Heavy Drinking or Alcoholism? Questions to Answer

Written by Chris Clancy

The line between heavy drinking and alcoholism can be hard to detect, especially if you are starting to question your own drinking habits. Many people who have experienced consequences like frequent hangovers, blackouts, regretted decisions, interpersonal problems, or even arrests like DUIs, may find themselves asking, “Could I be an alcoholic?” Long before well-known symptoms like cravings or getting “the shakes” between drinks set in, traits of problem drinking can be seen by looking at certain aspects of how and why you drink.

According to the National Institute of Health, binge drinking is defined as having 4 or more drinks on a single occasion for women and 5 or more drinks per occasion for men. Heavy drinking is defined as engaging in binge drinking 5 or more times a month. These definitions may be surprising to many people, especially those in cultures, families, or professional groups in which heavy drinking is common, but research has shown that those who drink at these levels are at a much higher risk of developing drinking problems.

When heavy drinking crosses a certain threshold of severity, a person may be diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder (AUD), commonly referred to as alcoholism. If you are concerned about your drinking, the following questions from the National Institute of Health can help you evaluate if you may have an AUD.

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?
  • Spent a lot of time drinking? Or being sick or getting over the aftereffects?
  • Experienced craving — a strong need, or urge, to drink?
  • 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?
  • Continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?
  • Given up or cut back on activities that were important or interesting to you, or gave you pleasure, in order to drink?
  • 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)?
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • Found that when the effects of alcohol were wearing off, you had withdrawal symptoms, such as trouble sleeping, shakiness, irritability, anxiety, depression, restlessness, nausea, or sweating? Or sensed things that were not there?

Answering yes to any of the above questions indicates that you have symptoms of an alcohol use disorder. The more symptoms in this list you have experienced, the more urgent it is that you consult with an alcohol treatment professional to further analyze your risk of experiencing the health and psychological problems caused by an AUD. Unfortunately, less than 10% of the people with alcohol use disorders make it into treatment each year. Research has shown that treatment with evidence-based practices can greatly enhance your chances of overcoming an alcohol use disorder and help you avoid the many severe consequences of alcoholism.

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