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What kind of a drinker are you?

Whether alcohol has been a part of our life for a long time or a short time, we may not realize our own drinking patterns. When we learn more, we are often surprised at how our alcohol use would be characterized if looked at clinically or by an outsider.

What kind of a drinker are you?


Abstinence is simply the process of abstaining, meaning that we are not engaging in a certain behavior. If an individual does not engage in a behavior at all, either permanently or for a short period of time, that person is said to be abstinent. For example, "He was abstinent from alcohol for 3 months." Sometimes abstinence is voluntary and sometimes it is forced when alcohol is simply unavailable. But abstinence is typically considered to be the choice of refraining from alcohol use when it is available.

Moderate drinking

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as up to 1 drink per day for women of legal drinking age and up to 2 drinks per day for men of legal drinking age.

Binge drinking

The U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent (or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter) or higher. For a typical adult, this pattern of excessive alcohol use roughly corresponds to consuming 4 or more drinks (female), or 5 or more drinks (male) in about 2 hours.

High-risk drinking

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in comparison to moderate alcohol consumption, high-risk drinking is the consumption of 4 or more drinks on any day or 8 or more drinks per week for women and 5 or more drinks on any day or 15 or more drinks per week for men

High-intensity drinking

High-intensity drinking is defined by the NIAAA as alcohol intake at levels twice or more the gender-specific threshold for binge drinking. For example, this drinking pattern means 8 or more drinks for women and 10 or more drinks for men on one occasion.

Alcohol Use Disorder

When drinking becomes a problem, it can be medically diagnosed as Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). To be diagnosed with AUD, an individual must meet certain criteria outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders 5th Edition (DSM-5). For example, one criterion is: “In the past year have you: Had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer, than intended?” According to the DSM–5, anyone meeting any 2 of 11 criteria during the same 12-month period can receive a diagnosis of AUD. However, the diagnosis of the severity of AUD can be mild, moderate, or severe, based on the number of criteria that are met. Severity is defined as mild (2 criteria met), moderate (4-5 criteria met), or severe (6 or more criteria met).

Problem drinking vs. Alcoholism

Problem drinking and alcoholism are common terms. They share some characteristics, such as inappropriate use of alcohol and negative life impacts from alcohol use. Problem drinkers and alcoholics alike often become defensive when their use of alcohol is questioned. One of the key differences between problem drinking and alcoholism is dependence. Alcoholics have established a physical dependency on alcohol use. Problem drinkers have not yet established a physical dependency on alcohol. However, problem drinking is not without impacts. When problem drinkers use alcohol, it causes issues in their lives or in the lives of others.

Problem drinking can lead people to make unhealthy decisions. This includes missing commitments or work, driving under the influence, selecting friends based on their drinking behavior or support for one’s own drinking behavior, or making risky decisions regarding sexual activity, money, or physical safety. Problem drinkers may need alcohol in order to achieve a desired state of mind. This includes needing alcohol to feel comfortable in social situations, feel good about yourself, have a good time, feel important or valued in some way, or to escape problems or worries.

Am I addicted?

We sometimes use the term addicted in a casual way. We might say we are addicted to sports, chocolate, or karaoke. But there is a difference between intensely liking something and being addicted to it. No matter how much you may like an activity, you are not addicted if you can stop it when the consequences become negative. However, when we are addicted to something, we continue its use despite our awareness that we have crossed the threshold from enjoyment to danger.

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James McGinley, PhD is a professor, author, certified life coach, and licensed counselor. He is interested in cross-cultural and applied psychology, whether at work, as a part of a team, in our personal lives and in our relationships with others, or when we face adversity in life – whether from stress, addiction, or exposure to crisis.

(Image credit Freepik)

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