Could You Have a Drinking Problem Without Even Knowing?

Angela Cabotaje Fact Checked
© Jayme Burrows / Stocksy United

It’s been a stressful day at work, and your slog of a commute is only making it worse.

So once you get home, you’re looking forward to changing into your comfiest sweatpants, rustling up some dinner and pouring yourself a nice, big glass of wine.

Sound familiar to you? (Yep, me three.)

Let’s be honest: Even though a recent study by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington shows that there’s no safe level of alcohol consumption, that’s just not how many of us operate in real life.

We enjoy drinking alcohol to celebrate the good times and cope with the bad. Whether it’s at a happy hour with coworkers or on a first date to meet your future bae in person, we’re conditioned to de-stress, socialize and party — all with a drink in hand.

That’s exactly the problem, says Ali Mokdad, Ph.D., chief strategy officer of population health at the University of Washington and a professor of health metrics sciences at IHME.

“In the United States, we have seen an increase in alcohol consumption and an increase in binge drinking, which is drinking more than four drinks at a time,” Mokdad notes.

With more people drinking alcohol to excess — often without even knowing it — unintended health consequences follow.

Alcohol is now the fourth-leading cause of death in the country. And the number of women, in particular, who have died from alcohol use has increased a staggering 67 percent over the last decade.

This all may feel like alarmist buzzkill to someone who just wants to enjoy a glass of wine every once in a while, but these scary statistics are worth considering when you’re about to whip out that corkscrew.

“If you do like drinking alcohol socially, it’s important to think about how you can minimize your risks and stay within the limits that you have,” says Kristen Lindgren, Ph.D., a psychologist at University of Washington Medical Center-Roosevelt and an associate professor in the University of Washington’s Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.   

Here are some practical takeaways for evaluating your alcohol consumption without putting a huge damper on your next dry martini.

Know your alcohol limits

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines low-risk drinking for women as no more than seven drinks per week and no more than three drinks on any single day. These are broad guidelines, though, and for some women, even that amount can still be a problem.

“Biologically, some women can take more alcohol than others,” Mokdad notes. “But too much alcohol in one setting is harmful in many ways.”

It’s also important to realize that those alcohol limits are based on standard drink sizes: 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

“Restaurant pours are often much bigger than that,” Lindgren cautions. “That glass of wine you order at a restaurant or bar may actually be one and a half servings of wine. So your two glasses of wine might actually be three glasses. And mixed drinks are really tricky because you don’t know how much alcohol is in there. One cocktail might actually be anywhere from two to four standard drinks.”

Knowing your numbers is important, Lindgren says, and another approach is to focus on being more mindful about your drinking.

Opt for quality instead of quantity, and savor your drink while you sip. You can use that as a reason to order off the fancy wine list next time.

Drink at your own pace

Guidelines aside, there are ways that social drinking can also get you into trouble.

Situations like happy hours, pub crawls and even drinking with men can cause you to consume more alcohol than you might when you’re alone.

“If you’re a woman and you’re out with a friend or on a date, the tendency is to pace yourself in accordance with the people around you,” Lindgren says.

Your future bae may have just downed two Manhattans like they were nothing, but that doesn’t mean you’re not already feeling it after one.

There’s also all that peer pressure to take another shot while bar hopping or to get the most out of that happy hour deal by ordering just one more drink. Before you know it, you’ve consumed way more alcohol than you intended.

Celebrations and the holiday season can compound the problem, with festive beverages and glasses of champagne often an integral part of parties.

To combat these pitfalls, make your drink limits known up front and ask your crew to back you up. Or mentally remind yourself of your intentions each time you’re tempted to order another drink.

Another way to do this more subtly is to opt for a fun beverage minus the booze — think sparkling water with a squeeze of lime — or to alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. This way you can still feel like you’re participating socially but without drinking more than you want.

Consider the motivations and consequences

While the amount of alcohol you drink is important, your reasons for drinking and the results of when you do are equally so.

“Problematic drinking can mean a lot of different things,” Lindgren says. “Are you drinking as a way to cope with stress or something difficult in your life? Also think about consequences: Based on how much you’re drinking, how is your sleep? How is your decision making? Is your work being affected by it? Are you getting into more fights with your partner or friends?”

If you start noticing a negative pattern — like you only drink when you’re stressed out or you always get into arguments afterward — that may be an indication that your relationship with alcohol isn’t in a healthy place.

“Use this as a cue and find ways to cope with what’s going on without drinking so that you can limit your alcohol use to how you want to use it,” Lindgren says.

Try a dry spell

If you’re having a hard time figuring out just what effect alcohol is having on your life, consider taking a short break so you can look at the situation with more clarity.

“People can deliberately take a period away from drinking as a way to reset their tolerance and see how they’re doing,” Lindgren explains.

The tradition of Dry January — going a full month without alcohol — is a popular one that’s right in line with those resolutions you have lined up. But committing to two weeks sans alcohol can also do the trick.

Either way, the whole point is to be mindful of when and why you’re drinking so you can reach a healthy balance.

Cheers to that.