What’s The Difference Between A Drinking Habit And An Alcohol Addiction?

Here’s how you can distinguish between casual drinking and a drinking problem.

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Recently, a friend told me about a co-worker that was openly drinking vodka during a virtual work meeting at 10:00 am. He qualified this story by sharing that people in his office have become increasingly casual while working from home. He then asked if he should be worried about his co-worker.

Obviously, without meeting this person, it is hard to determine whether they made a bad choice, or whether they have a problem…BUT, regardless, the behavior is potentially worrisome for a couple of reasons.

First, the context of the drinking raises red flags for me as a clinician- If this were a work dinner, a team outing, a work networking event, or perhaps a work happy hour, then I would probably not be concerned. But, this was a work meeting in the morning, when nobody else was drinking alcohol. I think it’s safe to say that most places of business would take issue with an employee openly consuming alcohol during a 10:00 am work meeting. If you are the only person drinking during a work event, then you might have a problem.

Second, if we take the work aspect out of the equation, we have someone drinking at 10:00 am while home alone on a weekday…For me, as a therapist, that raises a red flag. Why? Presumably, this person has not been awake for very long, and they are starting their day with a buzz. This can be a slippery slope that could lead to drinking throughout the day. Or, this could mean that the individual is drinking early in the morning to avoid the symptoms of a hangover. The real concern is that if they don’t find this to be problematic, there is a potential for day drinking to become a habit.

Whatever the truth may be about this person’s drinking habits, the best-case scenario here is that they have poor judgment (and only did this on one occasion). The worst-case scenario is that their alcohol use has escalated to such a high degree that they can no longer control or conceal it.

Societal Red Flags

Lately, I have noticed that a lot of people seem to be drinking a lot more than usual while they are quarantining at home. Whether this increase is due to anxiety, depression, a need for escape, or boredom, this seems to be a societal trend that is not unique to Americans.

During the press conferences, when the governor’s announced that only essential business would be staying open, I noticed that members of the press were quick to inquire about whether liquor stores were considered essential. Additionally, states have started to make allowances so that alcohol can be delivered to homes.

In the weeks since my conversation about drinking during morning work calls, I shared the anecdote with several people. I was met with a few different reactions. Most people felt that drinking during work hours, regardless of working from home, is problematic behavior. However, others were suspiciously quick to rationalize why the individual’s actions were not problematic. They vehemently explained that the co-worker probably does not usually do that. They went on to say that the person probably just drinks more during quarantine than they typically do. They further explained that since it’s probably just a quarantine thing, it’s probably not a big deal…I’m not going to lie, those oddly defensive reactions coming from people that did not even know the individual reeked of projection and caused me to wonder about their own quarantine drinking habits. Have they also been drinking during work meetings? Have they also been drinking all day?

Where Is The Line Between Habit And Addiction?

With so many people seemingly blurring the line between casual drinking and a potential problem, it got me thinking about whether people know how to recognize the difference. So, where is the line? How many drinks a day or in a week signify a problem?

Basic Facts About Alcohol Consumption

  • According to the National Institue on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a standard drink of alcohol is any drink that has 0.6 fluid ounces of pure alcohol.
  • Women drinking 4 or more drinks and men drinking 5 or more drinks within a 2 hour period is considered binge drinking.
  • The NIAAA defines heavy use as men drinking more than 4 drinks in a day, and women drinking more than 3 drinks in a day.
  • Persistent abuse of alcohol (binge drinking or heavy drinking) can lead to Alcohol Use Disorder.

What is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Mental health and medical professionals diagnose substance abuse problems using the criteria laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, or DSM-5. In the previous edition, there was a diagnosis of substance abuse and substance dependence. However, in the current edition, all addiction diagnoses fall under the umbrella of Substance Use Disorder with mild, moderate, and severe specifiers to indicate the severity.

What are the diagnostic criteria?

  • Impairment: The use of alcohol causes impairment in an individual’s life.
  • Amount: The individual consumes more alcohol or consumed alcohol for a longer duration of time than they meant to.
  • Control: The individual is not able to curb or control their alcohol use despite their efforts to do so.
  • Time: The individual spends a lot of time drinking, thinking about drinking, obtaining alcohol, or recovering from being intoxicated.
  • Cravings: The individual has powerful urges to consume alcohol.
  • Obligations: The individual’s use of alcohol prevents them from meeting significant life obligations (in relationships, at work, at school, etc.).
  • Consequences: The individual persists in drinking even when their drinking causes social and interpersonal conflicts.
  • Activities: The individual prioritizes alcohol over social, work, and recreational activities.
  • Physical Hazard: The individual continues to consume alcohol in potentially dangerous situations.
  • Physical & Psychological Problems: The individual continues to consume alcohol even though they know that their alcohol use has contributed to mental health and/ or physical health issues.
  • Tolerance: The individual needs to increase their consumption to feel intoxicated, or they no longer feel the effects when they consume the amount that formerly led to a feeling of intoxication.
  • Withdrawal: The individual consumes alcohol as the “hair of the dog” to avoid feeling hungover, or they experience two or more withdrawal symptoms when they stop drinking (sweating, increased heart rate, shaking, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations, anxiety, or seizures).

Severity: An individual with 2–3 of the symptoms above would be classified as mild. Someone with 4–5 of the symptoms above would be classified as moderate, and someone with 6 or more symptoms is classified as severe.

What Should You Do If You Think You Need Help?

As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step is to admit that you have a problem. This is a HUGE step for a lot of people, and it can be very difficult to come to this realization. Once you take this big step, the next big step that you should take is to reach out to a mental health professional, addiction treatment center, or your physician for help. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a very helpful treatment locator that can provide you with a list of local treatment options.

  • It can be dangerous for people that were drinking daily to quit cold turkey because there is a risk of having a withdrawal seizure. If you have been drinking daily, please seek medical advice before stopping your alcohol use (I know that this sounds counterproductive, but it is a safety issue).

What If You Don’t Have Alcohol Use Disorder, But You Want to Cut Back?

  • Try weighing the pros and cons of your alcohol use.
  • Think about new limits you want to set for yourself- how many drinks per week, the context of drinks, etc.
  • Track the number of drinks that you consume in a week.
  • Reflect on why you are drinking- Are you bored and trying to kill time? Are you feeling upset and trying to change your mood? Are you trying to make something unpleasant seem more fun?
  • Find other activities that address the need that you were trying to meet with alcohol. For example, if you were drinking because you have been feeling anxious, focus on activities that can help you address your anxiety.
  • Identify the things that trigger you to want to drink alcohol (celebrations, a fight, feeling upset, etc.). Try to notice triggers when they come up, and use one of your healthy coping strategies to manage negative emotions rather than drinking,
  • When you want to take a drink, try setting a timer for 20 minutes, do a fun activity, and wait until the 20 minutes are up before pouring a drink. Why? Most cravings only last between 10 and 20 minutes. You may find that when the 20 minutes are over, you don’t have the same urge to have a drink anymore.
  • Tell someone about your plan so that they can help you stay accountable.
  • Consider seeing a therapist that can help you with coping strategies.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that if you have recently started drinking more than usual or are uncomfortable with the amount that you are drinking, there is help out there if you need it!

Written by

Mental Health Counselor, Substance Abuse Counselor, Wellness Instructor, Digestive Illness Advocate & The Human Half of a Therapy Dog Team

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