Alcohol is the most accepted intoxicating substance on the planet. In the United States, approximately half of all persons over the age of 12 drink alcohol at least once per month, with 22.2% regularly binge drinking. Of those, some 28.3 million Americans or 10.2% of the total population qualifying as having an alcohol use disorder. Of those, just 1 in 10 received treatment of any kind, despite the fact that alcoholism has significant and damaging effects on mental and physical health.
Here, the first step to getting treatment and help is often recognizing that you have an issue. That can be difficult, as self-deception and denial are major symptoms of alcohol use disorder. If you or a loved one is struggling, it’s important to step back, assess what’s actually happening, and look at how alcohol impacts your life as a whole.
The following 7 warning signs can be a good place to start, but if you’re concerned, going to a mental or medical health professional is always a good call.
1. You Get Sick When You Stop Drinking
Physical dependence is one of the first symptoms of alcohol use disorder but it is completely separate from it. Here, physical dependence happens when you’re drinking so much and at such a frequency that having alcohol in your system becomes the new “normal” for your body. Alcohol affects parts of your central nervous system via a neurotransmitter known as GABA. When it does, it changes how your body has to respond to adequately handle motor controls, response time, inhibition, reflex control, etc.
Once your body adjusts to having a certain amount of alcohol in the system, you’ll experience shock when you don’t have it. That normally results in feeling sick. This may mean you feel like you have a bad hangover, it might also mean feeling like you’re having the worst flu of your life, uncontrollable tremors and shaking, or even seizures.
Whatever you’re experiencing, if you start feeling sick when you stop drinking, it means you’re drinking too much. Physical dependence doesn’t necessitate a substance use disorder, but the largest factor in substance use disorder is exposure, and physical dependence means very high exposure over a prolonged period.
2. You Sneak Drinks
If you’re drinking more than you want others to know, it’s a good sign you have a problem. That also holds true if it’s your loved one drinking and not yourself. Someone hiding bottles, refilling bottles, sneaking drinks at work, or slipping alcohol into their beverages when other people aren’t looking are not people who are in control.
That’s especially true with alcohol, which is often so universally accepted that people go drinking together after work. People drinking in situations where they think it’s acceptable don’t hide what they are doing. If you’re hiding alcohol use, it means you think you’re drinking too much, you think you’re drinking in situations where it’s not allowed or even dangerous, or you think you’re drinking in that situation is a problem and you don’t want others to notice but at the same time, can’t quit yourself.
In any of those cases, it’s a very good sign that you should are having problems with alcohol.
3. You Drink More Than You Intend
If you frequently start out your evening with the intent to drink one or two beers or another small amount of alcohol and end up binging or even blacking out, it’s a very good sign you’re not in control. People who can’t control themselves drinking alcohol once they start are almost always struggling with substance abuse issues. This means that, at the least, it’s a good idea to cut back, to not drink in many situations, and to look into getting help. Binging alcohol is never healthy, and if you do it more than a few times a year, it’s a good sign that you’re having problems.
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4. You Prioritize Drinking Too Much
Someone with a healthy relationship with alcohol will go to a party to spend time with friends, will drink where it’s socially acceptable, and will normally spend very little time thinking about alcohol. While trends in artisanal and craft alcohol have made something of a hobby of alcohol, most people who have alcohol as a hobby are concerned with flavor, aroma, etc., not being drunk. If you’re prioritizing drinking, thinking about being drunk, going through extra steps to ensure you can drink, etc., it might mean you have a problem.
For example, it’s okay and healthy to plan to have a ride home so you can drink safely. It’s less okay to spend half the day thinking about getting drunk, to drive half an hour out of your way to pick up alcohol, or to skip meals so you can get more drunk or so you can drink without ruining your diet.
When alcohol becomes the priority in any given situation, it’s normally problematic. When you do it more often, it may mean you have a problem.
5. You’re Drinking to Feel Better
Alcohol is well-known as a social lubricant, many people use it to de-stress to self-medicate, and to loosen up after a hard day. In tiny amounts, all of that is healthy and acceptable. But, when you do it more often, it becomes problematic. For example, if you’re regularly using alcohol to feel better, to socialize, to destress, or to improve how you manage stress, it means you have a problem. What is regularly? Generally, even once a week is a problem. Alcohol isn’t a medication and if you need it to feel better, it means you’re not coping in other ways.
6. You’re Experiencing Tolerance
Tolerance occurs when your body is accustomed to the amount of alcohol you’re drinking. Normally, it means the alcohol you’re drinking has less effect. You’ll have to drink more to achieve the same effect. Often, that leads to increasing binges, where you consume more and more alcohol over the course of the night, just to get that same loss of control and euphoric rush of being “drunk”.
Some amount of tolerance is a normal part of drinking alcohol. Almost no one will have the same lack of tolerance at 25 as they did at 16. At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge when you notice tolerance increasing, when your alcohol consumption goes up, and just how much you’re drinking on average.
7. You Can’t Quit
If you’ve tried to quit and failed, you need help. That’s true no matter what the reason for not quitting is. Often, we attempt to quit, something comes up, we don’t, sometimes with the intent of making that temporary. The thing is, no matter how valid your reasons for not quitting or for relapsing seem to you, they are just excuses and just reasons you’ve used to justify continuing drinking in your head. Even if you have valid life problems and need something to help you cope, alcohol should not be the thing that helps you cope.
That’s also true if you quit for a while, felt more in control, and then started drinking again – only to find that you’re not as much in control as you think. If you intended to quit and then ended up drinking again, it’s a good indicator that you’re having issues with substance use disorder.
Eventually, alcohol is a normal part of life for more than half of the population. At the same time, it is dangerous and addictive. Millions of people struggle with alcohol use disorder, and that disorder gets in the way of your ability to live a happy and healthy life. If you suspect you’re having issues, or your loved one is, it’s always a good thing to connect with a health professional, to discuss your mental and physical health, and to get help.