Signs Your Relationship with Alcohol Might Not Be Healthy

By Amy Marturana Winderl, C.P.T.

Medically reviewed by Jenny C. Yip, Psy.D., ABPP

At the end of a long, stressful day, it might feel natural to reach for a beer or a glass of wine. After all, many people like to let loose and relax with a drink in hand. But at what point does this casual, happy-go-lucky drinking drift toward something a little unhealthy?

Overall, social drinking is typically considered low-risk, as long as you’re imbibing in “moderation.” “People and societies might define ‘social drinking’ very differently, but generally it means drinking within a set of social norms and in a way that does not put someone at risk,” Sheila Specker, M.D., associate professor and addiction psychiatrist in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Minnesota, tells ishonest.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sets these limits to no more than one drink per day for people assigned female at birth and no more than two drinks a day for people assigned male at birth, per the most recent Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

Everyone’s personal relationship with alcohol is a bit different, but in general, when your booze intake starts to exceed these guidelines, then your drinking may start to skew into risky territory—and this can happen more slowly and discreetly than you might realize. “It can creep up on people and that’s the insidious nature of it,” John Kelly, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry in addiction medicine at Harvard Medical School and founder and director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells ishonest. “People don’t realize they’re running into a problem with drinking until they cross the line into compulsive behavior.”

They can be hard to spot if you’re not looking, but certain warning signs signal a greater drinking problem. Here are the red flags to keep an eye out for—and what to do if you think you or someone you know might need help.

1. People close to you are concerned about your drinking.

Having a friend, family member, or even a colleague confront you about your drinking is one of the first major signs of alcohol misuse. “If you’re finding that people are starting to say things like, ‘I notice you drink a lot,’ or ‘You’re drunk again?’ or there’s concern expressed from those close to you, that’s usually an early warning sign,” Dr. Kelly says.

If you’re approached about your behavior around booze, then it’s likely already interfering with your daily life in a negative way, even if you haven’t realized or accepted it yet. For example, if you tend to get into arguments with your friends or family members when you’ve had one too many cocktails—say, you start losing your temper more easily over something that wouldn’t normally bother you —then you may want to consider how your alcohol consumption is playing a role in those conflicts, Dr. Kelly explains. Another crucial thing to consider: If your loved ones seem worried and you still want to continue drinking or feel like you can’t stop even if you think their fears are valid, that’s a sign your habit is veering toward an alcohol use disorder, according to the American Addiction Centers.

2. You’re starting to worry about your drinking habits, too.

If you start to worry about how much you’re drinking and how it’s affecting your life, then that’s another pretty good sign that something isn’t right. Do questions like “Am I drinking too much?” or “When was the last time I went without drinking?” cross your mind? If so, it’s really important to think about your answers. If you respond with, “Yes, probably” or “I can’t remember,” that's a major red flag.

4. You often end up drinking more than you expected to.

If you’ve been going into the night planning to have one drink but end up having much more than you intended, that could be a sign that you didn’t feel entirely in control over your alcohol consumption, Dr. Specker says.

Of course, we all can get a little carried away when a birthday party ends up being too much fun. You had an extra drink or two and you stayed out longer than planned—that’s not necessarily concerning. But if you’re often drinking more than you planned to because you feel compelled to keep drinking for no particular reason, as a means to cope with uncomfortable feelings, or because you feel like you just can’t stop, that can signal a greater problem.

5. You’re constantly thinking about your next drink.

The early warning signs of an alcohol use disorder aren’t always obvious, but here’s a big one to note: You may notice that drinking is becoming the center of your world. “Over time, alcohol can start to play an abnormally high role and take an abnormally high priority in people’s lives,” Dr. Kelly says. “People start to plan their day around drinking. Or they start to look forward to going out or finding a way to drink or a reason to justify the alcohol.”

If you’re cutting back on things you genuinely want to do—like going to the gym or spending time with best friends in a sober setting—because you prefer to go home for that glass of wine, that might be a sign that you’re becoming reliant on alcohol to get through the day, Gail D’Onofrio, M.D., professor of emergency medicine and chair of the department of emergency medicine at the Yale School of Medicine, tells ishonest.

It’s no secret that alcohol impacts your reaction time and decision-making skills. In fact, even having just two drinks—which leads to an average blood alcohol concentration of .02%, depending on your weight and tolerance—can make it hard for you to do two things at once or see moving objects accurately, according to the CDC. Once you hit three drinks, you start to lose coordination, alertness, and overall judgment in emergency situations.

What to do if you think you or a loved one is drinking too much

If you’ve decided it’s time to overhaul your relationship with alcohol, think about what kind of support will best serve you right now. This looks different for everyone, but for many people, reaching out to a trusted friend, family member, or mentor is often the first step. “Especially early on when you’re cutting back, having an accountability buddy who keeps an eye on you and reminds you to stay within certain boundaries can be very helpful,” Dr. Specker says.

If you don’t know where to start, then consider talking to your primary care doctor if you have one. They can connect you with a specialist who is well- versed in alcohol use disorder, Dr. Specker says. The NIAAA website has information about alcohol misuse treatment options (such as talk therapy and medications), in addition to links to support groups (including secular groups and groups for people who identify as female). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is another source of information and it even has a national confidential hotline—1-800-662-HELP (4357)—on its homepage that can help you identify the kind of support that might be best for you.

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