Why Heavy Drinkers Decide to Change How Much They Drink

What It Takes to Make a Change—and What Gets In the Way

Group of friends sharing drinks in restaurant

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Heavy drinking is a habit that can creep up or develop as a result of lifestyle factors, such as work, friends, and activities. But most people who drink heavily choose to quit at some point, either on their own or with the help of a treatment or self-help program such as Alcoholic Anonymous (AA), the original 12-step program. So why do people who drink heavily decide to change their alcohol consumption?

Research I conducted with colleagues at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom showed that heavy alcohol drinking does not develop in a predictable, linear pattern. Instead, patterns of alcohol use vary a great deal from person to person, and even people who drink heavily typically adjust their alcohol intake as the situation dictates. Interestingly, many of the same issues that make people want to drink more can also make them want to drink less.

What Is Heavy Drinking?

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, heavy drinking is defined as consuming eight or more drinks per week for a woman, or 15 or more drinks per week for a man. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines heavy or "risky" drinking as having five or more episodes of binge drinking in the past month.

If you're socializing with friends during the weekend and having a few too many drinks each day, you may be heavy drinking.

Not everyone who drinks heavily will develop an alcohol use disorder. In addition to drinking heavily and binge drinking, other risk factors that increase your chances of developing a problem with alcohol include:

What Makes People Want to Cut Back on or Stop Drinking?

There are several motivating factors that can make people want to cut down or stop drinking completely:

  • Roles: A new role, such as parenthood, was a reason many heavy drinkers gave for making changes, according to a 2015 study.
  • Comparison with other drinkers: Some drinkers noticed they were drinking more than friends and family, which gave them cause to consider whether they were drinking too much.
  • Judgments about drinking: For some people, judging themselves and their own drinking behavior provided motivation to change.
  • Advice to change: Advice to cut back on alcohol intake from a respected professional was considered sufficient grounds for changing drinking habits.
  • Money: Recognizing the expense of drinking would put some people off of drinking high alcohol levels.
  • Health: Severe health problems or even side effects of alcohol such as bloodshot eyes or hangovers were discouraging to many drinkers.
  • Body weight: For those trying to lose weight, the recognition of the high calorific content of many alcoholic drinks was enough to make them want to cut back.

What Gets In the Way of Cutting Back or Stopping Drinking?

Although much research shows the harm to health caused by alcohol, some still have the misguided belief that alcohol is good for them. Also, when health advice is given by professionals who don’t seem to be healthy themselves, it is taken less seriously.

The same factors that might motivate someone to evaluate and change their drinking habits can also interfere with a person's intention to quit or cut back on drinking:

  • Roles: Some professional roles make it hard for people to avoid alcohol.
  • Comparison with other drinkers: Believing you drink a normal amount because it is similar to your peers, having a positive view of others who drink, and seeing other people’s drinking as more problematic than your own can all get in the way of recognizing you are drinking too much.
  • Judgments about drinking: Justifying your own drinking can be your biggest obstacle.
  • Advice to change: In contrast to professional advice, personal advice from non-professionals can actually strengthen a person's decision to continue drinking.
  • Body weight: Some people use alcohol as a food substitute while they are trying to lose weight. This misguided advice has been encouraged in diet and lifestyle books like "French Women Don’t Get Fat," which also perpetuates the myth of alcohol as being beneficial to health.

A Word From Verywell

Heavy drinking can take a major toll on your life. If you or a loved one is struggling with alcohol use, don’t hesitate to contact a healthcare professional or a professional organization that can offer guidance and help.

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.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Drinking levels defined.

  3. Wolf JP, Chávez R. "Just make sure you can get up and parent the next day": Understanding the contexts, risks, and rewards of alcohol consumption for parents. Fam Soc. 2015;96(3):219-228. doi:10.1606/1044-3894.2015.96.28

  4. Larsson I, Andersson MLE. Reasons to stop drinking alcohol among patients with rheumatoid arthritis in Sweden: A mixed-methods study. BMJ Open. 2018;8(12):e024367. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2018-024367

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  6. Mackinnon N, Bhatia U, Nadkarni A. The onset and progression of alcohol use disorders: A qualitative study from Goa, India. J Ethn Subst Abuse. 2019;18(1):89-102. doi:10.1080/15332640.2017.1326863

  7. Probst C, Manthey J, Martinez A, Rehm J. Alcohol use disorder severity and reported reasons not to seek treatment: A cross-sectional study in European primary care practices. Subst Abuse Treat Prev Policy. 2015;10:32. doi:10.1186/s13011-015-0028-z

  8. French MT, Norton EC, Fang H, Maclean JC. Alcohol consumption and body weight. Health Econ. 2010;19(7):814-32. doi:10.1002/hec.1521

Additional Reading
  • Guiliano, M. “French Women Don't Get Fat: The Secret of Eating for Pleasure.” Vintage: New York. 2007.
  • Hartney, E. et al. “Untreated Heavy Drinkers: A Qualitative and Quantitative Study of Dependence and Readiness to Change.” Addiction Research & Theory, 11:317-337. 2003.

By Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD
Elizabeth Hartney, BSc, MSc, MA, PhD is a psychologist, professor, and Director of the Centre for Health Leadership and Research at Royal Roads University, Canada.