• For many of us, drinking is part of our lives that we don't really question. But when does drinking become a problem? 

  • Therapist Lyn Reed explores some of our common difficulties with alcohol

  • If you are worried about your drinking habit, we have qualified addiction counsellors available here

When clients seek help through therapy, it often emerges that whilst it appears to me as a therapist they may have a drink problem, they often don’t recognise it as such. They see it as a reward, something which is helping them to relax. They have yet to work out that drink has unhelpful effects on their lives: their relationships, their work and their own overall health. It can be a while before they feel they are able to start looking at the downside of drinking. It can become an all-consuming problem.

In the short-term it feels like the drink helps people to wind down; but then they find they get shaky without a drink. They then find that their sleep is disturbed; they have to get out of bed to go to the toilet. Then they struggle to get up in the morning. They drink the next night to get off to sleep – and then they are in a vicious cycle. 

From a social point of view, their nearest and dearest often find themselves on the receiving end of challenging behaviour and they start arguing – thus putting relationships under pressure.

The trouble is, in the long-term, heavy drinking backfires. It worsens how the individual feels; and how the people around them feel. It is also possible to be a high functioning alcoholic – this person appears to be getting on with their lives, but they are, effectively, living a double life.  

The good news is that changes can be made.

It is important to reflect on how our drinking or drug use affects us. How does it affect others around us on a physical, psychologically and social level?

Then we need to reflect about what has been going on in our lives. This is important to do if we are to learn our lessons and increase our chances of recovery. It often turns out, that a pattern emerges of what triggers an individual to seek solace in drink – loneliness, rejection, loss, low self-esteem, anger. Identifying difficult emotions is an important part of changing our behaviour. If we fail to understand our problem, we block our recovery. Then we need to work on how we are going deal with such emotions – without feeling the need to drink.

On a practical level, we may need to reduce our intake over each week. We may plan to have at least two dry days per week. This needs to be written down so that progress can be tracked. It is also important that the tracking record is shared with someone else. Denial and self-deception is a common issue with those who have a problem with alcohol.  

Self-disclosure to others has been shown to be a powerful tool in facing up to the root of our anxiety and stress and discovering another, more healthy way, to deal with our own issues.

Some people just stop drinking. And that can work for some. For others,  it needs to be more gradual. Whether cessation is total or partial, there needs to be something which fills the void the drink has created. Healthy distraction which is sustainable and enjoyable is often key to recovery.

It is worth mentioning there is a relationship between age and alcohol. Most of us drink less as we get older. But some of us maintain heavy drinking patterns throughout life, and some develop problems with drink for the first time during their later years. Several factors combine to make drinking an increasingly risky behaviour as we age. Our ability to metabolise alcohol declines, which means the beer or two we could drink without consequences in our 30s and 40s has more impact in our 60s and 70s.

Some people have more challenging issues with alcohol than othersLevels of stress and anxiety vary from one individual to another and alcohol is often used as a form of self-medication as an escape from difficult emotions. 

Whilst alcohol addiction is a common problem, our own addiction journey is ours alone. But we don’t have to do the journey of recovery on our own. Reaching out and seeking support is an important step if we are to make the changes we want to make.

Further reading

My partner's drinking worries me – how do I talk to them?

Changing my relationship to alcohol changed my mental health

How to tell your loved ones about your issue with alcohol