Ask a Therapist: How Do I Know If My Drinking Is a Problem?

How to Assess and Address Your Alcohol Habits

A woman walks among alcohol bottles.

Verywell / Julie Bang

In the “Ask a Therapist” series, I’ll be answering your questions about all things mental health and psychology. Whether you are struggling with a mental health condition, coping with anxiety about a life situation, or simply looking for a therapist's insight, submit a question. Look out for my answers to your questions every Friday in the Healthy Mind newsletter.

A Reader Asks

I am drinking a lot during the pandemic. I assumed everyone else was doing the same, but my friends seem to drink a lot less than me. I drink when I’m lonely, bored, or even when I'm happy. I’m starting to worry that I may have a problem. What should I do?

Amy Answers

Like many people, it sounds like you initially sought alcohol because you thought it was a solution. It might have temporarily offered relief from boredom or loneliness. But over time, you may be noticing that alcohol is creating more problems for you—not actually solving anything. Fortunately, there are many different things you can do to curb your drinking.

Signs of a Problem

Although you’ve noticed your friends aren’t drinking as much, you aren’t the only one to increase your alcohol intake during the pandemic. Many people are using alcohol to cope with the stress of everyday life right now. But turning to alcohol to cope also means many people are at an increased risk of health problems, substance use disorders, relationship trouble, and mental health problems.

The line between alcohol use and misuse doesn’t just depend on how many drinks you have or how often you drink. Instead, it depends on whether your use causes problems in your life.

So while one person may have a few drinks every week without experiencing any repercussions, someone else might experience serious problems when they consume the same amount of alcohol.

Alcohol becomes a problem when it causes social or relationship problems. Perhaps you argue with your partner when you’re drinking, or maybe you become the loud person who embarrasses their friends in a restaurant.

Legal problems can be another red flag. Whether you drove while intoxicated or got into a fight with someone when you were under the influence, police involvement is a sign that your alcohol intake is causing problems in other areas of your life.

Occupational problems are also a sign of trouble. Taking time off from work because you’re hungover or secretly drinking while you’re at work could be signs of a problem. It’s also important to consider whether drinking is affecting your physical or mental health. If you continue to drink despite health issues or even when it’s taking a toll on your mood, it may be a sign you have a problem.

Step back and ask yourself, what kind of problems is my drinking creating?

Strategies to Try on Your Own

Since you are worried about how much alcohol you are consuming, try taking some steps to change your drinking habits. It’s unclear from your question exactly how much you’re drinking. If you’re drinking a lot or you’ve been drinking daily, you might experience withdrawal symptoms when you stop. Withdrawal symptoms should be monitored by a medical professional.

A good place to start is by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP(4357). They can direct you to resources in your area and provide advice on options.

Here are some other strategies you might try:

  • Set a goal for yourself. Decide how often and how much you want to drink. For reference, healthy men are usually encouraged to drink no more than 14 standard drinks per week. For healthy women, that number is capped at 7 drinks per week. You might decide to quit drinking altogether or you might set a limit on how many drinks you have in a day or a week.
  • Keep track of your drinking. It’s easy to underestimate how much you’re consuming, especially during the pandemic where you may be drinking at home. Writing down how much and how often you’re drinking can raise your awareness. Start keeping a log to help you see how much you’re consuming every day.
  • Create a list of reasons why you want to cut back/stop. What are the reasons you want to stop drinking? List the benefits of not drinking and the reasons you’d like to stop. When you’re tempted to reach for alcohol, read over the list.
  • Don’t keep alcohol in the house. If your house is well-stocked with alcohol, you’ll likely drink more and more often. So while it may not be safe to go out and drink right now, stocking up on alcohol at home likely isn’t a good idea either.
  • Try other coping skills. Pay attention to how you’re feeling when you’re tempted to drink. Are you sad? Bored? Lonely? Try using other coping strategies first. You might find reading a book, listening to music, going for a walk, calling a friend, or watching a movie can also help you cope with uncomfortable feelings.
  • Get support. There are many places where you can support from other people. From AA meetings (which you can attend online or in-person right now) to apps, there are many ways to get support.

Take an Online Screening Test

You might take a free online screening test to assess how big of a problem alcohol is for you right now. There are several different types of screening tests and you can access them from many different places.

A screening test could give you a little more feedback about whether your drinking is a problem. But, a screening test shouldn’t be a substitute for medical advice. Regardless of the screening results, it’s important to talk to a professional to get more information.

Talk to a Professional

A professional can give you information about drinking, risk factors for substance abuse, and strategies for managing or quitting alcohol. Even if you don’t think you have a problem, talking to a professional might give you the information you need to ensure you have a healthy relationship with alcohol.

You might start by talking to your physician. Discuss your drinking patterns and any concerns you have.

You also might reach out to a therapist. A therapist can assess your habits and make recommendations that could help you manage your alcohol intake.

They may also help you discover alternative coping skills to deal with uncomfortable feelings since you said you drink to cope with things like loneliness and boredom. If you have other coping skills you can reach for you, you may be less likely to turn to alcohol to help you regulate your feelings.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.