More than 200 million U.S. adults have tried alcohol at some point in their lives. Many of them choose not to drink again or do not experience drinking problems. But about 17 million people have an alcohol use disorder (AUD). AUDs involve conditions like alcohol addiction, as well as harmful drinking patterns that do not involve alcohol dependence.
If you abuse alcohol, you can take control of the problem. You might be able to put a stop to your drinking by changing your behavior on your own. Or, you may need a more involved approach, such as a 12-step program or some form of talk therapy. Some drinkers may need to enter in-patient rehabilitation.
Problem drinking can take many forms. Binge drinking, for example, means you drink four or five alcoholic drinks in a row. You may also drink too much or at inappropriate times, leading to problems at home or at work. These patterns don’t necessarily indicate a dependence on alcohol. But if they go unchecked, they could lead to alcoholism.
Alcoholism is a disease characterized by several common symptoms. These include:
- an inability to stop drinking once you start
- a strong desire or need to drink just to feel “normal”
- having withdrawal symptoms, such as sweating or shaking, if you’ve gone too long without a drink
- hiding your drinking
- drinking to the point of blacking out
- having relationship problems, financial difficulties, or work-related complications due to your drinking
You may not always recognize that you have a drinking problem. But if alcohol is in any way causing trouble with your family, social life, job, or your own physical or mental health, it’s time to take control. Talk about alcohol with those closest to you or your doctor. These conversations will help you start to understand the scope of your problem.
You can only quit if you’re ready to. You have to be ready to make changes in your lifestyle and your behavior. An alcoholic counselor may be a helpful guide to let you know what you must do and what you can expect as you start to overcome your drinking problem. Admitting you have a problem and asking the forgiveness and support of the people around you will help get you started.
You might not be dependent on alcohol to the point where you experience withdrawal symptoms if you go a day without drinking. If this is the case, you may be able to quit drinking on your own. This will involve lifestyle changes, including:
- avoiding situations or places where you would normally drink
- keeping alcohol out of your home
- learning how to turn down a drink if offered one
- engaging in activities that don’t involve drinking
You may still feel frequent urges to drink. When those feelings emerge, remind yourself why you’re quitting alcohol. Think about the potential negative consequences that could occur if you drink. Find a distraction, such as exercise, a hobby, or talking with a friend or loved one. Remember that these urges may occasionally develop, but they are temporary and can be overcome.
If you’re addicted to alcohol, you’ll likely need some help as you quit. A stay at an in-patient drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation center may be in order, particularly if you suffer from serious withdrawal symptoms. In-patient rehab programs typically last 30 to 90 days. It usually includes detoxification and medications (especially sedatives) or other medical assistance to deal with withdrawal problems. Other types of medications, such as naltrexone, may be helpful for some alcoholics to block the urge to start drinking.
In-patient rehab includes counseling to help you understand your specific alcohol problem. You’ll also learn about lifestyle changes and strategies you can employ to stay sober.
Outpatient alcohol rehab programs often require at least three visits with counselors a week. Avoiding relapse is often the focus of outpatient sessions.
You may have heard of 12-step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). These provide ongoing support for alcoholics. The 12 steps refer to 12 principles you can live by to stay sober.
AA meetings are held in communities around the world. Meetings allow alcoholics to share and discuss topics like mending relationships. Some AA meetings may be designed for older adults only or for a specific gender. Some may be built around meditation or guest speakers.
Individual, couples, or family therapy may also be helpful to deal with alcohol abuse, as well as other personal problems. When selecting a mental health professional, look for someone with experience in helping alcoholics.
Some people who drink too much, but are not dependent on alcohol, can become moderate drinkers. Many young people who binge drink regularly in college, for example, learn to tone down their alcohol consumption in their adult years. To limit drinking, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) suggests these tips:
- Set a limit on how many days a week you will allow yourself to drink and how many drinks per week you think you can handle.
- Keep track of your drinks with a drink track card or other method that you will remember to use.
- Avoid your usual alcohol triggers. If you normally drink at a certain time of day, for example, make yourself busy doing something else at that time.
- Have a “no thank you” response ready if you are in situations where you will be offered a drink.
If you can’t cut down your alcohol consumption to a healthy level within a couple of months, you should consider avoiding alcohol completely.
Taking control of your life by quitting alcohol is a challenging but rewarding journey. Whatever benefits you thought alcohol provided will pale compared to the happiness you will find living a healthier, sober life.