Heavy Drinking vs. Alcoholism: What's The Difference?
There are many different types of drinkers. There are casual drinkers, binge drinkers, problem/heavy drinkers, and alcoholics. Sometimes, it can be difficult to differentiate between the problem drinker and the real alcoholic. However, there are subtle differences between heavy drinking and alcoholism. Problem drinking is associated with someone who drinks too much, too often, or during inappropriate situations. Alcoholism, on the other hand, is a complex disease characterized by compulsive drinking regardless of negative consequences.
Casual drinking is often known as social drinking. These drinkers may have a drink or two in social settings or on occasion. Casual drinkers typically have little to no difficulty controlling the amount they drink and how often they drink. Similarly, these individuals don’t blackout while drinking or engage in risky behaviors while under the influence of alcohol.
Characteristics of casual drinking include:
- Drinking on a full stomach
- Not having too much to drink in one sitting
- Utilizing sober drivers
- Only drinking in appropriate situations
The problem drinker or heavy drinker consumes alcohol quite frequently. These drinkers may easily lose control over the amount of alcohol they consume. In addition, they may suffer from blackouts or face consequences as a result of their drinking. However, if a reason is sufficient enough, such as a motive to stay sober or stop drinking, these individuals have little trouble doing so.
Although heavy drinkers have the willpower to stop drinking, they may spend a lot of time thinking about alcohol. As a result of frequent drinking, they may also suffer from short or long term adverse health effects of alcohol.
Characteristics of problem drinking may indicate a mild alcohol use disorder. These include:
- Drinking often alone
- Difficulty controlling the amount of alcohol consumed
- Setting aside time to spend drinking on a regular basis
- Turning to alcohol when bored, depressed, anxious, or stressed
Most alcoholic drinkers consume alcohol on a daily basis. However, there are two main concepts that separate the alcoholic from the problem drinker.
- An alcoholic is unable to control the amount he or she drinks.
- An alcoholic is unable to stay sober on willpower alone without professional help.
Alcoholism can begin to consume the mind of a person who drinks alcoholically. After all, chronic drinking can immensely affect a person’s way of life. Alcoholics will suffer from physical and mental cravings for alcohol, regardless of how much they have already consumed. He or she may:
- Isolate from family and friends
- Make multiple promises to stay sober but never follow through
- Spend much time obsessing over drinking
- Spend much of his or her money on alcohol
- Fail to meet important obligations and responsibilities
- Experience deterioration in personal relationships
- Experience withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
- Engage in risky or dangerous behaviors
- Place alcohol as a top priority over all else
Over time, the symptoms of alcoholism are known to progress and become even stronger. Many alcoholics find treatment necessary to stop drinking.
Diagnosing Alcohol Use Disorders with the DSM-V
Alcohol use disorders range from mild, to moderate, to severe. Fortunately, the medical community uses the DSM-V criteria to diagnose alcohol use disorders. These criteria can be used to determine how critical the need for treatment is. 2-3 symptoms denote a mild alcohol use disorder while 4-5 is moderate, and 6 or more is considered severe.
- Drinking more or longer than intended
- Wanted to stop or moderate more than once but couldn’t
- Spending a lot of time drinking or being sick from drinking
- Experiencing cravings or strong desires to drink
- Drinking interferes with work, school, family, or social life
- Continuing to drink even after it begins to cause trouble
- Giving up activities that were once important
- Engaging in risky behaviors while drinking
- Continuing to drink even if it makes you more depressed or anxious or causes health problems to progress
- Developing a tolerance to alcohol
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms if alcohol is not consumed
Treatment for Alcoholism
While some heavy drinkers may benefit from alcohol rehab, treatment is usually sought out by alcoholics. Medical detox is the best place to start for alcoholics seeking sobriety. After all, alcohol withdrawal can be dangerous and even life-threatening. Instead of going at it alone, medical detox can help make the withdrawal process as safe and comfortable as possible.
After detox, it is crucial to find an inpatient alcohol rehab near you. After all, the disease of alcoholism is chronic and won’t go away overnight. Instead, it requires extensive treatment, behavioral therapy, and rehabilitation. Inpatient alcohol rehab is an effective way for alcoholics to learn new coping skills, gain emotional support, and learn how to stay sober by preventing relapse.
In addition, staggering rates of alcoholics and problem drinkers suffer from underlying mental health conditions. When treating alcoholism, it is equally important that mental health is addressed as well. If an underlying mental illness is left untreated, symptoms may continue after a person stops drinking. As a result, it can lead to relapse.
If you suspect that you or a loved one is suffering from an alcohol use disorder and would benefit from alcohol rehab, give our addiction specialists at Comprehensive Wellness Centers a call today.
Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019
All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.