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It can be difficult for a person to recognize that they are developing problems with drinking too much alcohol, since not everyone acts out, loses their job, wakes up with a regular hangover or has relationships suffering. According to Carlton Erickson, PhD, who is the director of the University of Texas Addiction Science Research and Education Center, about 15 percent of people who drink go on to become alcohol dependent. John F. Kelly, director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Recovery Research Institute says that people who recognize the problem before the addiction has fully developed have a greater chance of being able to cut back on consumption and minimize the effect of alcohol in their lives.
Experts on substance abuse distinguish between alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, or alcoholism. Alcohol abusers still have some ability to set limits on how much they drink, although their alcohol use is still potentially self-destructive and dangerous. Not all people who are alcohol abusers go on to drink their way to full-blown alcoholism, but it is a risk. Sometimes it develops suddenly after a stressful life change. Other times it begins gradually as a person’s tolerance to alcohol increases. Those who consume alcohol every day or are binge drinkers are at greater risk of becoming alcoholics.
According to helpguide.org, signs and symptoms of alcohol abuse include regularly neglecting responsibilities at work, home or school because of drinking; using alcohol in situations where it can be physically dangerous, such as drinking and driving; experiencing legal problems due to drinking; continuing to drink even though it is causing relationship problems and drinking as a way to relax.
Signs of alcoholism are more severe. Tolerance is one of the first warning signs, as the alcohol dependent person needs to drink more and more to feel the same effects. Withdrawal is another major warning sign, as is the need to drink to avoid the symptoms of withdrawal. People suffering from alcoholism have lost control over their drinking, cannot quit even though they want to and even if it is causing problems in their live,s and give up other activities because of their alcohol use.
Not everyone with a drinking problem has dramatic warning signs. For most people developing problems with alcohol, the signs of drinking too much can be subtle. Here are some warning signs that may be present before alcohol use becomes either abuse or dependence, along with some suggestions from experts about what to do about it:
Setting limits but not sticking to them. People who consistently fail to limit themselves to a certain number of drinks may be experiencing an early warning sign that they are losing control of their drinking, according to Kelly. Determining the trigger for the desire to drink and then avoiding that trigger can be helpful. If the trigger is unavoidable, keeping a list of reasons not to drink close by can also help.
Friends commenting on a person’s drinking. When friends begin to express surprise about how much a person drinks it is a warning sign. Avoiding these comments may lead to a person lying to others or hiding their drinking habits. Kelly says feedback from other people may start long before the person themselves realizes how much alcohol they are consuming. He says to look at the limits for “low-risk” drinking which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), are one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men.
Plans almost always revolve around alcohol. When drinking becomes the center of a person’s social life and meeting at the bar rather than partaking in previously enjoyable activities a person could be heading toward trouble. Shoot for meeting friends to do things that do not involve alcohol, such as movies, coffee or going for a walk.
Alcohol used as regular treatment for stress. Many people use alcohol as the first line of defense against stressful situations, without realizing that alcohol uses up natural chemicals in the brain that are vital to reducing anxiety. Find other ways to handle stress, such as working out, taking a walk or breathing deeply.
Worry about drinking, or feeling guilty or ashamed. When a person starts being concerned about how much they are drinking it is a real cause for concern. Kelly says that worry comes from the “innermost part of yourself,” and suggests confiding in a trusted person.
Doctor says to cut back. When a doctor tells a person to cut back on the drinking they should pay attention.
Waking up with frequent hangovers. Kelly says hangovers are indicative of a problem, as are blacking out or forgetting what happened the night before. Monitoring intake can help stop alcohol consumption before going too far. There is an app for that, many of which are free for various types of smartphones.
Alcohol indulgence can start to have negative effects on many areas of a person’s life, including sleep, mood, weight and other physical effects such as dry skin, hair and nails. The symptoms of problem drinking are not the same for everyone, but these common signs could be early indicators of trouble.
By Beth A. Balen