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Drinking More Often? Know the Signs When It's Too Much

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American adults are drinking more frequently and in greater quantities during the pandemic, according to a recent study published in JAMA Network Open. Overall consumption is up 14% among adults over the age of 30.

Maybe you, too, have been reaching for a martini (or a “quarantini”) more often lately, or a larger glass of wine. If that trend is concerning you, it may be time to take a closer look at your patterns.

“Using alcohol as a coping mechanism is not healthy,” said Kelley Story, director of Samaritan Treatment & Recovery Services. “Not all unhealthy behaviors cross the line into self-destructive behaviors, however you need to pay attention to it. As soon as you notice feeling concerned about your drinking, or when others close to you express their concerns, that’s when you could be crossing the line into addictive patterns.”

Because alcohol is a drug that starts out making us feel stimulated and even euphoric, our brains send us signals to continue the stimulation. It can be hard to realize when we’ve had enough.

Like with any habit, changing directions begins with some small steps.

Try Three Steps to Change a Drinking Pattern

For the average drinker who has been overindulging, these tactics may just alter your approach to drinking:

1. Take a Break From Drinking

If you worry about your alcohol consumption, try cutting back on the amount you drink and on the number of days you drink. Move from a daily routine to fewer days a week or cut it out completely for a month or two. Notice how you feel physically and emotionally without it. You may find it doesn’t add much to your life. And the break can be a good reset to help you drink less.

2. Start a Healthier Habit

If you’ve been having regular happy hours, use that time instead to start something new. Take a walk, play a sport, meditate or start a new hobby. Sometimes, giving yourself a different focus will minimize the urge to drink. It could also set you on a course for a new, more healthy adventure.

3. Plan Ahead

If you have certain friends you drink with or places that you associate with drinking, steer clear of them for a time. “Make a plan for how you’ll say no to friends, or what you’ll do instead of meeting up at the bar,” Story suggested. And for those places where you’re obligated to attend, such as office parties or family gatherings, she noted, “having strategies are key to success. The goal in having a plan is for you to feel in control. I recommend strategies, such as: Bring your own nonalcoholic beverages and keep them separate from the rest; always have a drink in your hand, such as seltzer or cranberry juice; use your own transportation and park in a place where you can leave on your own timeframe rather than on another’s.”

Recognize the Signs of a Drinking Problem

Like any drug, alcohol affects everyone differently. Some can make small changes and keep their drinking in check, while others cannot. When does drinking socially veer into an addictive behavior?

One way to gauge your intake is to compare it to national guidelines. Note, if you’re pouring a glass of wine or making a cocktail, keep in mind that “one drink” is defined as 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor (one shot). The National Institute for Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism (NIAA) defines heavy alcohol use as more than four drinks on any one day for men and more than three drinks for women. Anything over moderate use, defined as one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, can increase the drinker’s risk for injuries and long-term chronic health problems, and can lead to substance use disorder.

Story is quick to point out that guidelines are not one-size-fits-all.

“Everyone’s situation is different, and what is too much for one could be far less than those numbers indicate; however, the guidelines can be a way of building awareness for the average drinker,” said Story.

With more than 30 years’ experience in the substance use disorder field, and a recovering alcoholic herself, Story is familiar with some additional signs that can point to problems in alcohol consumption:

Tolerance

Having a high tolerance for alcohol is not a badge of honor. “Being able to drink someone ‘under the table’ is an early symptom of alcoholism,” she said. “Also, if a person doesn’t look or sound drunk after drinking a lot, that too, can be a symptom and is something to be concerned about.”

Making Deals

I’ll only drink after 5. I won’t touch the hard stuff; I’ll only drink  beer<. I’ll stick to only two drinks tonight. Sound familiar? Story calls this “deal-making”  a red flag. “Normal, average drinkers don’t make deals with themselves; they don’t have to. If you find yourself making deals like this, it’s a problem,” she said.

Drinking Before the Party

Pay attention if you’re having a drink before going out with the gang. It could be a sign that you don’t want your friends to see or know how much you really drink.

Ignoring the Negative

Do you continue to drink despite negative consequences? “If something major has happened because of your drinking – you’ve wrecked the car or had a major blow-up with your partner – and you continue to drink anyway, that’s not a normal reaction,” Story explained. “Most non-addicted people would take that moment to walk away from alcohol. Remember, whatever the substance,  those struggling with substance use can justify why they keep doing it … until the bitter end.”

Where to Turn for Help

Alcohol use disorder is a serious medical issue, but maybe you’re not even sure if you have a problem. There are ways to get more information while maintaining anonymity.

Call a Confidential Hotline

If you have questions and would like to talk confidentially with a professional substance use specialist about your situation, a quick search online for substance use hotlines will yield many options. One is the National Drug Helpline (844-289-0879), which provides free information about alcohol use and addiction.

Turn to Technology

Listen and learn from another’s story. YouTube offers a rich video library of people speaking about recovery. There are also recovery apps, CDs and much more to help you learn and understand more about substance use disorders and recovery.

Attend a “Speaker Meeting”

Nearly every community has 12-step program meeting available, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Celebrate Recovery and Alanon and Naranon for families. There are non-secular groups such as Smart Recovery and Rational Recovery and many other specialized groups for professionals, women and more. Especially now during the pandemic, many meet virtually. “I tell people who are new to these groups to start by attending a speaker meeting where the group brings in an outside speaker to talk on a particular topic. At those meetings, you can just listen and not say a thing,” Story said. This can be a less intimidating forum for someone new.

Seek Treatment

“If your drinking is causing harm to your family, your job or yourself, it is time for treatment, and you’ll need professional intervention for recovery,” Story said.

Treatment usually includes a combination of behavioral therapy, medication and mutual support groups, and can take place in an outpatient setting or in a residential treatment facility.

Because substance use disorder is a significant problem nationally and regionally – Oregon is ranked 4th in the U.S. for most addictions and 47th in the nation for having access to treatment – waiting lists for treatment can be long, so don’t delay in calling for help.

Story noted that family members of addicted people also need to get help.

“If you’re living with someone who has a substance use disorder, it is very stressful and toxic. Even if your loved one is not in treatment, you should still get help for yourself,” Story said. “Especially if there are children living with you, one of the parents needs to demonstrate resiliency factors to the child, so make it you.”

If you or someone you love is struggling with controlling alcohol or drug use, contact your primary care provider for an assessment and referral to a specialist.

Kelley Story is director of the Samaritan Treatment & Recovery Services program, based in Lebanon, Oregon. The facility offers both outpatient and residential treatment services for people with substance use disorders living in Benton, Lincoln or Linn counties. To learn more, go to samhealth.org/Recovery, or call 541-451-7439.