Four things that are NOT signs of a drinking problem

Google does a pretty good job of directing searchers to the right tests to determine if they might have alcohol use disorders. We recommend looking at the WHO Audit test or the DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for alcohol use disorder to get an idea of what characterizes drinking as problematic (These are some of the first results you’ll find if you search for something like “drinking problem test”). 

However, for those of us who get our advice from grandmothers, magazines (physical or digital) or other less scientific sources, there are some common misconceptions out there. We want to clear up some of the things that are NOT signs of a drinking problem.

Why? Because if you think these are signs of a drinking problem, you may think you don’t have one when you do.  After all, you don’t drink alone, so you must be fine, right? Wrong!

Here are some habits that seem like they could be signs of a drinking problem, but in fact are not:

  1. You’re not careful about what you drink. Some people think it’s a sign of a drinking problem if they consume a lot of hard alcohol, and conversely think they don’t have a problem if they stick to beer or wine. News flash: alcohol is alcohol, whether you consume it in 12% ABV glasses of wine or 40% ABV shots of pure liquor. Regular wine drinking in ‘social’ doses can easily add up to a drinking problem.

  2. You drink to relax, or to feel happy. While it’s certainly not great to depend on a substance to experience an emotion, it’s not a sign of alcohol use disorder to drink when you’re stressed or upset any more than it is to drink when you’re being social or fun. As a society, we drink to celebrate; we drink to get through hard times. We drink to forget; we drink to commemorate. None of it makes any sense. If you drink enough, for any reason, you will end up with a drinking problem, and you’re especially likely to do so if the genetics aren’t in your favor.

  3. You drink alone. Drinking alone might just mean you’re an introvert. Or it might mean you’re lazy. Or it might mean you just prefer your own couch to the local bar. Whatever the reason, drinking alone by itself does not mean you have a drinking problem, and you can just as easily develop a dependence on alcohol drinking with a crowd as you can drinking alone.

  4. You drink every day. Guess what? As a woman, you could drink one glass of wine a day and be at the “low risk” drinking level given out by the NIAAA (for men, you could have two). You could also have 10 drinks in a night and be in a risky place regarding your drinking. It’s the total amount that matters.

As you can see, a drinking problem isn’t really about a certain pattern of drinking (other than the amount you drink). It’s not about what you drink, on what schedule, why, or the circumstances surrounding your drinking. 

The truth is that alcohol use disorder is characterized broadly by three things (you can find these broad strokes reflected in the DSM-5 criteria):

  1. Failing to control your drinking

  2. Experiencing the physical symptoms of addiction - craving, withdrawal and tolerance 

  3. Continuing to drink despite experiencing obvious consequences for your health, your mental health, your career, or your relationships

In other words, it’s somewhat intuitive, actually. If you’re frightened by physical symptoms of addiction you see in yourself, if you know you’re unable to control your drinking, or if you continue to drink despite problems caused by your drinking in other areas of your life, you have some level of drinking problem.

And that last part - “some level” - is key.

You may have a mild problem or a severe one, or anything in between. If you asked people on the street, many would tell you alcohol use disorder (or they might use the term ‘alcoholism’) is a black and white issue: you either “are an alcoholic” or you’re not. This misconception can prevent people who should change from doing anything until their problem is serious.

If you’ve decided to change, our app, Drinker’s Helper, can be a helpful aid along the way (although let’s be super clear: it is in no way a substitute for medical treatment).

Drinker’s Helper provides helpful tracking and insights to help you understand why you drink (so you can change it), as well as motivational exercises drawn from cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational enhancement therapy, two proven therapies for alcohol use disorder, to help you change the way you think about alcohol. Along the way, you’ll get advice and encouragement from your support group, made up of peers in similar circumstances. Try it free for a week!

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