Whether we drink alcohol in commemoration of a tradition, to soothe our anxiety in social situations, or as a way to amplify the excitement surrounding us, drinking alcohol is a common pastime for many adults.
Whether or not drinking alcohol has become a “problem” is a personal question that each individual must answer for themselves. Here are some helpful guidelines, common signs of unhealthy drinking, and reflection questions to help you assess your own relationship with alcohol.
What is considered excessive drinking?
“Excessive drinking” is a difficult concept to define. While we can certainly find generic definitions if we go looking, we must also keep in mind that each of us responds differently to alcohol. That said, let’s start with the more objective drink standards and work our way in. The Center for Disease Control defines excessive drinking as “binge drinking, heavy drinking, and any drinking by pregnant woman or people younger than age 21”
Binge drinking is the most common form of excessive alcohol consumption, and is defined by the CDC as 5 or more drinks during a single occasion for men, and 4 or more drinks for women. Heavy drinking, also classified as a form of excessive drinking, is defined as 15 or more drinks in a week for men, and 8 or more for women. If you find yourself exceeding these numbers, chances are good that your drinking is having a harmful impact on your life. Creating baseline drink limits for yourself based on these standards can help you create a protective shell between yourself and excessive drinking.
Ultimately, any level of alcohol consumption that is negatively affecting your wellbeing can be considered “excessive drinking.” So how do you know if you’ve reached that point? There are common signs of excessive alcohol consumption to look for.
What are the signs that you’re drinking too much?
First, let’s shift our focus from excessive drinking to the question of “Am I drinking too much?” When we rephrase the question in this way, we can appreciate that each of us has a unique relationship with alcohol. For example, a couple of alcoholic drinks each week may be tolerable for some, but may prove to be too much for others. So we have to ask ourselves individually, “how much drinking is too much for me.”
As we search for an answer, we may find ourselves evaluating a long list of physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. Alcohol can affect every dimension of our mental and physical wellbeing. Everything from our sleep patterns to our bank account can suffer the consequences of drinking too much.
Here are a few key signs that your drinking habits may be unhealthy:
1. Poor sleep patterns
While many alcoholic drinks, such as red wine, can induce drowsiness, they actually worsen our overall quality of sleep. If you don’t feel well-rested when you wake up after a night of drinking, alcohol may be disrupting your sleep cycle and preventing you from achieving deep, restful sleep. Poor sleep quality can result in symptoms such as hangxiety and fatigue that last throughout the day. If you’re often feeling low in energy, productivity, and mental clarity after drinking, you may benefit from cutting back. Sleep affects all dimensions of wellness, and improving sleep quality through reduced drinking can significantly improve your daily life.
2. Indigestion, bloating, and puffiness
Alcohol is an inflammatory substance and can cause stomach aches, bloating, and other gastrointestinal issues. Many alcoholic drinks–such as red wine and cocktails–are also high in sugar, which translates to calories and can lead to weight gain and diabetes. Additionally, drinking can cause significant dehydration, leading to puffiness in the face and other areas. Understandably, many experience weight loss when quitting or cutting back on drinking.
3. Foggy memory
Alcohol impacts the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain responsible for memory. If you find yourself having challenges with short term or long term memory, drinking could be playing a role. The good news is that this part of the brain can be healed within as little as three weeks without alcohol.
4. Loss of interest in activities you once enjoyed
Changes in lifestyle are often less noticeable than physical symptoms, but can be just as indicative of unhealthy alcohol use. Because of the positive associations our brain makes between drinking and pleasure, our focus on alcohol can quickly overshadow our interest in other hobbies and passions. This shift in the brain is also one of the reasons why we develop alcohol cravings.
A common sign that you are drinking too much is if you find yourself withdrawing from activities you used to find enjoyable. And many people find that after they stop heavy drinking, they’re able to enjoy these activities once again. Many also find renewed interest in discovering new hobbies and filling their free time with self-enriching activities.
5. Strained relationships
Unhealthy alcohol consumption can affect close personal relationships. A decrease in quality time together, hurt caused by actions taken while under the influence, and/or unhealthy relationship patterns like codependency can harm even the strongest relationships.
If you feel the need to hide your drinking from loved ones, or you find alcohol affecting your relationships in other ways, you may have unhealthy drinking habits. Speaking with a trusted loved one can help illuminate the role alcohol is playing in your relationships and help you to build a support network conducive of positive change.
Knowing and loving your authentic self
6. Low self-esteem
Unhealthy drinking is strongly correlated with self-esteem and other difficult emotions. Low self-esteem can both lead to unhealthy drinking as well as result from unhealthy drinking. Typically, these negative emotions increase with extended use over time. If you’re experiencing symptoms of low self-esteem, especially coupled with alcohol-related guilt and shame, you may benefit from shifting your relationship with alcohol. With time away from alcohol, many individuals discover a newfound confidence that extends into other areas of their lives.
7. Anxiety and depression
While drinking might provide temporary relief for anxiety or depression, it can ultimately cause these conditions to worsen. Once the effects of alcohol wear off, your general mood may become less animated and you may become overwhelmed with negative thoughts and feelings. This is because alcohol, as a depressant, can cause dysregulation of emotions. Intensified anxiety and depression symptoms can result from heavy alcohol consumption as well as moderate drinking.
If you find you’re feeling more anxious or depressed after drinking, this could be a sign or symptom that you’re self-medicating with alcohol, and are in an unhealthy cycle of using alcohol to cope with stress. Using alcohol as medication doesn’t produce lasting results; once the short-term effects wear off, you may find that your problems have only increased. Specialized alcohol therapy can help you develop alternative coping mechanisms to better manage your emotions.
Looking for these signs can help you discover if alcohol is playing a negative role in your life. Typically, the areas that are negatively impacted by alcohol will also be the ones that improve once you start cutting back. Healing is not only possible, but within reach.
How do you evaluate your relationship with alcohol?
As much as we may want to find excuses and come up with justifications for things not going “right” in our lives, at the end of the day we are the ones who must live with the consequences. In other words, even more significant than the reasons for our challenges is how we choose to address them.
It’s important to not place blame on ourselves for our relationship with alcohol. We are all striving to live better lives, and that fact alone is something to be proud of. So before we go any further, I want to invite you to just take a moment to appreciate everything you’ve done for yourself. Now holding on to that warm feeling, we can face ourselves with magnificent honesty. We can listen to our inner voice that’s trying to help us understand how drinking affects our loved ones, and our sense of self.
Here are some reflection questions to consider:
- How important is alcohol to me?
- What are the potential consequences of my current drinking habits?
- How much do I think about alcohol?
- What role is alcohol playing in my relationships with others?
- What would my life look like without alcohol?
A crucial part of this reflection process is developing a sense of trust in what we think and feel. I can’t stress enough how important this preliminary step is. So when we feel something–good or bad–let’s just take a moment to recognize our trusting relationship with ourselves. And remind ourselves that we are the only one that truly knows what we think and how we feel. As our sense of self grows stronger, we may find ourselves better able to make choices that honor the parts of us that we cherish most.
Our decision to better our lives by shifting our relationship with alcohol can become an avenue to greater self-awareness. As we find ourselves truly evaluating how alcohol impacts our physical, mental, and social wellbeing, we may gain a better understanding of our needs and desires. We may also (re)discover pieces of ourselves we adore and understand better how to bring these aspects of ourselves into the world.
As you reflect on your relationship with alcohol, you can also take our free drinking habits quiz to see if you meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder, a medical condition characterized by drinking more than you want to despite your desire to cut down. Remember, you don’t need to identify as a heavy drinker or check any boxes in order to seek help and change your relationship with alcohol. All you need is a curiosity and willingness to explore the benefits of drinking less.
You don’t have to do it alone. Expert clinicians and evidence-based treatment can help you make meaningful change on your own terms.
For those interested in further resources, see: https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/Tools/Interactive-worksheets-and-more/Default.aspx