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Is Your Relationship With Alcohol Unhealthy?

‘Healthy’ is an interesting word to use in relation to alcohol. Alcohol is a toxin, and although there is research that suggests it can have health benefits in small quantities, we know that it is not, in itself, healthy. This is all in reference to physical health. However, this post is more interested in terms of mental and emotional health. Alcohol is not healthy, but one’s approach to drinking it can be.


It can be hard to recognise an unhealthy relationship with alcohol...


Drinking alcohol is woven into the fabric of our society. Binge drinking is normalised, using alcohol to self-medicate is used as a punchline, and getting drunk is seen as a prerequisite to having a good night. If you ever question this, go into a greeting cards shop and see just how many celebration cards feature a witty message about getting drunk. It is hard to recognise an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, because a lot of the time, it is seen as normal.


Four funny greetings cards about drinking alcohol
A (very small) sample of the comedy cards that refer to drinking and alcohol.

COVID has impacted all aspects of everyday life, and that includes attitudes and behaviours around drinking. Although some people have found themselves drinking less as a result of spending less time in pubs and clubs, many people have found just the opposite. Studies have shown that many people are drinking more at home, due to reasons like boredom, anxiety, having more time on their hands, and socialising more with members of their household. Drinkaware, the UK’s alcohol education charity, is concerned that these changes may long outlive the pandemic and leave more people than ever with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.

Charities that aim to raise awareness about alcohol abuse often come across as out of touch, or unrealistic, or even preachy – we see some of their lists of ‘warning signs of problem drinking’ and think ‘…but everyone I know does that.’ The warning signs are so generalised, and so normal, that the message somehow gets lost. In isolation, many of the ‘warning signs’, aren’t warning signs at all. For instance, many people, myself included, enjoy a glass of wine with a book in the bath to wind down after a long week. However, because this activity involves ‘drinking alone’ (a popular warning sign that gets listed), perhaps their relationship with alcohol is unhealthy after all. The statement ‘needs alcohol to have fun’ does not ring true for them, but they still wouldn’t want to be the only sober person in the nightclub – is their relationship with alcohol unhealthy? The answer is, of course, not necessarily.


A bottle of wine and two wine glasses on the table in front of a sofa
For many people, drinking at home has become the norm during COVID. Will it continue post-pandemic?

So what is an unhealthy relationship with alcohol? What about a healthy one?


Although it is probably what most people think of first, being addicted to alcohol is not the only kind of unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Regularly binge drinking is generally seen as a warning sign, because it suggests that a person is drinking for the sole purpose of being drunk. Drinking to cope with one’s emotions is often unhealthy because it is a form of self-medication and can prevent a person from actively addressing the source of those emotions.

A healthy relationship with alcohol is one in which drinking is not causing you any negative effects – whether that be in terms of physical health, emotional wellbeing, career and education outcomes, or social life.

At the core of whether one’s relationship with alcohol is healthy or not is the motivation behind it. If you drink just because you enjoy it, then it’s probably okay. If you drink because you feel like you need to, then it may not be. One's relationship with alcohol is deeply individual, and it is not black and white. There is not a clear boundary where it moves from healthy to unhealthy - like most things in life, it exists on a spectrum.


Man in shirt passed out on a desk with an empty bottle of liquor in his hand
If drinking is affecting your ability to work, you may want to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol.

Some questions to ask yourself...


These questions are just things to think about to help make you more aware of your relationship with alcohol. They are not here to tell you whether your relationship with alcohol is healthy or not – they are just a prompt to get you started on thinking about it.

  • Do I feel the need to lie about how much I’m drinking?

  • Am I able to stop after just one drink?

  • Do I feel like I should cut down on my drinking?

  • Have any loved ones expressed concern about my drinking?

  • Has my doctor expressed concern about my drinking?

  • Do I regularly wake up feeling guilty or embarrassed about something I’ve said or done while drunk?

  • Do I regularly wake up after drinking unable to remember the night before?

  • Do I experience withdrawal symptoms when I don’t drink?

  • Do I repeatedly try and fail to cut down on my drinking?


Sober October?


Every January and October, my Facebook feed is inundated with people giving up alcohol for a month, asking for sponsorship to keep them going. It is a great way of raising money for a wonderful charity (Sober October is a yearly campaign for Macmillan Cancer Support) and can also help people kickstart their efforts to cut down on their alcohol consumption, or quit completely. For some, it is a way to realise that there are ways to have fun without drinking, or the things that can be accomplished when one doesn’t lose one or two mornings per week to a hangover.

However, it is important to be aware that this approach is not suitable for everyone. For some people, it can play into an all or nothing mindset. Some people will finish their month-long challenge and then, with their newly decreased alcohol tolerance, go for a heavy drinking session to celebrate their achievement. This can be dangerous and become part of a bigger cycle of abstinence and abuse. I am not trying to dissuade you from embarking on an alcohol-free challenge, but please try to be mindful about how you re-introduce alcohol into your life.


Wire fence with motivational signs saying 'Don't Give Up', 'You Are Not Alone', and 'You Matter'.
If you need help to tackle an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, there is support out there.

Where to access support


If you do feel like your relationship with alcohol could be unhealthy or you want to cut down your alcohol consumption, there are many places you can go to find support:

For a more extensive list of alcohol support charities and resources, click here


Have we missed anything out? What topics do you want us to cover next? Let us know in the comments and help us start an open discussion about mental health and wellbeing.


Sources

Drinkaware - Drinkaware warns lockdown level drinking could have lasting impact

Drinkaware - Pandemic habits ingrained for 2.7m high risk drinkers

Mind - Recreational Drugs and Alcohol

NHS - Alcohol Misuse

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