Have you ever felt like alcohol might be playing too big a role in your life? Like it’s starting to impact your professional life, your relationships, and possibly even your health?
If so, you’re not alone.
A 2019 report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism indicated that 25.8% of people ages 18 and older engaged in binge drinking over the past month. Furthermore, 6.3% of people in the same age group reported heavy alcohol use in the past month. (For context, heavy alcohol use means consuming more than 4 drinks on a given day, or over 14 drinks per week, for men. And for women, it means consuming more than 3 drinks on a given day, or over 7 drinks per week.)
According to the World Health Organization, harmful alcohol use leads to significant social and economic consequences on both a personal and societal level. Furthermore, drinking too much alcohol has been pinpointed as a causal factor for over 200 injury conditions and diseases.
So, which signs indicate that we’re drinking too much?
Sign #1: Increased tolerance to alcohol
Did you used to feel a steady buzz with only one or two drinks, but now it takes three, four, or maybe five drinks to produce the same effect?
This is because our tolerance to alcohol increases the more we consume it. Just as our bodies learn to tolerate certain temperatures, foods, or smells, they get used to the presence of alcohol when we drink frequently and heavily. As a result, we need to drink more to achieve the same level of intoxication we once experienced with smaller amounts.
However, just because our bodies can tolerate more alcohol, doesn’t mean this is a good thing. We may not be able to see or feel the bodily changes that accompany an increased alcohol tolerance, but detrimental health effects begin to occur.
Tolerance happens because alcohol use alters our brain chemistry. When we drink alcohol, our brains release feel-good chemicals like dopamine into our systems. With this spike in dopamine, we feel greater pleasure, which can explain the euphoric feeling that can often arise after a few drinks.
However, as we continue to drink habitually, our brains get used to this artificial dopamine surge and release less dopamine on their own. This can explain why we may feel a bit emotionally out of sync after a night of drinking. As a result, we can end up dependent on alcohol, since it stimulates dopamine’s release, to make us feel happy again. We end up in a vicious cycle — often known as the hedonic treadmill — in which we drink more to feel alcohol’s effects.
Sign #2: Withdrawal symptoms when stopping alcohol consumption
If we’ve been drinking heavily for an extended amount of time, we may experience withdrawal symptoms when we reduce our intake, or when we quit drinking abruptly. This is why, at Reframe, we recommend taking a gradual approach to changing our drinking habits — by cutting back by 10% per week.
Withdrawal occurs because alcohol, a depressant, slows down our brain function when we become dependent on it. When we drink too much alcohol, our brains have to work harder to keep everything functioning properly.
When, all of a sudden, we stop flooding our nervous systems with alcohol, it’s like they’re saying, “Woah, what’s going on here?!” Our brains were already working in overdrive, and now that we’ve dramatically decreased our intake of the substance (alcohol) causing this flood, our brains have to struggle to recalibrate.
Withdrawal symptoms can include sweating, shaking, nausea, tremors, high blood pressure, vomiting, rapid heartbeat, and anxiety. In severe cases, seizures, confusion, agitation, fevers, and delirium tremens (a life-threatening form of withdrawal) can occur.
These symptoms can arise within a few hours to a few days after we take our last drink, and can last several days to a week. About 90% of us shouldn’t expect severe symptoms while undergoing withdrawal, but it can become serious. If this is the case, it’s important to contact a medical professional immediately.
Sign #3: Drinking alone or in secret
If we’re ashamed of our drinking habits, we may end up drinking alone or in secret. This is a sign that we’re trying to hide our drinking behaviors from others, and that we fear getting caught or “exposed.”
However, this will only lead to feelings of shame and guilt. We may also feel anxious about others finding out that we drink alone, and this can end up taking up a lot of our time and energy. Not to mention, it’ll only stress us out further, pushing us to drink more. (Are you noticing a pattern here — a lot of problems that arise with drinking too much occur when we get caught in these vicious cycles!)
If drinking alone or in secret is a problem for you, first of all, it’s important to show yourself self-compassion. This doesn’t make you less worthy or a bad person — it just means that there are struggles currently present in your life that push you to drink too much alcohol, and thus, hide this habit from others.
It can help to take stock of the emotions that arise when you have the urge to drink alone. Do you feel overwhelmed? Sad? Angry? Speaking with a qualified mental health professional can also help you determine the triggers behind your tendency to drink too much.
Sign #4: Neglecting responsibilities at home, work, or school
We’ve all got busy lives — from endless demands at work to our kids’ activity schedules to our own social calendars. As a result, we may enjoy coming home and unwinding with a glass of wine or a can of beer.
However, one drink can quickly turn into two, three, or more as we think to ourselves, “Just one more…”
Drinking too much alcohol can quickly push us to neglect responsibilities in our personal, academic, or professional lives. This can lead to poor performance, missed deadlines, and strained relationships, as we are no longer able to show up as our fullest, most present selves.
As we continue to falter in these other areas of our lives, alcohol can lure us in as a temporary antidote to our emotional pain.
Sign #5: Continuing to drink despite health problems or social repercussions
There’s no denying that alcohol can wreak havoc on our health and our relationships.
When we drink too much over time, this can manifest in a host of potential health problems like fatty liver disease, Type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and even certain cancers. For many, a health scare is often a much-needed “wake-up call” to change their drinking habits and prioritize their well-being.
If we continue to drink, despite health problems, this is a sign that we’ve become dependent on alcohol. The only way we can stop our health issues from progressing is to drastically cut back — or in many cases — quit alcohol completely.
Remember, when we’re in good health, we are better able to show up for those who matter to us, and can be more present in the experiences that make us happy.
Similarly, drinking too much may have led to relationship issues — whether that’s with our friends, our partner, our kids, or our colleagues. This illustrates the fact that our drinking habits not only impact us, but extend outwards to others in our lives. When we drink too much, this can lead to strained relationships with others. In some cases, relationships may end when we drink too much alcohol.
This is why it’s important to seek help from a professional if drinking problems are interfering with your health and/or your relationships. Though alcohol can convince us that it’s helping us — especially once we’re dependent on it — nothing is worth our relationships or our well-being.
Sign #6: Difficulty controlling how much alcohol is consumed
There are many people who know their limits and are able to stick to them.
However, many of us may struggle to say “no” when people offer us alcohol, or feel tempted to continue drinking to carry out a buzz.
This can be problematic, as we can quickly lose track of how much we are drinking. When we don’t control how much alcohol we’re consuming, it can impair our judgment, our balance, and even our memory (more on this in the next section).
Sign #7: Blackouts or memory loss
Fuzzy memories — or perhaps no memories at all — are a frequent result of a night of drinking too much. Blackouts can often occur when we consume excessive amounts of alcohol. They’re not only frustrating (entire sections of our night might feel like a giant “blank”), but they’re causing a lot of damage to our brains, as well.
An alcohol blackout is a state where a person is unable to remember events that took place while they were under the influence of alcohol. This occurs because alcohol interferes with the formation of new memories in the brain, specifically in a region known as the hippocampus. When we aren’t under the influence of alcohol, the brain processes information into our short-term memory, and from here, information can further be encoded into our long-term memory.
During a blackout, a person may appear to be functioning normally, but they will have no memory of these events once the alcohol wears off. Alcohol blackouts can be dangerous because a person may engage in risky behavior without remembering the consequences, and blackouts can also have long-term effects on memory and brain function.
For this reason, we’ve created a drink tracker in our app. We want to make sure that you’re able to go out and have fun, but do so in a mindful and responsible way, to avoid the risk of blackouts or other adverse consequences.
Sign #8: Dependence on alcohol to relax or cope with stress
Life is stressful, there’s no doubt about that. We may find ourselves reaching for a glass of wine or a can of beer to unwind. Our brains can then begin to associate alcohol with stress relief, and can push us to drink to “take the edge off.”
When we begin to feel like we need to drink in order to relax or feel better, this can be a sign of alcohol dependency. This can lead to a cycle in which we drink to relieve anxiety or stress, but then experience even more anxiety and stress due to our excess alcohol consumption.
Instead of numbing out with alcohol, it’s important that we learn to deal with uncomfortable feelings in a healthy manner. The Reframe app has a wide selection of activities you can turn to when stressful feelings arise (that don’t involve alcohol!). Some of these activities include meditations, community meetings, and even games that help combat alcohol cravings.
What is "Grey Area Drinking"?
It’s important to discuss “grey area drinking” while we’re on the topic of drinking too much alcohol. What exactly is this?
“Grey area drinkers” include men who drink 14 or fewer drinks per week or 4 or fewer drinks on any day. Men in this category typically consume more than 2 drinks on at least 1 day. “Grey area drinkers” also include women who drink 7 or fewer drinks per week or 3 or fewer drinks on any day. Women in this category typically consume more than 1 drink on at least 1 day.
People who find themselves in the grey area are able to stop drinking, but have a hard time doing so. They may not have had a “wake-up” call or major health scare, but too much drinking has begun to take its toll on their lives and overall health.
Alcohol can quickly take over our lives, as it provides quick relief from stress, and allows us to numb the most difficult emotions. However, this can quickly turn into drinking too much of it, which can leave negative effects on our health, relationships, and other important areas of our lives.
The first step in making positive change is knowing the signs of drinking too much, which we’ve done in this blog post!
The Reframe app can help you start developing healthier drinking habits, and can help you improve various other aspects of your life — from your relationships, your mental health, and even your workplace well-being. The changes you’ll experience as a result of healthier drinking habits are 100% worth it. We’re here to support you every step of the way… See you on the app!