social drinking

Social Drinking vs. Problem Drinking: Understand the Difference

In For Addicts, For Friends, For Parents by Michael West

Have you ever heard the saying “if alcohol has ever caused a problem, you have a problem with alcohol”? So often the lines between social drinking, problem drinking, and alcoholism blur together. But they are each different things and one does not necessarily lead to the other.

The act of drinking alcohol isn’t a sign of a problem or an addiction. But it is possible to overdo it, leading social drinkers to become problem drinkers. It’s important for everyone who drinks to know where the line for social drinking ends and alcoholism begins.

Read on to learn more about the lines between social drinking and alcoholism.

Social Drinking

It’s difficult to define social drinking because everyone has a different limit and it all depends on an individual’s preference and tolerance levels. But, in general, as long as you have complete control over your drinking, you are just a social drinker.

A whopping 87% of all adults in the United States admit to drinking alcohol at some point in their lives. Just over 65% of them do so on a monthly basis.

Most people drink this much without a problem. In fact, there are some studies that show it even has some health and stress-reducing benefits.

Problem Drinking

How exactly does problem drinking differ for alcoholism? Is there even a difference?

Yes, there absolutely is. If your body isn’t dependent on alcohol to function, but it still negatively impacts your health and you continue to use it, you are a problem drinker.

So, if you go on a weekend-long gambling spree while you’re drinking but then come back afterward to much less money but go on about your life for a few months before even thinking about another drink, you’re probably a problem drinker.

Here are some of the warning signs of problem drinking:

  • Missing work or class
  • Avoiding family and friends
  • Depression
  • Irresponsible spending
  • Losing relationships
  • Unsafe decisions
  • Legal trouble
  • Drunk driving
  • Blackouts

You might notice that many of these are similar to the warning signs of alcoholism. However, the main difference is that with problem drinking, your body isn’t dependent on alcohol.

You can still easily develop alcoholism, and frankly, you could be on the fast track for it right now. It is life changing and should be dealt with. However, it’s not alcoholism.


Unlike social drinking and problem drinking, alcoholism is a disease. Alcoholics are always craving their next drink. They have no control over their disease and if they were to try and stop without help, they would experience withdrawal symptoms because their bodies are physically dependant on alcohol. Also, they have a much higher tolerance for it because of how much they drink.

There’s no easy way to say it: too much alcohol is dangerous. It increases your risk of cancer, it damages your liver, it impedes your brain function, and it hurts your other organs.

Sometimes, the signs of alcoholism are right there in the open for everyone to see. Other times, they’re hidden. Alcoholism is a disease of shame, and people dealing with it often don’t want others to know that they have the problem.

Some of the more common and noticeable signs are:

  • Unable to control drinking
  • Craving alcohol
  • Putting alcohol before responsibilities
  • Need to drink more to feel satisfied
  • Spending a lot of money on alcohol
  • Acting differently after drinking

People with alcoholism feel like they can’t function without alcohol. In a typical case, it will slowly start to degrade work and personal relationships, leading to an alcoholic’s decline. However, this isn’t always the case.

Reasons for Drinking

There is so much to consider when it comes to alcohol abuse and alcoholism. Sometimes, all it takes is the smallest trigger to cause people to turn to alcohol and then it becomes a giant downward spiral that turns into dependency.

We’ll talk a little bit about some of the more common reasons for drinking here.

Stress Relief

This is the most common reason people use to drink. And there might be some scientific merit to it like we mentioned earlier. However, when you rely on alcohol to take care of the stress of everyday life, you can set the tone for future alcohol abuse.

Alcohol is both a depressant and a sedative, so you start to feel good after you drink it. Soon, you’ll build a tolerance and need more of it to feel those good feelings again.

Dealing With Loss

Nothing can prepare you for the feelings you experience when you lose a loved one. People turn to alcohol to help them through the grief they feel. But what starts as a short period of alcohol use turns into a dependency very quickly, if the drinker isn’t careful.


As we said, alcohol is a sedative. It lowers inhibition and allows people to feel better about social situations that might usually make them uncomfortable. If the drinker comes to this point frequently, it can turn into an addiction.

The Health Risks of Alcoholism

Drinking too much even once can cause serious health problems. And the short-term effects can be just as bad as the long-term ones.

As an example, a short-term side effect of drinking is a slow reaction time. When you get behind the wheel of a car with a slow reaction time, you put yourself and everyone else on the road at risk.

Some other short-term effects include:

  • Poor reflexes
  • Lower brain activity
  • Lower inhibitions
  • Blurred vision
  • Breathing issues
  • Restlessness

But it isn’t just the short-term risks you should look out for. Long-term alcohol abuse can also cause:

  • Brain defects
  • Liver disease
  • Diabetes complications
  • Heart issues
  • Cancer
  • Vision damage
  • Bone loss

Alcoholism can even be fatal, in some circumstances.

Social Drinking vs Alcoholism

If you think that you or someone you love has turned from social drinking to alcoholism, it’s important to know that you’re not alone. You don’t have to fight this fight alone, either.

The decision to get help for an alcohol abuse issue is one of the hardest choices you will ever have to make, but it’s important that you make it. Alcohol doesn’t have to run your life. You can do this. We’re here to help.

For more information about recovery and how you can get sober, visit us today.