Addictions: Drinking

While many people drink alcohol moderately, there are many others who drink in a problematic way. At the more severe end of drinking behavior is alcohol dependence, a term which covers those who experience symptoms including loss of control over amounts and frequency of drinking, and increasing preoccupation so that drinking takes up a large amount of the person’s time. People with alcohol dependence may also develop tolerance so they need to drink larger amounts to have the same effect, and experience withdrawal symptoms when drinking stops. A person with alcohol dependence may experience all of these symptoms and is at risk of the problem worsening, including major impact on health and social functioning if they don’t cut down or stop altogether.

Much more common than alcohol dependence, however, is problem drinking, where drinking can be seen as normal and certainly similar to what your friends are doing. Problem drinkers often find the amount they drink on any one occasion has a habit of getting away on them, with good intentions going out the window after the first few drinks. For these people, drinking can affect their health, impact on work, and lead to arguments with friends or family. Problem drinking is also associated with risky behaviour, such as drink-driving or getting in situations where risk of physical or sexual assault is increased. Alcohol brings your guard down, so that you say or do things you regret later. This may be embarrassing and can have quite a significant impact on relationships – if you haven’t experienced it yourself then you probably at least know someone who has behaved inappropriately while drunk and had some explaining to do the next day!

If you’re drinking above the recommended drinking guidelines promoted by the alcohol advisory Council (ALAC) then you’re at risk of experiencing these problems. The ALAC guidelines recommend that men drink no more than 6 standard drinks per occasion and no more than 21 standard drinks per week. For women these figures are 4 and 14. Many alcohol products state the number of standard drinks they contain, but as a guide, a bottle of wine equals 8 standard drinks and a can of 4% beer equals one standard drink. The drinking guidelines also suggest you have at least two days per week without alcohol.

For problem drinking there are some good self-help resources online (start with www. or you might consider talking it over with a health professional such as a psychologist or GP or contacting the Alcohol Drug Helpline (0800 787 797). For heavier drinkers, making changes may require more sustained attention. This will particularly be the case if loss of control is a prominent feature and if drinking is used to deal with underlying emotional problems. Treatment options include regular therapy, medication, AA meetings, and for the most addicted drinkers, medical detoxification and residential treatment.

If you are wondering about whether or not your own drinking is a problem, try taking this test on the website of the Alcohol Advisory Council. The site also contains many other resources for people concerned about their own drinking or for those concerned about someone else. The Like a Drink website contains a number of brief video clips of real life experiences of New Zealanders who have had a problem with their drinking.

The Alcohol Drug Helpline is a confidential support and advice service where you can talk to someone about your drinking or drug use, or your concerns about the use of someone you know, and can receive advice on available services in your area. The helpline operates 10am to 10pm seven days a week. Phone 0800 787 797.


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