You and alcohol


What is alcohol abuse?
What is alcohol addiction?


‘I never drink anything stronger than beer, so I’m not addicted’
‘I’m not an alcoholic because I never drink in the mornings, only after 5 in the afternoon’
‘I do binge once a week, but that can’t do any harm, can it?’

There seem to be as many opinions about alcohol and addiction as there are people. If you want to know what reasonable alcohol consumption is, look at: how much is a lot?

Alcohol use can be fun and can have positive aspects. However, when people drink so as to avoid unpleasant thoughts, emotions or situations, problems arise. Drinking can become a way of coping with problems, and the alcohol then becomes a solution. The alcohol has been given a function, for example to make you less annoyed, to promote social interaction, to make you feel less stressed or to provide a distraction. If drinking makes the drinker less and less able to utilise other solutions, then a drinking problem or alcohol abuse is more likely to develop.

Even if you’re not addicted to alcohol it may be worth changing your drinking habits if alcohol has taken on a function in your life. Therapy can help you focus on applying new ways of solving problems without using alcohol. Read more about 'changing' at: understanding your drinking.

If drinking is causing problems, alcohol abuse or dependency (addiction) may be occuring. The difference between the two is explained below.

What is alcohol abuse?

There is international agreement about what defines ‘substance abuse’, in this case alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse is said to exist if at least one of the following four points applies over a one year period:

  1. You increasingly neglect responsibilities at home, school or work because of drinking. These include arriving late, absences, bad job performance, suspension from school, and neglecting one’s children or housekeeping.
  2. You drink in situations in which it’s dangerous, such as when you have to drive a car or operate machinery.
  3. You’ve had more than one brush with the law due to drinking, for example becoming drunk and disorderly, or driving under the influence.
  4. You continue drinking despite recurrent and worsening problems involving your drinking, such as quarrels at home.

In the case of alcohol abuse, you don’t necessarily need to have built-up tolerance or experience withdrawal symptoms. Drinking has become your way of coping with your problems. You have given it a function in your life; you drink alcohol to feel less annoyed or stressed, vent your emotions, find comfort or distract yourself from feelings you want to avoid. We also call this `problem drinking`.

What is alcohol addiction?

There is international agreement about what defines `addiction`, in this case an addiction to alcohol. An individual is considered dependent (addicted) if three or more of the following have taken place over the course of a year:

  1. Tolerance:
    You are able to drink more and more, and you need more to get the same effect.
  2. Withdrawal:
    You have at least two of the following withdrawal symptoms if you stop drinking:
    - sweating or increased heartrate (over 100 when at rest).
    - shaky hands
    - nausea or vomiting
    - seeing, feeling or hearing things that aren’t there
    - psychological and physical restlessness
    - anxiety
    - epileptic insults (seizures).
    You drink to make these symptoms stop.
  3. You drink more and for longer than you planned to (loss of control).
  4. You keep on wanting to stop or cut down, but not much comes of it.
  5. More and more of your time is taken up by buying and drinking alcohol and recovering from drinking. 
  6. You have fewer or no more social contacts, and you work and enjoy leisure activities less or not at all due to drinking. 
  7. You know that alcohol is harming you and causing problems, but you still keep on drinking.