Having a drink or two while you hang out with friends, celebrate a holiday, or unwind after work is normal. In fact, it might be one of the most normalized things in American culture. Around 60% of U.S. adults drink alcoholic beverages. And as many as 85.6% of American adults have had alcohol in their lifetime.
So, you’re not alone if you enjoy an occasional alcoholic beverage. But how can you tell when your drinking is becoming a problem?
If you’re asking that question, you’re certainly not alone either. About 14 million U.S. adults struggle with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). Even more Americans are prone to what’s called “alcohol misuse.”
We’ll explain the difference and help you decide whether to consider seeking treatment.
Defining the Problem
Some of the terminology has changed over the years. Healthcare professionals have become more aware of the stigmatizing effect that language can have on people struggling with substance use.
You’re probably familiar with the terms “alcoholism”, “alcohol abuse”, and “alcohol dependence”. In 2013, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) combined those concepts into a diagnosable disorder called Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) and began promoting person-first language discussing alcohol-related issues.
What may seem like a trivial change in language is actually quite important. Struggles with substance use disorders and mental health conditions are not defining features. People can and do recover from AUD. We treat people. We help people live life to the fullest. Behaviors and disorders are only one small part of that.
According to the CDC, an adult of legal drinking age can choose not to drink, or to drink in moderation by limiting intake to 2 drinks or less in a day for men or 1 drink or less in a day for women, on days when alcohol is consumed. Anything more than that is considered excessive.
Alcohol misuse is a broad term for drinking in any manner that could cause harm to the person engaging in drinking or to those around them. This can mean drinking too much, too often, or even in certain situations which may be dangerous.
This is a relative term. For some individuals, any alcohol use may qualify as misuse. Examples are pregnant individuals and persons under the minimum drinking age.
Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)
When a person engages in alcohol misuse over a prolonged period of time they may develop AUD. According to Mayo Clinic, “alcohol use disorder is a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol or continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems.”
A person may be diagnosed with mild, moderate, or severe AUD depending on the number of symptoms they experience. Alcohol affects everyone differently, so AUD will look different for the individuals experiencing it. Like many other medical conditions, early diagnosis and treatment can help prevent more severe symptoms.
Some individuals are more susceptible to the disorder than others. Risk factors include:
- Family history of AUD
- Prolonged alcohol use
- Depression and other mental health problems
- Social factors
Do I Have a Problem?
Alcohol is a powerful substance. The short-term effects are obvious, but it also has damaging effects on the brain. “Normal” moderate drinking can develop into patterns of alcohol misuse and even AUD rather quickly. It’s not always easy for a person to tell when or how it happened, but by the time an individual is asking themselves whether they have a problem, they very likely do.
The question to ask is this: “Is my use of alcohol having an impact on my ability to live my life or on the ability of the people around me to do the same?”
If the answer is “Yes”, it’s worth talking to a professional.
What Are the Symptoms?
Alcohol can impact a person’s life in many ways including:
- Being unable to limit the amount they drink
- Feeling bad or guilty about drinking
- Missing work, school, or other obligations due to alcohol use
- Reducing or giving up hobbies due to alcohol use
- Experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms – such as nausea, sweating, and shaking with not using alcohol
- Developing a tolerance so that more alcohol is needed to feel the same effect
Reaching Out Can Only Help
As mentioned above, alcohol affects everyone differently at different times. One or two bad experiences may not mean an individual has AUD, but it may be a sign of an emerging pattern.
A mental health professional can help you evaluate your risk factors for developing AUD and assess whether you may already be developing warning signs of the disorder.
Regardless of where you are on the continuum – the more you understand your own risk factors and behaviors, the better prepared you will be to prevent and/or treat any symptoms that may occur.
If you’re concerned that your alcohol consumption may be progressing to an addiction, give us a call at 303-617-2300.