Reality Check: Is Your Relationship With Alcohol a Healthy One?

The gray area between sober and alcoholic.

When it comes to common ailments, hangovers are considered just about as mainstream as a headache. Nothing to be overly concerned about—and nothing you can really do for them save for popping a few aspirin, hydrating and waiting for the pain to subside. Your boss aside, admitting that you’re hungover at work likely garners more fist pumps and jest than concern. Of course, you don’t have a problem with alcohol. It’s not like you wake up in the morning and pour yourself a cocktail. You’re just hungover every Friday morning from your thirsty Thursday night out. Meaning, your relationship with alcohol is probably A-OK. Or is it?

It’s a common belief that as long as you’re making it into work the day after a night of drinking, you don’t have a problem. But psychologist Dr. Nikki Martinez said that if your relationship with alcohol dulls your productivity on the regular, it’s not such a healthy relationship after all. “People need to ask themselves, ‘How productive am I being at work? And if I am being honest with myself, could I be more productive if I did not feel crummy from drinking?’ In this way, drinking is impacting your life and keeping you from moving forward and achieving your goals, because you are not giving your best. And it surely is noticed.”

It may be time to take a closer looks at how alcoholism is defined, what unhealthy behaviors dance around that camp, some signs that you might want to re-evaluate your own drinking habits, and how to do it effectively.

What Is Alcoholism?

The DSM-V (a.k.a. the dictionary for psychiatrists) has a list of 11 questions that are used to diagnose “Alcohol Use Disorder.” Questions range from the obviously problematic, “Have you continued to drink even though it was causing trouble with your family or friends?” to the milder, more socially acceptable, “Have you had times when you ended up drinking more, or longer than you intended?” If you can answer yes to two or more of these questions in a year’s time period, you’d be slapped with an AUD diagnosis.

However, an alcoholic, someone who has a true addiction to the substance to the point of it qualifying as a mental compulsion, does have more extreme tendencies. “The true alcoholic will inevitably reach a point where one drink is never enough,” said psychologist Dr. Jennifer Guttman. “True alcoholics rarely stop until they feel drunk. Often, alcoholics do not feel normal without some amount of alcohol circulating in their bloodstream. As soon as their blood alcohol level gets low, they start craving a drink.”

Okay, so you don’t fall under the definition of an alcoholic, and you’ve passed the DSM-V’s Alcohol Use Disorder test. Are you still in the clear? Even if you’ve answered no to all of the above, the “why” behind your drinking habits can speak volumes about whether or not your relationship with alcohol is a healthy one.

Motivations Behind Drinking

If you’re an adult of legal drinking age, chances are you’ve likely experienced most of the common motivations behind consuming alcohol. Maybe you’re drinking to cope with a long, stressful day at work. Or pour a glass of wine to help tolerate nagging family members at get togethers. Perhaps you’re looking for some liquid courage to work up the nerve to talk to the cute girl at the bar.

According to Dr. Martinez, these motivations become unhealthy when you haven’t learned how to do all of the above sans alcohol. “Drinking as a means of coping, drinking by yourself, drinking to be socially comfortable are all unhealthy ways of consuming alcohol,” she said. “An individual needs to find healthier ways to deal with their stresses, to bounce back from a bad day, or to be comfortable around others.”

When, if ever, are these motivators okay to pair with alcohol? As Dr. Guttman explained, if you’re using alcohol to overcome initial self-consciousness, but not relying on it to do so, it can end up being beneficial—as long as you don’t get carried away. “The occasional use of alcohol to help with social self-consciousness can be healthy,” she said, “but only if a person eventually learns to socialize without the use of alcohol as a social crutch. Using alcohol to combat initial social self-consciousness means that an individual may struggle in large groups of people and use a drink to loosen their inhibitions. However, if that one drink in large groups leads to needing a drink during all social interactions, large or small, alcohol has become a social crutch.”

But what about that false sense of confidence we get when we drink? Fun fact: That whole idea of liquid courage is actually just that—an idea. “There is little evidence to support a neurological boost in self confidence from alcohol,” said Dr. Guttman. “However, people believe the courage boost hypothesis, and that may actually be enough to create a placebo courage boost.”

Back to that cute girl at the bar. “The psychological boost of a quick, small drink before doing something challenging can be huge,” Dr. Guttman said. “For example, men and women may need a bit of liquid courage to approach each other in a bar for light conversation.”

If your game is rusty, having a drink before you drop a line on a potential love interest may provide just the right amount of liquid lubrication. But eventually, you need to learn how to do it without tequila as a wingman.

The Numbing Effect

So if it’s okay to use alcohol as a social lubricant, what about using it to do the opposite? As far as depending on alcohol to cope with negative feelings goes, there’s not much benefit.

“Alcohol has a numbing effect on emotions,” said Dr. Guttman, “and when some people experience a huge number of life stressors or feel overwhelmed by negative emotions, they may use alcohol to numb the negative emotions they feel.” Of course, the issue with this process is that eventually, the effects of alcohol wear off, but the problem you were drinking to escape will remain.

“Alcohol becomes a coping mechanism when a person uses the alcohol to manage stress, negative emotions, poor self-concept, and loneliness, to name a few,” Dr. Guttman said. “This is problematic because people need to learn they have cognitive tools to manage these experiences without alcohol, and that will make them stronger people overall.”

Our minds tend to be our worst enemy when things go wrong or we’re under stress. But Dr. Guttman said that often times, if we pause and think through the situation at hand rather than reaching for the bottle, we’ll see that our initial reactions are actually inaccurate. “People can cope by challenging the maladaptive assumptions they make about people or situations,” she explained. Instead of jumping to the worst case scenario and buying it in the bottom of a bottle of wine, taking the time to really process the issue, and work through the negative thoughts surrounding it, is an effective way of dealing with stress—eliminating it, instead of masking it.

How and When To Cut Back

If you’ve thought about cutting back, you’ve got your answer.

“This may seem obvious, but trust your gut,” Dr. Guttman said. “If you feel like you have a complicated relationship with alcohol, no one knows that better than you.” The fact that the thought has crossed your mind means that alcohol is somehow interfering with the life you want to live—whether it’s kept you from a hobby you typically do on the weekends, negatively affected your work performance, or has had obvious, consistent detrimental effects on your health or relationships.

According to Dr. Guttman, here are few other indicators you should lay off the sauce:

-You often wake up tired and have a hard time concentrating. Alcohol affects sleep in a negative way, so people don’t feel rested.

– You drink alcohol more days of the week than you don’t. If all day you’re thinking about that drink at the end of it, you might want to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol.

– You put off other activities that are important to you in favor of drinking. Forgetting you have other hobbies is obviously a problem.

– You feel like you live a double life. Everyone thinks you have it all together, but you secretly know you don’t have your alcohol use under control.

– You have difficulty making decisions. The overuse of alcohol comes with a reduction in clarity of thought, which affects our decision-making ability.

Okay, so you need to cut back. The first step? Dr. Guttman recommended a cost/benefit analysis to help keep your drinking at a cadence that’s manageable. “On separate pieces of paper list the pros and cons of both your drinking habits and the changes you want to make,” she said. “Give equal attention to the costs and the benefits. When you list only the costs you deceive yourself into thinking there are no benefits. However, there are needs that are met by drinking. For example, if a person knows that they drink in order to relax, they can attempt alternatives, such as exercise or yoga.”

Next, chart your drinking frequency, and the motivations behind it. “Create a worksheet to track your drinking, which will help you keep yourself honest about how frequently you’re drinking and how much you’re drinking, so that you don’t fall back into old habits,” said Dr. Guttman. “Risk-tracking worksheets identify triggers to drinking which then help develop ‘drink refusal’ or ‘drink moderation’ strategies. After analyzing your worksheets, identify strategies for dealing with cravings.”

But What About My Friends?

The short story: If you have friends who only want to hang out with you while you’re getting obliterated together, those people are not actually your friends. That being said, it can be difficult to make the transition from weekly happy hours and boozy brunches to activities done sans a cocktail in hand.

Dr. Martinez recommended being straight up with your buddies about the fact that you’re cutting back. “In terms of how you deal with social relationships, you can simply say you are trying to focus on a healthier lifestyle,” she said.  “Anyone who pressures you or does not understand that does not appreciate you for you outside of drinking. If drinking activities are all you and your friends have in common, what does that say about the relationship? If you look at the fact that you are choosing to be healthier as a bad thing, and those who are drinking as a normal, or good thing, maybe you need to reevaluate that thinking.”

What To Do Instead Of Getting Wasted

It’s no coincidence that as more and more people take steps to live a mindful, healthy life, sober experiences have become increasingly trendy.

Sober raves have emerged as a popular way to benefit from all the feel good hormones of a night out, minus the hangover. In fact, according to Radha Agrawal, founder of the sober morning rave Daybreaker, partying sans alcohol will actually help strengthen your friendships. “When you participate in activities outside of drinking, the relationships you form are so much stronger and connected because you are present,” she explained. “It’s all about releasing your happy brain chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin and endorphins. We release these naturally through dancing, hugging, listening to music and connecting authentically with others. No drugs or alcohol necessary—just you.”

As for why morning sober raves are becoming popular now, Agrawal credits the feel-good hormones released during these types of parties paired with the emerging wellness trend. “Sober raves are becoming big because it feels good to connect authentically and work out at the same time,” she said. “Wellness is an exploding trend, and to be able to pair dancing and a party vibe with exercise and wellness (especially in the morning!) makes for a really exciting combination.”

Not into dancing or the 5 a.m. wakeup call? Dr. Guttman said that seeing a movie can help achieve a similar effect. “Replace a night out of drinking with a night at the movies,” she suggested. “Horror movies (fear), or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, romantic comedies (laughter) both create an endorphin and dopamine release.”