Alcoholism vs. Problem Drinking – What’s the Difference?

women holding alcoholic beverages

Problem drinkers and alcoholics have much in common. Both consume alcohol in enough quantity and frequency that they experience some consequences. Alcoholism is still widely misunderstood by the general public, though there is much less ignorance about this affliction than in the past. Just a few generations ago, regular and conspicuous consumption of alcohol was much more socially acceptable than it is today. The days of the three-martini lunch are behind us now, but alcohol abuse is still a tremendous problem. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), more than 25 percent of Americans 18 years old or older report they engaged in binge drinking in the last month. An estimated 88,000 Americans die due to alcohol-related causes every year, making alcohol the third leading preventable cause of death in the country. (1)

The Main Difference Between Alcoholism and Problem Drinking

The primary difference between an alcoholic and a problem drinker is the physical dependence on alcohol. A problem drinker may eagerly anticipate the arrival of the weekend so they can binge drink. An alcoholic will usually need to drink daily simply to avoid withdrawal symptoms. Some alcoholics can go for a few days without a drink, but their sleep is disrupted and they become anxious and increasingly uncomfortable. Many may even be aware that they are experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Alcoholism is a progressive disease however and left unchecked, the amount of alcohol consumed inevitably grows. Sooner or later, the alcoholic will reach a stage where withdrawal symptoms become severe and even life-threatening if they go for long without a drink.

Consequences of Problem Drinking

A problem drinker will often experience consequences. Splitting hangovers. Being late to work. Financial problems and even legal issues like DUI’s or other arrests related to behavior while drinking. However, a problem drinker still has the power of choice. They often go for days or even weeks at a time without a drink without experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms. Problem drinkers who come to terms with the issue often decide the consequences are unacceptable. Before their drinking develops into physical dependence, they make the decision to abstain or severely curtail their drinking. A common example is college students who may drink to excess while in school, but still manage to complete their studies. When they leave school and enter the workplace, build families and so forth, they leave the problem drinking behind.

An alcoholic has largely lost the power of choice. While they may exercise great willpower in resisting a drink for 24 or 48 hours or more, they do so in discomfort. Anxiety, insomnia, cold sweats are often part of the experience. Depending on the stage of alcoholism, they may even experience seizures without alcohol. Ultimately dealing with alcoholism isn’t a matter of will. The real battle begins when the alcoholic accepts that alcohol is their master. That their drinking is beyond their control and even if they are able to abruptly stop for a time, they do so at risk to their own comfort and safety. More often than not, the alcoholic has experienced brief periods of sobriety, followed by relapse. This inability to get sober and stay sober is often what leads them to finally accept outside help to overcome their alcoholism. If you believe you or someone you know has a problem with alcohol, help is available. No matter your age or circumstances, resources are available. Give us a call at (888) MAT-1110 and let’s talk about it.

(1) https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

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