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Social Drinking vs a Drinking Problem: What’s the Difference?

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism notes that 85.6% of people in the U.S. age 18 or older report they have consumed alcohol at some point in their lives. 69.5% reported they drank alcohol in the past year, and 54.9% reported they drank within the last month.

Drinking alcohol is deeply rooted in American culture and history. It is widely available in stores, restaurants, and bars, and is often used to socialize, relax, celebrate special occasions, and even to maintain health. Drinking an alcoholic beverage does not automatically lead to serious trouble, but the ease of access to alcohol and its social acceptability make it important to distinguish between different types of drinking, as well as the symptoms and psychological effects of alcohol misuse.

What is Social Drinking?
Social drinking occurs in many forms — from small events like birthday parties or meeting for a drink after work, to large-scale events like Oktoberfest or a New Years’ celebration party. There is no set amount of alcohol that determines a social drinker, but the CDC characterizes alcohol use as moderate drinking if a female consumes one drink per day, or a male consumes two drinks per day. This becomes binge drinking if a male consumes five or more drinks, or a female drinks 4 or more drinks during a general two-hour time frame on at least one occasion within a month.

Social drinkers typically enjoy alcohol to relax, fit in, and celebrate, but do so in low-risk patterns and on rare occasions. Social drinkers, or casual drinkers, usually:

  • Drink for enjoyment.
  • Know when to stop drinking.
  • Do not regularly get intoxicated or blackout.
  • Find a sober driver and do not drive under the influence.

What Is Problem Drinking?
Problem drinking does not mean that a person has a physical dependence or addiction to alcohol, but more so defines the risky or potentially unhealthy behaviors associated with their drinking.

People who problem-drink may not always need rehabilitation to get their drinking under control, but may benefit from therapy. Problem drinking may occur frequently or infrequently, but typically results in negative experiences or problems in a person’s life. Problem drinkers may feel dependent on alcohol and find it difficult to stop drinking even though they may not have a physical dependency or addiction. Problem drinkers may choose to drink to reach a desired state of mind, such as:

  • Comfortable in social situations or increased sociability.
  • Feeling good about yourself, having a good time, or general feelings of happiness.
  • Feelings of relief or escape from problems or worries.
  • Feelings of importance.

Signs of a Drinking Problem
Symptoms of problem drinking and signs of alcohol abuse may include:

  • Missing class or work due to drinking.
  • Avoiding social situations, family, and friends to drink alone.
  • Episodes of depression, anger, or violence.
  • Taking risks that can impact your life or the lives of others.
  • Spending too much money and creating financial problems.
  • Having unsafe intercourse.
  • Not knowing when to stop drinking, getting drunk, or blacking out.
  • Driving under the influence.
  • Getting arrested due to behavior exhibited while intoxicated.
  • Losing relationships.

What Is Alcoholism?
Problem drinking and alcoholism are similar, but an alcoholic is physically and psychologically addicted to alcohol. Ceasing to drink when addicted to alcohol may result in symptoms of withdrawal, which may include:

  • Symptoms of anxiety, nausea, insomnia, or abdominal pain in the first 6-12 hours.
  • Hallucinations, increased body temperature, confusion, and unusual heart rate 12-24 hours after the last drink.
  • Alcohol withdrawal seizures may occur as soon as 2 hours after the last drink but may take 24-48 hours.
  • Delirium tremens may occur 48-72 hours after the last alcoholic drink.
  • Additional complications may include grand mal seizures, heart attacks, and strokes. Other effects of alcohol may include improper liver function and cirrhosis, cancer of the mouth, throat, breast, liver, and esophagus, and a weakened immune system.

Signs of Alcohol Addiction
Alcoholics may appear highly functional and may not fit into any type of stereotype. However, there are ways to recognize the signs of alcoholism in yourself, a loved one, or your adult child, including:

  • The inability to stop or control alcohol intake after starting to drink.
  • Obsessive thoughts about alcohol.
  • High tolerance of alcohol and the need to drink a large amount to feel the effects.
  • Displaying behavior that is uncharacteristic to their sober personality.
  • Repeating unwanted drinking patterns, or the inability to stop drinking even when setting drinking limits.
  • Losing relationships and friendships.
  • Pre-drinking before attending events or parties.
  • A sense of denial that their drinking is a problem because they can still perform or succeed professionally and personally.
  • Using alcohol as a reward.
  • Living a “double life” by separating their sober life from their drinking life.
  • Binge drinking and common blackouts.
  • People expressing concern over negative drinking behaviors.
  • Engaging in risky activities or risky behaviors.
  • The inability to imagine life without alcohol.