Alcohol abuse and dependence does not look the same in every case, but there are alcoholism symptoms to look for if you think that the substance has become a problem in your life. These symptoms are behavioral, physical and even psychological. Not everyone will exhibit all ten of the signs of alcohol use disorder outlined here. However, understanding alcoholism facts means seeing even one or two of these symptoms may mean that alcohol abuse has turned into addiction.
“Alcohol use disorder is when your drinking causes serious problems in your life, yet you keep drinking. You may also need more and more alcohol to feel drunk. Stopping suddenly may cause withdrawal symptoms.”
~ U.S. National Library of Medicine
This is a relatively straightforward alcoholism definition, which health experts call alcohol use disorder. The definition given by the U.S. National Library of Medicine reflects the four major signs that alcohol abuse and dependence has progressed to full alcoholism:
- Craving: Experiencing a strong urge to drink
- Loss of Control: Finding yourself unable to stop drinking, even in the face of problems in your life
- Physical Dependence: Experiencing withdrawal symptoms after stopping alcohol consumption suddenly
- Tolerance: Needing more and more alcohol to reach the same physical effect
It is impossible to pin down just one factor that causes alcoholism or alcohol abuse. Instead, there is a range of factors that contribute to the physical and mental dependence on substances like alcohol. Most experts agree that alcoholism results from a combination of genetic components, environmental influences, and psychological predispositions.
While the exact cause of alcohol use disorder cannot necessarily be traced, it is possible to identify the symptoms of alcoholism on an individual basis. The four major signs of alcoholism have already been outlined: craving, loss of control, physical dependence, and tolerance. Each of these signs can be expanded, creating a list of the top ten alcoholism symptoms. If you meet several signs on this list, do not take it as a diagnosis – instead, use this post as a starting point for getting the professional help that you need.
Sign #1: Alcohol Consumes Time & Energy
Alcohol dependence most commonly develops slowly, over a long period of time. Alcohol abuse may begin with binge drinking on the weekends, but the substance gradually consumes more and more time, energy, and attention. If you find yourself consistently thinking about the next time you can drink, or spending each weekday evening sipping alcohol, this is a sign that alcohol dependence has begun to form in your brain and body.
“A few mild symptoms – which you might not see as trouble signs – can signal the start of a drinking problem. If heavy drinking continues, then over time, the number and severity of symptoms can grow and add up to an alcohol use disorder.”
~ National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
Sign #2: Alcohol Harms Your Interpersonal Relationships
While there may not be one set definition of an alcoholic, one sure sign that your drinking habits have moved from casual to problematic is when the substance begins to harm your interpersonal relationships. If you have trouble performing at work or staying focused because of your drinking, this is a sign that your use of alcohol has started to get out of control and is one of the major alcoholism symptoms. More than that, alcohol abuse can often be detrimental to your relationships with your loved ones – both friends and family. Hiding alcoholism is difficult, particularly from those who are closest to you. Drinking habits that cause tension with your partner or cause you to neglect your responsibilities at home are behaviors reflective of alcohol use disorder. This impact on relationships is one of the most detrimental effects of alcoholism.
“Drinking is a problem if it causes trouble in your relationships, in school, in social activities, or in how you think and feel.”
~ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Sign #3: Alcohol Harms Your Physical Health
The signs of abusing alcohol are not limited to behaviors and relationships. Sustained alcohol abuse also leads to several detrimental effects on physical health. From short-term physical effects, like being sick the morning after a binge, to the long-term development of illness like cancer, anemia or cardiovascular disease, heavy drinking is profoundly detrimental to your physical health. If you see these physical effects but continue abusing alcohol on a daily or weekly basis, addiction may be present.
“It’s no secret that alcohol consumption can cause major health problems, including cirrhosis of the liver and injuries sustained in automobile accidents. But if you think liver disease and car crashes are the only health risks posed by drinking, think again: researchers have linked alcohol consumption to more than sixty diseases.”
~ David Freeman, writing for WebMD
Sign #4: You Experience Withdrawal Symptoms
When alcohol is abused for a long period of time, it commonly produces a physical dependence on the substance. As a result, one of the major signs of alcohol addiction is exhibiting withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop drinking altogether. This is a sign that your body has become dependent on alcohol and needs to go through detoxification to break this dependence. Some of the most common withdrawal symptoms for those with alcohol use disorder include:
- Anxiety or agitation
- Sleep problems (insomnia or oversleeping)
- Shaking hands
- Nausea and vomiting
- Increased irritability
- In some extreme cases, seizures and hallucinations
Sign #5: You Lose Your Control Over Alcohol Use
There is no question that alcoholism affects the brain, making changes in its wiring and chemical responses. Part of this effect is to decrease an individual’s ability to make healthy choices about alcohol. As a result, an alcoholic is essentially unable to control their alcohol use at all. They may drink when they do not intend to, and they may continue to drink more and more alcohol after they start drinking, even if they consciously do not want to. In other words, if you consistently end up drinking more alcohol than you intended to, know that this is one of the major symptoms of an alcoholic.
Sign #6: You Drink More Alcohol Than the Average Person
Most people tend to think that alcoholism is only an issue when it causes some of the personal, psychological and physical symptoms outlined elsewhere in this post. This is not always the case: alcoholism statistics show that about 1 in 5 alcoholics are high-functioning, meaning they do not exhibit any symptoms at all. Instead, an objective measure of alcohol abuse is consistently drinking an excessive amount of alcohol. So what is an excessive amount? It is different for men and women, as outlined below. Exceeding this level of drinking means that you are at risk for alcohol-related issues.
- For Men: Fifteen drinks each week or five or more drinks in one sitting
- For Women: Eight drinks each week or four or more drinks in one sitting
Sign #7: You Drink to Deal with Situations or Emotions
One of the key differences between casual drinking and truly exhibiting alcoholic symptoms is when you use alcohol as a means of dealing with difficult situations or unwanted emotions. If you find yourself pouring a drink each evening after a long, difficult day at work this may not appear problematic on the surface. But alcohol should never be used as a coping mechanism – doing so can put you at risk for alcohol use disorder or other alcohol-related problems. Drinking alcohol to wake up, to go to sleep, to feel happy, to deal with depression or anxiety, or make social situations easier can easily lead to alcohol dependence.
Sign #8: You Are in Denial About Your Alcoholic Symptoms
As the famous quote from Herbert Gravitz and Julie Bowden goes, the “primary symptom” of having alcoholism “is telling everyone – including yourself – that you are not an alcoholic.” If you exhibit several of the symptoms outlined here, but continue to tell yourself and those around you that you have your drinking under control, this is only a confirmation that alcohol use disorder is present in your life. You may tell yourself that your drinking does not affect your work, your family, or your behavior. This may very well be the case, but it does not necessarily mean that alcohol addiction is not an issue for you. Some people are very good about avoiding the detrimental effects of alcohol abuse – but alcoholism will always catch up with you.
Sign #9: You Have Tried to Quit Drinking Without Success
Alcoholism statistics show that once alcohol takes a hold of your brain and body, it can be very difficult to overcome the disease on your own. One of the main signs of alcohol use disorder is the inability to quit drinking altogether. This sign is relatively straightforward: if you find that you are not able to stop drinking, even in the face of all the other problems outlined here, it is a good sign that you are addicted to alcohol.
Sign #10: You Continue Your Alcohol Abuse Despite Problems and Warning Signs
All of the signs of alcoholism outlined above boil down to one main point: alcohol abuse causes many different problems, and alcohol addiction is essentially continuing the drinking habits despite these problems. If you see any of the previous symptoms but continue to drink, it is a good sign that the substance has taken over. Sometimes people think that they can get their drinking under control, and try to cut back on the amount and frequency of their alcohol consumption. While this can work in some cases, most often the best option is to abstain from alcohol altogether. This leaves no wiggle room for justifying individual behaviors or choices and can go a long way toward resolving the problems presented by alcoholism.
“Many people with an alcohol problem need to completely stop using alcohol. This is called abstinence. Having strong social and family support can help make it easier to quit drinking. Some people are able to just cut back on their drinking. So even if you do not give up alcohol altogether, you may be able to drink less. This can improve your health and relationships with others. It can also help you perform better at work or school. However, many people who drink too much find they can’t just cut back. Abstinence may be the only way to manage a drinking problem.”
~ U.S. National Library of Medicine
Moving Forward: Using These Symptoms to Get Help
If you take one thing away from this post, it should be that you do not have to try to recover from the effects of alcohol abuse or alcoholism on your own. The ten alcoholism facts outlined here make it clear that alcoholism can create a cycle of dependence and problematic behaviors that is difficult to escape without outside help. This is where alcoholism treatment comes in, and there are many different options available – from AA meetings to intensive outpatient programs.
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine alcohol use disorder from other forms of alcohol abuse. If you are still unsure about how the definition of an alcoholic relates to everyday life, you have several options for getting to the bottom of the behaviors that you witness. First and foremost, you can take a quiz to help you understand whether your drinking habits and behaviors mean you are an alcoholic. Second, you can get a more formal addiction assessment from an addiction treatment facility like Northpoint Washington. Finally, you can choose to be honest and ask your friends or family members if your drinking has presented problems in your relationships. Opening up like this can go a long way toward understanding how your behaviors may constitute alcoholism symptoms, and give you the support you need for recovery.
More than anything, we are committed to mitigating the effects of alcohol abuse and addiction through professional treatment programs. If you still have questions about the top ten symptoms of alcoholism and what recovery options are available, feel free to contact us today.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2016, October). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/faqs.htm
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017). Alcohol Use Disorder. Retrieved from: https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-use-disorders
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2017). What are Symptoms of an Alcohol Use Disorder? Retrieved from: https://www.rethinkingdrinking.niaaa.nih.gov/How-much-is-too-much/Whats-the-harm/What-Are-Symptoms-Of-An-Alcohol-Use-Disorder.aspx