Social Drinker vs. Problem Drinker: What Are the Differences?

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Upwards of 30 million Americans have alcohol use disorder (AUD). This describes a wide range of problematic behaviors, from minor or occasional substance abuse to severe addiction. All these cases can have negative personal, health, occupational, and other consequences.

A lot of people wonder what the differences are between a social drinker and someone who might have a more serious problem with alcohol. While the signs can be subtle, the good news is that research has demonstrated clear indications of alcohol addiction (or the potential for it).

This article covers those signs and related behaviors. The information below includes some advice on addressing alcohol abuse, for yourself or your loved one. Keep reading to learn more.

What Is Alcohol Use Disorder?

Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a broad category that involves any type of uncontrolled alcohol consumption. It includes what people often call “alcoholism,” as well as various levels of alcohol misuse or addiction.

AUD can range from mild to severe. In general, it characterizes any alcohol use that puts the user’s health or safety at risk. Even in milder cases, there is a chance of it leading to serious problems and should be addressed through treatment.

What Causes AUD?

There is no single cause of AUD. However, there are risk factors that can contribute to its development.

One is genetics. Someone with a family history of alcohol problems will be more likely to develop them themselves. Some studies suggest that heritability contributes to about 60 percent of all AUD incidence.

There are other risk factors as well. Drinking at an early age increases the chances of developing AUD. Starting to drink under the age of 21 increases risk; starting under the age of 15 significantly increases it.

Finally, AUD can result from underlying mental health conditions. Common ones include depression, anxiety, insomnia, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Also, people with a history of trauma, including post-traumatic stress disorder, are more likely to have AUD.

What Is a Social Drinker?

“Social drinking” is a general term used to describe only imbibing at social events, like birthday parties or with friends after work. “Social drinker” is also used to describe someone who drinks in moderation. This means they only drink for enjoyment (vs. to address an underlying emotional or physical need) and know when to stop drinking alcohol.

By definition, a “social drinker” does not become intoxicated on a regular basis or blackout due to drinking. They also will not likely drive under the influence. A social drinker may be more willing to be a designated driver for friends and loved ones.

There is no specific amount of alcohol or drinking frequency that defines a “social drinker.” According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having no more than two drinks a day for men or one drink a day for women is considered “moderate” drinking. This amounts to an average of 14 drinks a week for men and seven for women.

What Are Signs of Problem Drinking?

“Problem drinking” describes a wide range of behaviors and levels of addiction. It does not necessarily mean that someone has a physical dependence on alcohol. It describes unhealthy behaviors associated with drinking (which also are likely to manifest in severe alcohol addiction).

It also does not mean that someone drinks every day, but it could. Some people with AUD may not drink until they blackout on a daily basis. Others may abstain completely during the week but binge drink on weekends.

One of the main signs of problem drinking is doing so despite negative consequences. This can involve the personal life, health, or job of the individual.

A person may continue to drink even if their doctor tells them they need to quit or cut back. Legal problems, such as arrests for driving under the influence, are common. Going to work drunk or drinking while on the job are other examples.

Even if such extreme problems do not exist, there are other signs that someone is heading in the wrong direction. In general, these relate to an inability to control the frequency or amount they drink.

A person may take risks that they normally would not if not under the influence. They might spend money haphazardly and experience financial problems.

Increased tolerance is another sign of problem drinking. It means that the individual must consume more in order to achieve the same effects.

There also are related behaviors that accompany the issues described above. For instance, a person who has an alcohol problem may try to hide from family or friends how much or how often they drink. This might also include lying about alcohol use.

What You Can Do About Alcohol Abuse

The good news is that there are many things you can do to address signs of alcohol abuse disorder in yourself or a loved one. These include getting more information about AUD. A better understanding of how alcohol abuse affects the mind and body can go a long way toward addressing the issue.

It is important to treat AUD as a disease. You should not view it (in yourself or others) as a moral failure or a result of insufficient willpower. At the same time, it is important not to enable problematic behavior.

Also, prolonged alcohol abuse changes brain chemistry. It makes it much harder or even impossible for someone with AUD to drink in moderation.

Finally, seeking or encouraging treatment is the best way to address any level of AUD. There are myriad options, including in- and out-patient treatment. There also are lots of online options, including medication-assisted treatment, available.

Learn More About Alcohol Abuse Recovery

Now that you understand the differences between a problem and a social drinker, you can apply this information to your circumstances. Regardless of the severity of your or your loved one’s problem drinking, there are solutions available.

At Recovery Delivered, our goal is to address the two main barriers to recovery: lack of access to care and time burdens that keep people from pursuing help. Contact us today to learn about medication-assisted treatment for alcohol abuse or other disorders.

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