Can Social Drinking Turn Into Alcoholism?

While social drinking is not necessarily harmful, drinking alcohol in a social setting can easily turn into a more serious problem. For those who are concerned about their alcohol use, effective treatment is available.

Whether it’s football season, holiday parties, or the college bar scene, drinking alcohol is part of many popular American pastimes. Social drinking is not necessarily a dangerous thing, but even small amounts of alcohol can have vastly different effects on people.

Some individuals can have one or two drinks and never crave any more than that, while others get caught in a pattern of needing alcohol to relax. This can lead to heavier drinking or binge drinking, both of which are warning signs of alcohol abuse.

Many people think if you still have a job and a home, you don’t have a problem with alcohol — but for some, there is a fine line between social drinking and alcohol abuse. That’s why it is important to be aware of the differences between social drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism.

What Is Social Drinking?

Social drinking, or moderate drinking, may look like an occasional drink or two with friends or coworkers. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines moderate drinking as up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men.

People are often surprised to find out what counts as a standard drink. The amount of liquid in a glass or bottle doesn’t necessarily tell you how much alcohol is in the beverage — for example, light beer can have almost as much alcohol as a regular beer. Knowing what counts as a standard drink can be a helpful tool in monitoring a person’s alcohol intake.

A standard drink includes:

  • 12 ounces of regular beer (about 5 percent alcohol)
  • 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor (about 7 percent alcohol)
  • 5 ounces of wine (about 12 percent alcohol)
  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits (about 40 percent alcohol)

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How Alcohol Abuse Leads To Alcoholism

While some people use the terms alcohol abuse and alcoholism interchangeably, these terms refer to two different alcohol use disorders. Alcoholism is a physical addiction, and alcohol abuse is a pattern of excessive drinking behavior, despite any negative consequences that may occur.

Although a person can abuse alcohol without experiencing a physical dependence, alcohol abuse is a serious issue that can lead to problems with family, work, or school. One of the signs of alcohol abuse is binge drinking, which is defined as up to four drinks for women and five drinks for men, over a period of about two hours (or on the same occasion).

Another red flag behavior is heavy drinking, which refers to binge drinking on five or more days during the last month. People who binge drink or drink heavily may experience intoxication, which occurs when a person’s blood alcohol level reaches 0.08 percent.

Intoxication is not necessarily a sign of alcohol abuse, but is a common consequence. The tell-tale signs of intoxication include vomiting, staggering, or slurring words. Even one instance of intoxication can lead to serious social and legal issues.

The emotional and psychological warning signs of alcohol abuse can be much more subtle. It’s important to be aware of these signs, in order to possibly halt a person’s progression into alcoholism.

Signs of alcohol abuse include:

  • temporary memory loss, or “blacking out”
  • irritability, anxiety, and depression
  • extreme mood swings
  • drinking alone
  • making excuses about alcohol
  • isolation from friends or family members

What Is Alcoholism?

Alcoholism, or alcohol dependence, is a progressive and potentially fatal disease that can manifest in many different ways. Alcoholism is an addiction to alcohol, wherein a person has both a physical compulsion to drink and a psychological obsession with alcohol.

The disease of alcoholism causes:

  • craving: strong desire to drink
  • tolerance: the need to drink large amounts of alcohol in order to get the same effects
  • loss of control: inability to stop drinking once you’ve started
  • physical dependence: when a person’s body is dependent on alcohol in order to function normally
  • withdrawal: the symptoms a person who is dependent on alcohol experiences when they stop use suddenly (includes extreme anxiety, shakiness, sweats, and a racing heart)

Alcoholism doesn’t necessarily look like what a person may think of as the stereotypical alcoholic. Alcoholism affects men and women of all ages, and could happen to a successful business person, a grandparent, a teenager, a veteran, or a homeless person.

Warning signs of alcoholism include:

Hiding Drinks

Someone who senses their drinking has gone too far may hide or sneak drinks, in order to minimize the amount they are drinking. This could mean “pre-partying” (drinking alone before meeting up with friends), or lying about the amount of alcohol they consumed that day.

Requiring Alcohol To Relax Or Have Fun

For some people, social drinking can progress into alcohol abuse when their brain equates alcohol with relaxation. Turning down invitations to events that don’t involve alcohol, or craving a drink in order to feel comfortable, are both warning sign behaviors.

If you need alcohol to enjoy yourself, it may be a sign that you are becoming physically dependent on alcohol.

Defensive Attitude About Drinking

When a person who is ashamed of their alcohol use is questioned about their drinking, it can result in defensive anger. Concerned friends or acquaintances may notice you are drinking to excess more often, or inquire if you are okay to drive after a night out.

If you are offended by these questions, consider taking a look at your alcohol intake.

Treatment Options For Alcohol Abuse And Alcoholism

More than 15 million people in the U.S. have an alcohol use disorder, which can include either alcohol abuse or alcoholism. Sadly, many of these people choose not to get the help they need, believing that treatment is either too expensive or simply not for them.

Fortunately, customized alcohol addiction treatment is available throughout the country, and can be made affordable through the use of private or public insurance, scholarships, and sliding-scale payment programs.

Alcohol rehab programs include inpatient, partial hospitalization, and outpatient treatment. Inpatient programs are residential and provide alcohol detox programs and on-site therapies in a secure and supervised environment.

Partial hospitalization (half-day) and outpatient (full-day) treatment types are more flexibly scheduled options, which also offer detox programs and medication-assisted treatment. Each of these treatment types will likely include addiction education, individual and group therapy, and a focus on sober living skills.

For more information on social drinking and alcoholism, or to find affordable alcohol treatment near you, contact one of our treatment specialists today.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Fact Sheets - Underage Drinking

National Institutes of Health: National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Alcohol Facts and Statistics, Drinking Levels Defined, What Is A Standard Drink?

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