We’ve all been there: a long day filled with the stresses of work, childcare, or simply living through a difficult era leaves us feeling completely frazzled. And for many of us, the go-to remedy is pouring a glass of wine, enjoying an ice-cold beer, or mixing a favorite cocktail. But when does this ritual that feels like self-care turn into something else? According to Taylor Dove, MA, LPC-MHSP, NCC, the line isn’t always clear.
Especially in times like these, alcohol can become a habitual way to deal with stress. Now is a great time to take a look at our relationship with alcohol, how we use it, and what to do if we need to make any changes.
According to Dove, the first and most important step in examining your relationship with alcohol is to “understand that every person’s experience with alcohol is unique — we all have different standards of what we feel OK about.” It’s crucial when being self-reflective to not compare your feelings and experiences with alcohol to someone else’s.
A great place to start is by asking yourself some questions about how you relate to alcohol. Dove encourages his patients to ask themselves questions like “Are my experiences with alcohol usually positive overall?” and “How do I feel the day after drinking?” If you have generally positive experiences with alcohol, feel fine after you drink, and don’t notice a significant change in your behavior when you drink, there’s a good chance you have a healthy relationship with alcohol. However, if you often drink too much, feel hungover the next day, or notice that you get angry or act differently when you drink, it could be time to change your drinking patterns.
Another helpful question to consider is why you drink. Are you often drinking in social settings while out with friends and having a good time? Or have you found yourself drinking to cope with emotional difficulties and personal life struggles?
There’s nothing wrong with celebrating with friends or having a drink or two to relax after a long day of work. But if you think you may be drinking to escape reality, there may be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. The warning signs of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol include:
• Drinking increasingly larger quantities
• Drinking more often
• Facing negative consequences from drinking
• Feeling a need to drink to function
• The inability to cut back if you choose to
• Calling out from work due to drinking
• Getting angry when drinking
If you think you may be struggling with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, or even alcohol addiction, it may be time to ask for help — an uncomfortable step, but one of the greatest acts of true self-care.
However, according to Dove, “It’s important to know that addiction is the only self-diagnosable condition. Unlike alcohol abuse, where there are clear indicators, there are no criteria for addiction itself.” Being honest with yourself and being aware of your actions and feelings are the first steps in moving forward.
For some people, it may be easy to recognize the need for a change when it comes to drinking, but for others, it may not be as clear. A helpful tool used by many therapists is the MAST (Michigan Alcoholism Screening Test). The MAST is a series of questions that can help you confirm whether your drinking has become unhealthy.
If you decide you need help changing your drinking patterns, therapy can be a great form of support. However, according to Dove, “There are 10,008 minutes in a week; a therapist may get 50 of those. It’s the time in between that counts.” Dove suggests finding additional support outside of therapy, such as Alcoholics Anonymous or other support groups.
Keep in mind that if you’ve been drinking large amounts of alcohol for an extended period of time, it can be very dangerous to stop drinking on your own. If you’re in this situation, it’s recommended that you properly detox from alcohol under the supervision of a professional, either in a rehabilitation program or in a hospital setting.
Whether you’re cutting back, taking a temporary break, or planning to abstain from alcohol permanently, telling others about your relationship with alcohol is your choice alone. But if you did regularly drink in social settings, it can become uncomfortable if others notice you aren’t drinking and ask you about it. Having a plan can be helpful.
Dove recommends practicing what you plan to disclose to your friends and family, to help alleviate any stress you might feel in the moment. Announcing your intentions may feel awkward, but it can help you avoid having to answer questions multiple times. In addition, conversations like these can help normalize sobriety as a temporary or lifelong choice, without the stigma often attached to the word.
Here are some ways experts recommend planning for and talking about sobriety:
Though it’s a cliché, sometimes honesty really is the best policy. If you feel comfortable doing so, tell your close friends and family in a straightforward way, particularly before a social function. Let them know you’re deciding to cut back on drinking, or that you’re going to have a sober month for your health. That way, you can avoid conversations in front of others.
One of the most common struggles is ignoring social cues to have an alcoholic drink. Bringing your favorite non-alcoholic drink to sip on while chatting, or even getting creative with a new mocktail, can be helpful in sticking to your goals.
When you’re trying to stop or cut back on drinking, it can be helpful to set time limits in your social life. When you have nothing to do the next day or don’t have to drive home, it can be easy to overindulge or to give in to social pressure to drink. Set a time to leave the event and remind yourself about some of the reason’s you’re making this choice.
If you’re struggling to cope with alcohol addiction or are using alcohol to self-medicate after a traumatic event in your life, you can find additional resources at Alcoholics Anonymous and at Sobriety Resources. Carbon Health also currently offers virtual mental health appointments in California.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.