Maybe you like to enjoy a glass of wine at the end of the day to unwind, but lately, it’s turned into two or three. Or perhaps you consider yourself a social drinker, but you use social events as an opportunity to let loose, placing no limits on your alcohol consumption. Either way, it can be tough to determine whether your drinking has become problematic.
But when it comes to alcohol consumption, what is normal, and what Is not? The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), defines moderate drinking as two or fewer drinks per day in men and one or fewer drinks per day in women.
On the other hand, consuming over four drinks per day or 14 drinks per week for men, or over three drinks per day or seven drinks per week for women is considered heavy drinking.
Still, defining heavy or problem drinking isn’t black and white, says Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, MS, CASAC, an addiction specialist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York, NY.
Many people don’t fall into the stereotypical extremes of social/normal drinking vs. problematic/alcoholic drinking. Instead, individuals who consume alcohol can fall on a broad spectrum, Sternlicht says.
Whether you know your drinking is out of control or you’re not quite sure, here are five warning signs of problem drinking to look out for.
You Hide Your Drinking From Others
Hiding alcohol consumption can take many forms, says Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist, Columbia University Teachers College faculty member, and founder and clinical director of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services in Manhattan and Queens, NY.
For example, it can literally mean hiding bottles of alcohol in a closet or the garage, secretly imbibing so that your family members can’t see you. Or it can mean drinking before going out to dinner with friends, says Hafeez.
Say your friends typically order a drink or two, and you don’t want to appear to be an alcoholic at dinner by drinking more than them. So maybe you “pregame it and drink at home or another bar before dinner, says Hafeez – that way, you can drink more without anyone knowing.
When individuals begin to hide their drinking from others, they’re probably aware that they have a problem with alcohol, Sternlicht says. But instead, they’re hiding it to avoid judgment or prevent others from trying to stop their drinking.
You’re in Denial With Yourself About How Much You’re Really Drinking
Denial allows a person to maintain their drinking despite its negative consequences, says Sternlicht. And, believe it or not, it’s possible to be in denial with yourself.
For one thing, after several drinks, it is easy to lose track, says Hafeez. What’s more, individuals may justify the amount of alcohol they consumed with rationales such as, ‘It is a special occasion,’ ‘I didn’t act drunk,’ ‘I wasn’t driving,’ ‘Everyone else around me had the same amount,’ or ‘I didn’t drink all week,’ she says.
“As with any addictive behavior, people typically do not want to admit they have a problem,” says Hafeez. That’s particularly true if they haven’t experienced any negative consequences from drinking, such as impaired relationships or problems at work.
You’re Experiencing Frequent Blackouts
Blackouts are lapses in a person’s memory that occur while intoxicated, says Hafeez. For example, somebody might drink heavily at dinner, wake up in the morning, and not remember what they are. They may only recall parts of the dinner conversation, or perhaps none at all. They may not even remember how they got home, she says.
Although having a single blackout in and of itself does necessarily indicate a pervasive drinking issue, experiencing repeated blackouts is a sign of a problem, says Sternlicht.
“Continuing to drink alcohol excessively despite a history of alcohol-induced blackouts (or any alcohol-induced memory lapse) is a sign of problematic drinking behavior, Stenlicht says. Ultimately, you’re choosing alcohol over your own safety and wellbeing.
You’re Failing to Deliver on Your Responsibilities
Failure to take care of school, work, chores, caregiving, or other important life responsibilities due to alcohol use is another sign of problem drinking, says Sternlicht.
‘This may mean that you are choosing to use your time to drink instead of doing [other things you enjoy]. Or, it may mean that you were unable to get up the following day with a clear mind and body to fulfill your obligations,” Sternlight says. In either case, you are prioritizing alcohol.
Drinking excessively can result in feeling hungover the next morning, making it hard to get up and perform optimally at work, adds Hafeez.
“Those who drink to excess tend to call in sick more frequently, make more mistakes on the job, feel lethargic while at work, find it hard to concentrate, and can have difficult workplace relationships,” Hafeez says.
You’re Drinking to Get Drunk or to Escape Reality.
If your goal is to get drunk or reach a certain level of excessive impairment, it’s a sign of problem drinking, says Sternlicht. “The goal of social drinking should be to have a greater focus on the social aspect rather than on the drinking aspect,” he says.
Whereas social drinkers are aware of when they have had too much to drink and can stop drinking when they have reached their limit, problematic drinkers are often unable to stop drinking, Sternlicht says.
Some people turn to alcohol to escape reality or to alleviate unwanted mental health symptoms such as stress, anxiety, or depression, Sternlicht says, but relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism is unhealthy. And though alcohol may help relieve symptoms in the short term, he says it can actually make them worse in the long term.
If you’re still unsure whether you have a problem, Sternlicht recommends asking yourself the simple question, ‘Is alcohol causing me a problem in any area of my life?’ Consider your mental health, physical health, sleep hygiene, relationships, and work or school responsibilities.
“If the answer is yes, then your relationship with alcohol may be something that you want to take a closer look at,” Sternlicht says.
Awareness is always the first step, Sternlicht says. Then, if you have the desire, there are many pathways to changing your problematic drinking behavior. While individuals with mild issues may be able to stop or moderate their drinking all on their own, those with more moderate to severe drinking issues may need to seek professional help by seeing a therapist or attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings.
Individuals with more pervasive drinking problems, such as those who drink alcohol daily, may require a detox under medical supervision to ensure safety and avoid withdrawal symptoms that can be fatal, says Sternlicht.
By Heidi Borst