Not All Problem Drinkers Are Alcoholics

Mature woman sitting on the couch with a glass of wine

ljubaphoto / Getty Images

Many people who fall into the category of "problem drinker" aren't alcoholics. In order to quit drinking, they don't necessarily need medical treatment, peer group support, or a spiritual awakening.

In fact, most of the people who decide to stop drinking do so without any outside help. They simply make up their minds to stop or modify their drinking patterns. Many one-time heavy drinkers merely "grow up" and change their behaviors.

Others may have a particularly embarrassing or frightening experience and swear off alcohol. It bears repeating, however, that these people are probably not alcoholics.

What the Research Says

A survey by the University of Toronto revealed that more than 70% of recovered problem drinkers said they overcame their alcohol troubles without formal treatment.

A similar study in the United States by psychiatrist George Vaillant, at Cambridge Hospital in Massachusetts, reported that 75% of people who either quit or cut down on drinking did so without the benefit of treatment or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

These findings are consistent with studies indicating that 80% to 90% of successful quitters give up smoking without professional help. So, if you have a drinking problem, there is a chance that you can do something about it without expensive medical help and attending meetings.

Even daily drinkers may not actually be experiencing the disease of alcoholism, according to these studies. Such a drinker may need initial medical assistance to get through the detoxification period but may be able to remain sober after detox without further assistance.

Remember: Giving up alcohol without medical intervention ("going cold turkey") can be dangerous for people who drink frequently and heavily. If your body has become chemically dependent on the substance, you should get help. Don't try to stop on your own.

Problem Drinking vs. Alcoholism

If you think that you are a problem drinker but not an alcoholic, and you would sincerely like to cut back or quit drinking, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) has some tools that might be helpful. You may take a questionnaire to help determine if you are drinking too much, learn the reasons you should cut down, and review a tool for setting personal goals.

You can also use a sample "drinking diary" to review how much you actually drink to set goals for cutting back or stopping entirely.

The NIAA also provides tips to help you meet your goal, such as watching how much alcohol you keep around the house. You can also learn to drink slowly, take a break from alcohol at certain times, and say no when drinking opportunities arise.

For people who have alcoholism, on the other hand, all the willpower and self-resolve is often not enough. Folks who have tried repeatedly to curtail or quit drinking and found that they simply cannot commonly require outside help to do so, either from the treatment center industry or from a self-help program or recovery program such as AA.

Support is also available for the families of people with a drinking problem, regardless of whether the drinker is an alcoholic or a problem drinker. If someone else's drinking has posed challenges for you, there are resources available to help you find peace.

Was this page helpful?