“So I went out drinking last night, and then I needed to leave earlier than my friends. But I was totally fine to drive, so it was okay — I was only a little buzzed.”
“I told myself I would only have one drink, but I honestly can’t remember how many I had last weekend. It was enough to make me stay in bed all day though, because I felt awful. Why does this keep happening?”
“I was so stressed by what happened today that I immediately went and poured myself a glass of wine to help me feel better.”
“Sure, I drink a lot — but I’m not an alcoholic, so it’s fine.”
These are all statements I’ve heard from my psychotherapy clients over the years about their habits around drinking alcohol. And while it can be fun and harmless to meet up with friends for a drink or two, or pour a glass of wine to have with dinner, not being mindful of how and when you consume alcohol can turn into a bad habit with more negative consequences than positive ones.
Consuming alcohol is deeply embedded in our cultural norms, especially around socialization and leisure — to the extent that it’s challenging to find an event that doesn’t include alcohol. We meet up with friends for drinks, we go out for drinks when we’re dating, we go to parties with drinks. Just take a look around the airport the next time you have an early flight and you’ll see travelers sitting at the bar at 7 a.m. with a beer in hand.
When alcohol is easily accessible and you are having fun, it’s easy to lose track of how many drinks you’ve had, what time it is, or whether or not you are making the same decisions you would when you’re sober.
So how do you know if you have a drinking problem?
Often, my clients are surprised to learn what constitutes excessive drinking — also known as “binge drinking,” which is considered one of the most common patterns of excessive alcohol use in the U.S., according to the CDC. In fact, the criteria of binge drinking isn’t far off from what a typical college student likely drinks on a weekend. The CDC defines binge drinking as anything that brings your blood alcohol level to 0.08 g/dl or above, which translates to about five or more drinks in a two-hour span for men, and four or more drinks in a two-hour span for women.
To complicate matters, what constitutes a standard drink might differ from what you are actually consuming when you go out with friends. The Long Island iced tea you are ordering at the bar has about four shots of liquor in it, making it four times stronger than a standard drink. If you drink your Long Island iced tea in two hours or less, you’ll meet the criteria for excessive drinking.
In fact, the CDC reports that one in six adults in the U.S. engages in binge drinking four times per month and consumes seven drinks per binge. Additionally, binge drinking is most common in the 18-34 age range, and it is twice as common in men than women.
When you step back and evaluate health standards against common experience, statistics like these can really make you rethink how much alcohol you are consuming in one day — or even in just a few hours.
Being honest about your drinking habits can play a big role in your wellness because excessive alcohol consumption has both short-term and long-term health effects:
- Sexual assault
- Alcohol poisoning
- Risky sexual behaviors
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
- Liver problems
- Certain cancers
- Weakened immune system
- Memory and concentration issues
- Mental health issues
- Alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder
If you are looking for an objective picture of how much you are drinking and the impact alcohol is having on your life, here are some questions to ask yourself — your answers will help you see how your habits stack up against established health standards and the risks involved with excessive drinking:
- How often do I drink in a week?
- How many drinks do I have per occasion?
- Do I feel like I need to drink in order to have fun?
- Do I feel peer pressure to drink, or to drink more than I want to?
- Have I made decisions while drinking that I regret?
- Do I use drinking as a stress reliever or to cope with negative emotions?
- How would I describe my relationship with alcohol consumption?
You can also use the CAGE acronym to help you assess your alcohol use:
C = Cut: Have you ever felt the need to cut down on your drinking?
A = Annoyed: Have people annoyed you by criticizing your drinking?
G = Guilty: Have you ever felt guilty because of your drinking?
E = Eye-opener: Have you ever felt you needed a drink the first thing in the morning to steady your nerves or to get rid of a hangover?
Answering “yes” to two or more of these questions is considered clinically significant, but even one positive answer is considered cause for concern for medical professionals.
Here's the biggest takeaway for anyone concerned that they might be drinking too much: You should always be in control of your drinking, and not the other way around.
If you do have concerns about excessive drinking (or even an alcohol addiction), it can be helpful to make changes to your daily routine, cut out toxic relationships that encourage excessive drinking, and seek out a professional to help guide these changes.
Excessive drinking — and its short-term and long-term effects — doesn’t have to rule your life. You can take charge and make decisions that allow you to socialize and have fun without putting your health and safety at risk.