What Is a Problem Drinker?

Mature woman sitting on the couch with a glass of wine

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In This Article

Many people fall into the category of "problem drinker" but what does this label mean and how can it help you understand your relationship with alcohol?

A "problem drinker" is not an official diagnosis, but a phrase used to describe people who misuse alcohol but don't necessarily need medical treatment, peer group support, or a spiritual awakening to stop or modify their drinking patterns.

Often, having a sufficient reason to cut back—or a particularly embarrassing or frightening experience caused by drinking—is enough to signal a problem drinker to self-correct. Many one-time heavy drinkers merely "grow up" and change their behaviors.

How It Compares to Alcohol Use Disorder

If you have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), on the other hand, all the willpower and self-resolve is often not enough. Despite repeated attempts, a person with an AUD will likely not be able to curtail or quit drinking without outside help from a healthcare professional, addiction counselor, or self-help program or recovery program such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).

Labels aside, the biggest reason for understanding whether you are a problem drinker versus someone with a mild AUD is knowing when and how to get help. If left unchecked, alcohol misuse can have short- and long-term consequences on your relationships, job, finances, and overall physical and mental health.

Symptoms

One of the first steps in understanding your relationship with alcohol is learning how much alcohol is too much. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines the guidelines for low-risk drinking as follows:

  • Men: Four or fewer standard drinks on any single day and fewer than 14 drinks during a given week
  • Women: Three or fewer standard drinks a day and no more than seven drinks per week for women

If you're regularly exceeding these amounts, you could be putting your health and well-being in jeopardy as well as increasing your risk of an alcohol use disorder.

Honestly answering the following question is a great first step toward figuring if you need to cut back on your drinking or seek help for a mild, moderate, or severe AUD.

  • Do you have a family history of alcohol problems?
  • How much time do you spend each day and each week drinking?
  • Does alcohol occupy a lot of your time (buying it, drinking it, recovering from the effects)?
  • Has your tolerance changed? Do you need to drink more to achieve same desired effects?
  • Do you often drink more than you planned to drink?
  • Do you ever get an urge to drink or craving for alcohol?
  • Has your drinking ever caused an embarrassing situation?
  • Does your drinking ever put you in a risky or dangerous situation?
  • Has the effects of alcohol ever caused you to miss work or school?
  • Is drinking impacting your ability to care for your family?
  • Is drinking impacting your sleep or mood?
  • Have you ever tried to cut back on drinking? If so, were you able to do it?
  • Do you experience signs of withdrawal, including trouble sleeping, shakiness, restlessness, nausea, sweating, and a racing heart, when the effects of alcohol wear off.

Keeping a daily drinking diary, which includes how much you drink and the reasons you're drinking, can also help you identify any problematic patterns.

Tips for Cutting Back

Ultimately, it's up to you to weigh the pros and cons of your drinking. Consider taking some time to think about how improving your relationship with drinking could have a positive impact on your life.

Would it benefit your health, relationships, or career? Would you lose weight, be more productive, or save money? Now, think about the reasons why you might not want to change your drinking patterns.

If you think that you are a problem drinker, and you would sincerely like to cut back or quit drinking, the NIAAA has some tips and tools that might be helpful, including a questionnaire to help determine if you are drinking too much and a tool for setting personal goals.

Here is a sampling of some of the tips from the NIAAA on cutting back on drinking:

  • Set drinking goals. Designate which days of the week you can and can't drink, and how many drinks you'll have on those days.
  • Don't stock up on alcohol. Only buy limited amounts based on your personal drinking goals.
  • Drink slowly. Make sure you have no more than one drink per hour. You can also slow down your consumption by having a full glass of water in between drinks.
  • Practice saying no. If you plan to cut back on your drinking, there will be likely times when you'll have to turn down a drink. Having a polite, convincing "no thanks," ready will make it easier to stick to your resolve.
  • Seek out healthy alternatives. Try new activities and hobbies to replace the time you spend drinking or recovering from drinking.

Getting Help

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.

Even if you haven't yet developed a physical dependence but have trouble cutting back or quitting alone, there is no shame in seeking medical guidance and support. There are even medications, including Naltrexone, that can help quell your desire to drink. There are plenty of resources available to help give you tools as you work to remedy your problem drinking and develop a healthier relationship with alcohol.

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance use or addiction, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

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Article Sources
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  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Alcohol Use Disorder.

  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Rethinking Drinking. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.