinker decides to cut back on their alcohol consumption, they’re almost always able to do so based on willpower alone. Once they make up their mind to drink less or less frequently, they’re able to stick to this conviction and reduce their drinking to a moderate or low-risk amount. Often, a problem drinker decides to quit drinking after having a particularly bad experience with alcohol or after embarrassing themselves while intoxicated.

A person who is actually an alcoholic may attempt to quit drinking several times but be unable to no matter how hard they try. Alcoholics may be able to control their drinking levels for a period of time, but will usually revert to drinking in excess. A problem drinker typically reduces their alcohol consumption as they grow up.

How Do You Know You Have a Drinking Problem?

While there is nothing wrong with enjoying a drink while eating out or attending social functions, the dividing line between problem drinking and social drinking is not always easy to recognize. In most cases, alcoholics calling themselves “social drinkers” take offense when family members and friends suggest they cut back on their drinking. Denying you have a drinking problem when everybody else clearly sees you do is one of the warning signs of alcoholism.

There’s also a fine line between drinking socially and binge drinking. When a person is first able to drink legally and go out to bars, they’re likely to experience a few episodes in which they drink too much. College students and teenagers drinking alcohol are also likely to binge drink to seem “cool.” Below are some statistics about binge drinking from the 2015 NSDUH:

  • 13.4% of people age 12 to 20 admit to binge drinking in the past month.
  • 26.9% of people over 18 admit to binge drinking in the past month.
  • 32.6% of people between age 18 and 22 admit to binge drinking in the past month.
  • 37.9% of college students between age 18 and 22 admit to binge drinking in the past month.

While binge drinking is common among teens and young adults, it can also be a sign of alcoholism and should be taken seriously. It’s important to know the difference between social drinking and binge drinking to identify when binge drinking indicates a deeper problem with alcohol.

Social Drinking vs. Binge Drinking

Social drinking is often a casual consumption of alcohol in a social setting. When someone drinks socially, they’re usually trying to unwind, relax or have fun. Binge drinking, on the other hand, is often associated with a person drinking too much with the goal of becoming drunk. A person who is binge drinking will often continue to drink after they feel drunk and sometimes enjoy the feeling of intoxication. Binge drinking is a common sign of problem drinking as well as alcoholism.

A social drinker:

  • Female: Drinks three or fewer drinks at one time
  • Male: Drinks four or fewer drinks at one time
  • Is drinking to enjoy themselves
  • Is not drinking with a goal of getting drunk

A binge drinker:

  • Female: Drinks four or more drinks at one time
  • Male: Drinks five or more drinks at one time
  • Is drinking in order to get drunk
  • Keeps drinking after they are already tipsy or drunk

Binge drinking can have dangerous short-term consequences, such as:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Injuries due to falling, vehicle crashes and other accidents
  • Risky sexual behavior, such as unprotected sex
  • Violence or aggression toward others
  • Miscarriage or stillbirth

How Can You Tell If Someone Is an Alcoholic?

Alcoholism occurs when a problem drinker develops a chemical dependency on alcohol. An alcoholic is unable to control their drinking habits and often feels like they cannot function normally without consuming alcohol.

The warning signs of alcoholism can be seen when a person:

  • Drinks until they are intoxicated
  • Goes to work intoxicated or drinks while at work
  • Drives while drunk because they don’t think they’re drunk
  • Repeatedly gets arrested for DUI or other alcohol-related incidents
  • Often thinks about alcohol more than anything else
  • Lies about how much and how frequently they drink
  • Feels nervous and irritable when they aren’t drinking or at least anticipating a drink
  • Builds a tolerance to alcohol and needs to consume more to feel drunk or to avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms
  • Experiences relationship, employment and financial difficulties due to drinking and alcohol-related behavioral issues

If someone you know shows these warning signs, it’s important that you speak up. Alcoholics often have trouble identifying or admitting their drinking problems on their own, so they may never seek help without intervention. If you plan to express your concerns about a friend or family member’s drinking habits, it’s essential to do so in a supportive and understanding way. Show them that you’re there to help and listen to what they have to say.

Remember that the person may not receive your concerns well, even if you’re trying to help. Be prepared for any response they may give you, such as denial, anger or rejection. Ultimately, it’s up to the person with the drinking problem to seek treatment for themselves, but your support may be the push they need to get started.

How Can You Tell If You’re An Alcoholic?

While it may be easy to identify the warning signs of alcoholism in friends or family members, it may not be so easy to recognize problems in our own drinking patterns. If you drink frequently and exhibit any of the warning signs listed above, consider talking to a friend to see if they think your alcohol consumption is a more serious issue. Being vulnerable with loved ones about your concern will open the door for them to support and assist you in reducing your drinking problem.

If you’re concerned that you might be an alcoholic, consider taking an online self-assessment. This simple assessment will help you to think critically about how often you drink and why you choose to drink.

It can also be very beneficial to speak to a mental health professional, such as a therapist or social worker. They’ll be able to help you assess your drinking habits to know if you should seek help to quit drinking. A mental health professional or doctor can also help identify the kind of rehab or self-help recovery program that will be the best fit for you.

How Many Drinks Makes You an Alcoholic?

While alcoholics typically exhibit excessive drinking habits, not all alcoholics consume a high number of drinks per week. An alcoholic may be someone who drinks a few drinks during the week and heavily on the weekend, or they may be someone who drinks four or more drinks per day. In fact, what makes someone an alcoholic is not how many drinks they consume, but rather their relationship with alcohol. Alcoholism is characterized by a physical and mental dependence on alcohol that impacts a person’s life.

An alcoholic will drink because they feel compelled to drink or have a craving for alcohol. Rather than deciding to drink in a social setting, an alcoholic will think about drinking frequently when they’re at work or going about their normal life. Alcoholics also often plan or think about when they will be able to have their next drink. Because alcoholics are preoccupied with their need to drink, they often stop participating in activities they used to enjoy and attending social functions so that they can spend more time drinking.

Over time, an alcoholic will build a tolerance to alcohol that leads to more drinking. When an alcoholic drinks frequently in large amounts, their body begins to process the alcohol differently so that they don’t feel the effects as easily. This process means that they’ll need to consume more alcohol to feel intoxicated. Alcohol tolerance leads to more excessive drinking — the heavy drinking that people often associate with alcoholism.

How Can Alcoholism Hurt Your Health?

Alcoholism has a huge impact on a person’s life by hurting relationships, affecting work performance and causing them to skip out on activities they used to enjoy. On top of these relational impacts, alcoholism can be very damaging to a person’s health both long-term and short-term. Here are some of the major health risks of alcoholism:

  • High blood pressure
  • Heart disease or stroke
  • Digestive problems
  • Liver disease or liver cancer
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Complications to diabetes
  • Vision damage
  • Bone degeneration

Alcoholism is a disease that hurts both the alcoholic and their loved ones and friends. It impacts every part of a person’s life, from their work and personal life to their physical health and mental well-being. However, those suffering from alcoholism are not alone. With help, they can return to a normal, healthy lifestyle.

Get Help for an Alcohol Addiction at Synergy Recovery Services

Alcoholism is a disease that demands the assistance of experienced psychiatrists, therapists and life skills counselors who can provide the tools necessary for the alcoholic to successfully manage a sober life. Synergy Recovery Services’ comprehensive alcohol treatment programs help patients understand why they drink, why they can never drink after leaving the facility and how they can cope with powerful feelings of stress, anger and the trauma of past emotional issues without turning to the bottle for escape.

Learning stress-reduction techniques is also an important part of our recovery program that patients will use throughout their sober lives to manage those “trigger” moments when thoughts of drinking again are likely to enter their minds. Contact us today to talk to a caring staff member about our alcohol addiction treatment programs.

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