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Alcohol and its Effects

Alcohol is one of the most commonly consumed drugs in the world. It’s also one of the most socially acceptable drugs to use.

Many people use alcohol to stimulate themselves socially, to “take the edge off” when they’re stressed, or as self-medication for anxiety or insomnia. 

ARH Drunk Man with empty bottles

While alcohol may help in these short-term situations, it often creates more problems than it solves. Even moderate drinking habits comes with serious consequences, including:

  • Hangovers
  • Poor sleep
  • Anxiety, depression, and irritability
  • Memory problems
  • Relationship issues
  • Inability to maintain responsibilities in school or work

The effects of alcohol are even more severe for anyone that abuses it. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) can lead to liver disease, cancer, cardiac problems, and ultimately death if it goes untreated.

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to reduce or cut out alcohol consumption from your life and avoid the physical, social, and mental health problems that come with it. 

How Do I Know if I Have a Drinking Problem?

Some people, especially young adults in their 20’s and 30’s, might have trouble recognizing drinking problems. Because binge drinking has been so normalized in college and other party cultures, it can be surprising to learn that it is actually a serious form of substance abuse.

It's hard to know if you or someone you know has a drinking problem because the definition of alcohol use disorder varies from person to person. However, there is a useful set of criteria published in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders), an authoritative handbook that psychologists, doctors, and mental health specialists use to diagnose patients.

To diagnose alcohol use disorder, doctors will ask if any of the following statements apply to you within the last year:

  • You’ve drunk more or longer than you initially intended
  • You tried to reduce or stop drinking but couldn’t
  • You lost a significant amount of time because of drinking or being hungover
  • You wanted to drink so badly you couldn’t focus on anything else
  • Drinking or being hungover interfered with your family, work, or school responsibilities
  • You continued drinking even though it was affecting your relationships 
  • Some habits or hobbies that were important to you were replaced with drinking
  • You engaged in risky behavior (driving, unsafe sex, walking in a dangerous area, etc.) after drinking
  • You continued to drink even though it made you anxious, depressed, or caused a blackout
  • You developed a tolerance (you need more alcohol to produce the same effects)
  • You had alcohol withdrawal symptoms 

If you respond “yes” to two or three questions, you are considered to have a mild alcohol use disorder. Four to five “yes” answers is regarded as a moderate alcohol use disorder, and six or more affirmatives designates a severe alcohol use disorder.

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How to Stop Drinking Before It Becomes a Problem

Even if none of the DSM-5 situations apply to you, or if you only have a mild disorder, it’s important to be mindful of your alcohol intake. This includes both the amount of alcohol you consume and your reason for consuming it. 

Taking control of your relationship with alcohol before it develops into a moderate or severe problem greatly reduces the risk of losing control and developing health complications that come along with chronic alcohol use.

Here are five tips for reducing or cutting out the amount of alcohol you drink:

Don’t keep alcohol in your house

One of the easiest ways to reduce your alcohol intake is to get rid of any alcohol in your house. Often, knowing you need to go out and purchase a drink is enough to deter you when trying to quit or cut down on drinking. 

You can purchase alcohol-free beverages such as soda water, soda, juices, or tea to replace alcohol. If you live with roommates, you can ask them to keep their alcohol out of sight instead of shared spaces.

Practice mindful drinking

Mindful drinking involves being more aware and present when making decisions involving alcohol. Alcohol is so ingrained in our culture that often we are socially expected to drink — think of champagne celebrations, victory drinks, and “pre-gaming” or tailgating. 

These cultural regularities often cause us to get caught up in the moment, and we find ourselves consuming alcoholic beverages mindlessly with friends or family members. Mindful drinking encourages people to be more active and intentional about their decisions to drink or not drink by helping them prepare themselves before drinking, consider each drink they take, and practice how they communicate with others about drinking.

Meet people in places that don’t serve alcohol

If you meet someone new or plan a first date at a bar, drinking will likely be a part of your relationship due to the precedent that was set. However, suppose you meet people in a cafe, park, bakery, or restaurant that doesn't serve alcohol. In that case, there is no precedent, making it more likely that you can have a relationship that doesn't prioritize alcohol.

The same goes for meeting old friends. If you’re trying to alter your alcohol intake, it’s best to be open and honest about it. Most people will be happy to encourage you to be healthier, and anyone who refuses to meet for a juice instead of a beer may be part of the problem.

Practice Moderation Management

Moderation Management (MM) is a non-profit organization that hosts peer-led support groups for people who would like to reduce their alcohol consumption. It was founded in 1994 as an alternative to Alcoholics Anonymous for people who do not have an alcohol dependence and merely wish to reduce or moderate their heavy drinking habits, rather than staying sober.

MM encourages members to set their own individual drinking goals that are appropriate for their individual situation. They have face to face meetings or virtual meetings where members help each other set goals, follow guidelines and limits, and engage in a cognitive behavioral change program.

Find a supportive community

Having support is one of the most crucial factors in reducing or quitting drinking. Whether it’s a formal program such as MM, or a group of family and friends, having a community that supports your decision can make the process significantly easier. 

It’s best to be open and honest about your relationship with alcohol. That way you can cultivate relationships with people who also choose to practice mindful drinking habits.

How to Stop Drinking if I Have a Drinking Problem

For those with a moderate or severe alcohol use disorder, quitting can be a much more difficult endeavor. Alcoholism is a chronic, relapsing disorder that affects your brain chemistry. 

That's why many attempts to quit cold turkey fail. Many heavy drinkers quickly fall back into unhealthy patterns without the proper mindset, social skills, and coping mechanisms learned in treatment programs.

There are many different options for alcohol abuse treatment, and it's important to find the one that is most suited to your needs. Medical advice from a psychologist, doctor, or addiction specialist may help provide insight into which treatment method is right for you. 

Here are the three most popular and effective treatment options:

Support Groups

Support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery provide structure, accountability, and community to people who suffer from substance use disorders. They typically involve weekly or monthly face-to-face meetings, though many have gone virtual due to COVID-19.

These support groups may be enough to help someone with a moderate drinking problem and a high level of motivation to achieve sobriety. At the very least they will provide valuable resources and connections for people on a path to recovery.

However, more frequently, they act as after treatment programs that people enter after a structured rehabilitation program at a certified treatment facility. 

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment programs are one of the most effective options for people with a mild or moderate alcohol use disorder. In these programs, the patient undergoes treatment at a facility, but returns home to sleep. 

They range in intensity, duration, and services offered and are often catered to the patient’s needs. Outpatient program timelines typically involve three main stages:

  1. Get sober
  2. Strengthen sobriety
  3. Thrive in sobriety

Outpatient programs are best for individuals with a high level of motivation for recovery and have additional responsibilities such as family, work, or school obligations that they cannot stop during treatment.

Inpatient Treatment

Inpatient treatment is the most intensive rehabilitation option for those with moderate to severe alcohol use disorders. It also has the highest rate of successful recovery.

During inpatient treatment, patients sleep, eat, and undergo treatment all while living at the treatment facility.

There are typically five stages in inpatient programs:

  1. Evaluation
  2. Detoxification
  3. Psychological and medical treatment
  4. Transition
  5. Maintenance

Both inpatient and outpatient programs vary on methodologies, but most of them use a combination of psychotherapy (talk therapy), group therapy, and some health and wellness counseling.

Other popular therapies include:

  • Motivational enhancement therapy
  • Contingency management
  • Group counseling
  • Relapse prevention
  • Educational programs/lectures
  • Medication assisted therapy
  • Art therapy
  • Exercise and nutrition counseling
  • Holistic therapy (yoga, meditation, etc.)

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Resources

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Matzger, Helen, et al. Reasons for Drinking Less and Their Relationship to Sustained Remission from Problem Drinking. 17 Aug. 2005, www.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1360-0443.2005.01203.x.   

Pringle, Kristine E., et al. “The Role of Medication Use and Health on the Decision to Quit Drinking Among Older Adults.” Journal of Aging and Health, vol. 18, no. 6, Dec. 2006, pp. 837–851, doi:10.1177/0898264306293583.

Paswan, Audhesh K. et al. “Alcohol and college students: Reasons, realization and intention to quit.” Journal of Business Research, Volume 68, Issue 10, 2015, Pages 2075-2083, ISSN 0148-2963, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jbusres.2015.03.005

Reynolds, Ashley, et al. “Is being mindful associated with reduced risk for internally-motivated drinking and alcohol use among undergraduates?”, Addictive Behaviors, Volume 42, 2015, Pages 222-226, ISSN 0306-4603, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.addbeh.2014.11.027

Gates, Nicola. Health: “Mindful not mindless drinking” [online]. LSJ: Law Society of NSW Journal, No. 25, Aug 2016: 54-55. https://search.informit.org/doi/10.3316/INFORMIT.238984933583270 ISSN: 2203-8906

Anna Lembke & Keith Humphreys (2012) “Moderation Management: A Mutual-Help Organization for Problem Drinkers Who Are Not Alcohol-Dependent”, Journal of Groups in Addiction & Recovery, 7:2-4, 130-141, DOI: 10.1080/1556035X.2012.705657

de Shazer, Steve, and Luc Isebaert. “The Bruges Model.” Taylor & Francis, Journal of Family Psychotherapy, 23 Sept. 2008, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1300/J085v14n04_04.

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