Need a Drink to Unwind? You May Have an Alcohol Use Disorder

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Published: 04/10/2018 | Author:

Approximately 16 million Americans suffered from alcohol use disorder in 2015—roughly 5.3 million women and 9.8 million men. The widespread acceptance of drinking in the United States can make it difficult to tell when someone has a genuine problem with alcohol. For example, needing a drink to unwind is such a commonplace idea in our culture that we see it reflected over and over in books, on television, in movies, online, and so on. As a result, we accept it as natural, and may even encourage it by making sure to have an open bottle of wine waiting for a loved one at the end of a long day.

What’s important to remember is that there’s a big difference between having a drink to relax from time to time, and genuinely “needing” alcohol to unwind. One is a harmless indulgence, and the other is a sign of alcohol dependence, and may indicate that you need an alcohol detox, and addiction treatment. Failing to respond to the warning signs of alcohol use disorder will cause widespread destruction in a life that is no doubt already suffering.

From Alcohol Abuse to Alcohol Dependence

Many adults are able to drink moderately with no negative effects (moderate drinking is defined by the CDC as two or less drinks a day for men and one or less for women) but many others cannot keep themselves from drinking to excess and becoming alcohol abusers.

Alcohol abuse is a problematic pattern of drinking that causes recurrent negative consequences, such as failing to live up to expectations and responsibilities at home, work, or school, or regularly causing conflicts that endanger relationships. Frequently drinking to excess can lead to alcohol dependence, which means that you become tolerant to the effects of alcohol and need to drink more to feel intoxicated, and you experience withdrawal symptoms such as headache, nausea, sweating, and irritability when you try to stop drinking. If you continue to drink alcohol after becoming dependent, you will keep increasing your tolerance and worsening your withdrawal symptoms while also increasing your physical and psychological reliance on alcohol until you have a full-blown alcohol addiction, otherwise known as alcohol use disorder.

One in 12 Americans suffer from alcohol use disorder, with young adults age 18 to 29 having the highest rates of drinking problems. Some people are more vulnerable to developing alcohol dependence and alcohol use disorder due to genetic, environmental, and psychological factors. You can have a family history of alcohol dependence that makes you more vulnerable, partly because of a genetic predisposition towards addiction, and partly because of a home environment where excessive drinking is commonplace and relationships have been damaged by addiction behavior. Many people with undiagnosed or untreated anxiety or depression start drinking to self-medicate, then continue drinking because the rebound effects of alcohol make their original symptoms worse. Although some people pride themselves at being able to drink other people under the table and still function, having such a high tolerance actually makes you more vulnerable to alcohol use disorder.

Drinking heavily puts you at higher risk of developing a variety of health problems, such as cancer and heart disease, and it can worsen health problems you already have, including physical, mental, and behavioral health problems. Alcohol also encourages risky behaviors such as driving under the influence or unsafe sex. Liver damage, sexual dysfunction (for both women and men), and neurological damage can also directly result from excessive alcohol use.

Signs You May Have an Alcohol Use Disorder

1. You drink even when you plan not to.

You might start your day with the best intentions of staying sober, having a nice dinner with loved ones after work, then getting a good night’s sleep. Then you have an unpleasant encounter with a coworker that makes a stop at the liquor store hard to resist, or you end up saying yes instead of no when alcohol is offered at dinner that evening. Before you even fully realize what’s happening, your alcohol-free day has turned into another drinking day—or maybe you completely recognize what’s happening in the moment, but you find yourself unable to change the course of events despite your good intentions.

2. You often drink more than intended.

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You start off meaning to have just one drink out with friends, or at a work function, or at home with your partner, but instead you wind up pouring and tossing back another drink, and another, feeling powerless to stop yourself from drinking until you’re drunk—or in blackout. Screening for how often an individual drinks and how many drinks they consume in a single occasion has been scientifically proven as a simple way to tell if a person suffers from alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder. The DSM-5 defines hazardous drinking as four or more drinks in a day and/or over seven drinks a week for women, and five or more drinks in a day and/or over 14 drinks a week for men. If you frequently drink this much, odds are you have a problem with alcohol.

3. You make excuses for your alcohol consumption.

The phrases come easily to mind whenever you need them: you’re stuck in a bad job, your spouse nags too much and starts fights, you were celebrating with friends, you deserve to enjoy yourself during the holidays, you’re just having a hard time right now. These are just a few of the endless excuses that a person with alcohol use disorder can come up with to justify their alcohol consumption to others and themselves. These kinds of excuses not only make it easier for you to keep drinking, they also make drinking heavily seem like a temporary way of being that is all about your current life conditions, rather than what it really is: a sign of an addiction that will persist no matter what else is going on in your life, unless you get professional treatment.

4. You experience withdrawal symptoms if you don’t drink.

If you suffer from an alcohol use disorder, then you have a degree of alcohol dependence that will cause physical and mental withdrawal symptoms if you attempt to quit drinking. These can be mild to moderate, such as:

  • Rapid mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Headaches
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness and jumpiness
  • Tremors
  • Irritability
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Insomnia, difficulty staying asleep, bad dreams
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Abnormal movements

Alcohol detox symptoms can also be severe, indicating a need to seek immediate medical attention for delirium tremens, an autonomic nervous system reaction to alcohol withdrawal that can be fatal without treatment. Delirium tremens symptoms include:

  • Extreme confusion
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Agitation
  • Grand mal seizures

5. People have expressed concern over your alcohol use.

Despite your best efforts to conceal or deny your alcohol use disorder, there are likely people in your life who are worried about your drinking and have tried to express this concern directly or indirectly. Some people may make a subtle comment before a night out, like maybe you should take it easy on the cocktails, while others may directly and forcefully confront you about your alcohol use. However this concern may manifest, the fact remains that your drinking has gotten so out of control that friends, family, and possibly even your boss or coworkers have noticed, even if they haven’t yet spoken up.

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6. Your drinking is negatively affecting your work and relationships.

Excessive alcohol use will inevitably cause you to fail to live up to expectations and responsibilities at work and in your personal life. Alcohol use disorder leads to lost productivity on the job, workplace accidents, and eventually loss of employment. In your personal life, you may have had relationships break up due to your drinking or had family members or roommates move out or kick you out because they can’t continue to live with you while you’re drinking. Even your relationships with loved ones who are in denial about your alcohol use disorder are likely being strained by your drinking. Denial can take a heavy toll on people’s energy and emotional well-being, leading to resentment, anger, exhaustion, and alienation.

7. You frequently experience blackouts.

Having vague and blurry memories of what happened while you were drunk (brownouts) or chunks of completely lost time while you were drinking (blackouts) are a red flag that you drank so much your brain was unable function properly. There are a number of different processes involved in memory, primarily taking in information, storing information, and retrieving information; and all of these processes can be impaired by excessive alcohol consumption. If you regularly experience blackouts and yet keep drinking anyway, you have an alcohol use disorder that requires an alcohol detox and professional addiction treatment. You should be especially concerned if you are intentionally causing blackouts by “drinking to forget.” Coping with stress, emotional pain, or traumatic memories in this dangerous way is a clear sign of a serious addiction.

How to Overcome Alcohol Use Disorder

If you recognize the symptoms of alcohol dependence or alcohol use disorder in yourself, then you need to seek treatment as soon as possible, either to halt your problem drinking before it becomes a serious addiction, or to treat your addiction before it’s too late.

Alcohol Detox

The first step to overcoming alcohol use disorder is to get an alcohol detox. Quitting drinking while inpatient at an addiction treatment facility with constant medical monitoring is the best choice for anyone’s alcohol detox, especially if you drink heavily on a daily basis or have been suffering from alcohol dependence for years. You may want to choose an inpatient alcohol detox even if you have a mild to moderate case of alcohol use disorder. A qualified addiction treatment facility will have the resources and experience to keep you as comfortable as possible through your withdrawal experience, while simultaneously introducing treatments and therapies to help you cope with the underlying issues and emotions that will inescapably surface after you stop self-medicating with alcohol. This will allow you to start your recovery off strong, protecting you from the much higher risk of relapse you’ll encounter if you try to quit on your own.

Alcohol Use Disorder Treatment

After alcohol detox, you should participate in an intensive addiction treatment program, preferably a 90-day inpatient program. Outpatient treatment can also be beneficial, but you need to make sure that you have a stable home environment and a strong support system in place before you choose this option. Twelve step meetings and other peer support groups are not only helpful for overcoming alcohol use disorder while you are still in a treatment program, they are wonderful assets to support your lifelong recovery success.

Changing Your Lifestyle

Recovery doesn’t end when you’re discharged from a treatment program. It needs to become a part of your life’s fabric. To stay sober for the long term, you need to continue to monitor and care for your mental and physical health, and never take your sobriety for granted. You need to transform your life in whatever ways are necessary to make staying alcohol free easier and more natural from day to day. For example, if you work an unfulfilling, high-stress job, you need to find new employment that better complements the kind of life you want to live. You need to let go of unhealthy friendships that revolved around drinking, and revive old or form new healthy friendships that are fun, but also supportive of your wellbeing. You need to redesign your life to complement your continued recovery success.

Call, Click, or Email for Help

When you’re ready to get help for alcohol use disorder, can help. You can look into options on your own through our directory, or you can talk to one of our treatment advisors by calling 800-483-2193(Who Answers?). We are available day and night to chat online or consult over the phone.

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