Society and popular culture often portray alcoholism in extremes, as though it’s always so obvious who’s an alcoholic. We see people getting fired from their jobs, yelling at their spouses, or hitting rock bottom in some overly dramatic (and very public) way. But in reality, alcoholism has many faces — some subtle enough that others may not notice.
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is a modern medical term that replaces the word “alcoholism” in order to recognize that alcohol use exists on a spectrum. According to the NIAAA, it is defined as a “medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” In this article, we’ll go over some of the most common signs of alcoholism, also referred to as AUD.
Even if you think there’s no way you could be an alcoholic, going through this article might help you reflect on your own drinking habits as well as the habits of those around you. We will also discuss some modern support systems that can help with moderation, depending on your needs or your loved ones’ needs for support.
What is Alcohol Use Disorder?
In the past, people referred to Alcohol Use Discover (AUD) as alcoholism, alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, or addiction. But now AUD is the preferred term and is used to describe a person’s problematic relationship with alcohol, which falls along a spectrum of severity. It’s also a disorder that’s increasing, with about 29 million American adults reported to have some type of AUD in 2021.
Technically, AUD is considered a brain disorder and can be mild, moderate, or severe. Executive functioning brain circuits can become dysregulated, which can lead to excessive alcohol consumption. Neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and opioid systems are all affected.
While heavy drinking can be associated with a variety of health issues, practicing moderation and mindfulness can be a preventative, proactive approach to alcohol use.
Mindfulness-based interventions can help with AUD and improve overall mental health. Consequently, it might also mitigate the associated risks of liver and cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and learning or memory problems.
What Leads to Alcoholism?
AUD doesn’t happen overnight, and many factors contribute to its development, such as:
- Frequent binge or heavy drinking — Now and then might not be an issue, but the risk of developing a dependence on alcohol increases with frequency.
- Starting at an early age. People who begin drinking — especially binge drinking — at an early age are at a higher risk of alcohol use disorder.
- Mental health conditions — Depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are all linked to problems with alcohol use.
- History of trauma — We often think of trauma as one single event, but the risk of AUD can also increase from years of chronic stress due to emotional or financial instability (both in childhood and adulthood).
- Genetics and family history — It’s partially hereditary but also learned through our environment (family, society, etc.).
Fortunately, evidence-based treatment with support groups, behavioral therapies, and even medication can lead to a healthier relationship with alcohol. Of course, for that to begin, awareness has to come first.
Understanding Where You Fall on the Spectrum of Alcohol Abuse
Understanding where one falls on the spectrum of alcohol disorders involves recognizing the various stages and signs of alcohol-related disorders. Here are some signs and stages to consider:
Early Stage Alcoholism: This stage is characterized by increased alcohol consumption and a developing tolerance for alcohol. Despite drinking more, the individual might not exhibit obvious signs of having a problem, but internally, they may be becoming more reliant on alcohol.
Middle & End Stage Alcoholism: As AUD progresses, the individual may neglect responsibilities, become defensive about their drinking habits, and might experience memory lapses or blackouts. Eventually, physical symptoms due to organ damage such as liver or heart failure can occur, like jaundice or swollen extremities can manifest, indicating advanced alcohol abuse.
High-Functioning Alcoholism: Some individuals maintain a semblance of normalcy in their daily lives while still excessively consuming alcohol. Recognizing this form of alcoholism can be challenging as the individual might be in denial or hide their drinking habits.
Signs of Alcohol Abuse: Warning signs can range from frequent hangovers, neglecting responsibilities, and risky behaviors such as unprotected sex or drunk driving. Over time, problems with relationships, work, or the law can emerge due to drinking. There might also be an increased focus on alcohol, leading to a neglect of hobbies and social commitments.
Physical and Mental Symptoms: These include cravings for alcohol, withdrawal symptoms when not drinking, loss of control over drinking habits, and increased tolerance. Over time, there might be evident physical health problems, sleep disturbances, and mental health issues like depression or anxiety.
For a comprehensive understanding and assessment, it’s often encouraged to seek professional guidance. This can help in getting a clear picture of where you might be on the spectrum and the best steps forward.
DSM-5: How is Alcohol Use Disorder Measured?
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, works to define and classify different mental health disorders. These questions were made to help health professionals understand if someone has mild, moderate, or severe AUD.
If you experienced at least two of these questions within the span of a year, with alcohol use leading to significant impairment or distress, it might be classified as mild AUD. If you can relate to four or five symptoms, it can be defined as moderate, and six or more symptoms might indicate severe AUD.
Am I Dependent on Alcohol? 10 Questions to Ask Yourself:
Here are some of the questions asked and how they might relate to your daily life:
1) Is Alcohol Affecting Your Mental Health?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Continued to drink even though it was making you feel depressed or anxious or adding to another health problem? Or after having had a memory blackout?
If you’re noticing you’re feeling more depressed or anxious because of alcohol but you’re continuing to drink, it might be a sign that you’re developing an addiction.
You might also find yourself using alcohol as a way to cope with uncomfortable emotions, creating a cycle of dependence.
2) Is Alcohol Taking up a Lot of Your Time and Energy?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over other aftereffects?
It’s not just the drinking part that’s taking up your time. There’s also all the energy spent just thinking about alcohol or weighing whether or not you should go buy it. You might not even realize how many thoughts of alcohol take up your day, wondering when your next drink will be. And of course, there’s all the time and energy lost to recovering from drinking too much.
3) Do You Get Strong Cravings for Alcohol or Uncontrollable Urges?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Wanted a drink so badly you couldn’t think of anything else?
Strong cravings and urges can be a sign of becoming dependent on alcohol. It might develop from using it as an emotional release or simply out of habit at the end of the day. It’s also worth considering how easy it is for you to reject those urges and reflect on the pros and cons. Developing habits around reflecting on the why behind your drinking is a helpful practice that can reframe your reliance on drinking.
4) Do You Experience a Loss of Control When Drinking Alcohol?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than you intended? More than once wanted to cut down or stop drinking, or tried to, but couldn’t?
A loss of control can range from the uncontrollable urge to drink to the inability to limit your drinks. There’s also the behavior while you’re drinking to consider. Do you become a different person, display extreme emotions, or act out?
5) How Hard Is It For You to Reduce Your Alcohol Consumption?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
Even though you know your alcohol use is causing problems, you can’t seem to change your drinking habits. You might have tried many times, but something seems to keep blocking you from long-lasting change.
It’s also worth noting that just knowing you should reduce your drinking without a plan in place or a mindset shift can make notable progress difficult. Building habits around consistent steps to reducing your drinking can be a valuable skill.
6) Are You Neglecting Important Responsibilities?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Found that drinking—or being sick from drinking—often interfered with taking care of your home or family? Or caused job troubles? Or school problems?
Whether it’s work, school, family, or friends, your alcohol use is getting in the way. Maybe you can hide it at work, but your partner is feeling neglected. It’s not an all-or-nothing deal, any issue in one of these areas of your life that’s because of alcohol use is a sign.
7) Do You Have Fewer Activities and Hobbies That Excite You?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
Maybe you used to play sports, dance, see certain friends, or just take a walk about the block more often. Whatever it is that you enjoyed doing, you’re not doing it so much anymore.
8) Do You Put Yourself in Dangerous Situations Because of Alcohol?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… More than once gotten into situations while or after drinking that increased your chances of getting hurt (such as driving, swimming, using machinery, walking in a dangerous area, or having unsafe sex)?
Our decision-making abilities tend to take a nose-dive while drinking. This can easily lead to choices we’d never normally make, like drunk driving, walking in a dangerous area, or unsafe sex.
9) Is Your Tolerance of Alcohol Increasing?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Had to drink much more than you once did to get the effect you want? Or found that your usual number of drinks had much less effect than before?
You might be developing an increased tolerance to alcohol, always needing a bit more to get the effect you want. Think back to when you didn’t drink as much, or maybe pick a time, like one year ago — are you drinking more now?
10) Do You Experience Physical Withdrawal Symptoms?
DSM-5: In the past year, have you… Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, a racing heart, or a seizure? Or sensed things that were not there?
We all know how wonderful a hangover feels, but is it happening more and more often? Are you now wanting to drink to avoid a hangover or withdrawal symptoms? You might feel nauseous, sweaty, shaky, or have a hard time sleeping without alcohol.
Is AA or Rehab The Only Solution For Heavy or Excessive Drinking?
While many people can find programs like Alcoholics Anonymous helpful and highly effective, these all-or-nothing solutions are not the only ones that exist. For some people, full sobriety is the only way to support their dependence on alcohol, but moderation or mindfulness approaches have been proven to be highly effective as well.
Moderation or mindful drinking practices rely on building healthier habits and relationships with alcohol over time, instead of forcing someone into abstinence, a treatment program, or shaming them for their alcohol use.
Mary Reid, Executive Director of Moderation Management says many people still believe that AA meetings are the only support options for people who are concerned about their drinking. However, MM offers daily Zoom Meetings and private online support communities for people who want to reduce their drinking while SMART Recovery offers support for people who want to abstain but find 12-step programs do not align with their personal beliefs.
If you’re still not sure about how healthy your drinking habits are, observing your habits and reaching out to professionals can help.
Learn skills to drink more mindfully and stop binge drinking here.
Where Can You Get Started With Seeking Support With Alcohol Consumption:
If you’re wondering if you might be struggling with an alcohol use disorder, it’s commendable that you’re considering resources to understand and manage your alcohol consumption. Here are some resources that might help:
Understanding Alcohol Use Disorder: The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) provides a comprehensive overview of Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD), which can help you understand the spectrum of alcohol-related conditions.
Moderation Management (MM): Unlike programs that insist on abstinence, MM believes that some people can moderate their drinking. It offers guidelines and support groups to help individuals reduce their consumption to healthier levels.
Effects of Alcohol on the Body: Healthline offers a detailed exploration of how alcohol impacts both physical health and mental well-being, which might give you insights into its effects on you.
Psychotherapy: Seeking therapy can be beneficial. Therapists can offer coping mechanisms, strategies for moderation, and deeper insights into the reasons behind one’s drinking habits.
Personal Narratives: Personal stories, like the one shared by Brené Brown on her sobriety journey, might offer insights and inspire individuals considering moderation or abstinence.
Other Options for Seeking Support with Alcohol:
Schedule a check-up with your doctor. Ask for a full blood work analysis and check for any vitamin deficiencies or chronic health conditions that may be affecting your improvement. Be honest about any struggles you’re facing and consider asking for a psychiatry referral so you can explore options related to medication, if needed.
Try going to a meeting (i.e. AA). If the structure of attending meetings is something that can help you stay accountable, it could be worth attending a virtual or in-person meeting to help share your own and hear about other people’s experiences. You can search for meeting locations nearby to help you.
Reach out to a close friend or family member so you have someone to confide in. Talking to someone close to you can be a helpful way to discuss your struggles with someone who can speak to you compassionately.
Consider an app or habit-tracking solution like Sunnyside for extra support. Using a habit-tracking app like Sunnyside is another great way to find more moderate or mindful approaches to gaining control over your drinking. You can get support from coaches when you’re feeling stuck, as well as access the community within the app to share stories of your experiences anonymously and get peer support. Sunnyside also offers alcohol reset challenges that you can take to help reduce your consumption, without judgment and without feeling pressured to quit if the idea of drinking less and cutting back resonates more with you.
Finding the Solution That Works for You Is Most Important
Lastly, remember that everyone’s relationship with alcohol is unique. It might be helpful to consult a healthcare professional for personalized advice.
With Sunnyside, you can learn how to track your drinks and set manageable goals for healthier drinking habits (if you’re ready for that). The quiz can also just let you know where you stand and offer some easy pressure-free ways to begin becoming more aware. Plus, you’ll get regular tips, a community ready to support you, and one-to-one help from trained coaches.
Remember it’s ok to start slow. If taking the quiz and simply watching how much you drink sounds good to you, that’s great!
We’re here to support you, no judgment attached.
Frequently Asked Questions:
What is an alcohol tracker app?
A Sunnyside subscription starts at $8.75/mo, less than the cost of two drinks. Everyone starts with a 15-day free trial to test it out. And we’re nice about refunds if it’s truly not right for you. What are the benefits of tracking alcohol intake?
We employ proven habit change techniques like pre-commitment, conscious interference, and belief and positivity. Our methods are reviewed by habit change and alcohol use experts. Learn more. Is Sunnyside a free alcohol tracker app?
We believe that everyone who drinks can benefit from more mindfulness and healthier habits. You can join Sunnyside no matter what your starting point is, and we’ll help you hit your goals. Sunnyside offers a 15-day free trial, and you can cancel at any time. Is my data secure?
We take data privacy and security very seriously. We never sell your information or use your drinking data for marketing tactics. Review our Privacy Principles. Do I have to talk to a coach?
Definitely not. Talking to a coach is completely optional. You can take advantage of the planning, tracking, behavior change, analytics, and amazing results without ever talking to anyone. Who uses Sunnyside?
The Sunnyside community is made of thousands of people who enjoy drinking but want to create more mindfulness around their consumption. We’re moms, dads, professionals, students, and everyone in between.