Binge Drinking vs. Social Drinking
The difference between binge drinking and social drinking is perhaps not as straightforward as it should be. After all, some people may binge drink in social settings. And just because a certain amount of alcohol is socially acceptable doesn’t necessarily mean it’s necessarily good for you. So, when exactly does drinking become a problem? When you’ve exceeded a certain amount? When you only drink by yourself? To answer such questions, it may help to first understand the definitions of different drinking patterns.
Heavy drinking doesn’t automatically lead to an addiction, but it can certainly heighten your risk for alcoholism and comes with other consequences of its own. If you’re concerned about your own drinking habits or loved one’s habits, you have options for getting help, and we can guide you toward them. Don’t hesitate to reach out for more information. Call us at 405-583-4309 to discuss addiction treatment in your area.
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The amount you drink can affect your risk of addiction and other health problems. Click through each section to learn more about different drinking patterns.
Binge Drinking Explained
What is a binge drinker? For starters, binge drinking is the most common pattern of excessive alcohol use. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines binge drinking as “a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 percent or higher.” At this point, people are generally considered too intoxicated to drive. Binge drinking typically amounts to 4 or more drinks for women and 5 or more drinks in about two hours. On average, however, people consume about seven drinks per binge. Essentially, binge drinking is drinking to get drunk.
Binge drinking is most common among younger adults aged 18-34 years. It is twice as common among men as among women. Overall, one in six adults in the United States binge drinks about four times a month. Most people who binge drink do not have a severe alcohol use disorder. But continued binge drinking can lead to addiction and other adverse consequences. It can even be fatal.
The serious risks and health problems associated with binge drinking include:
- Unintentional injuries (car crashes, alcohol poisoning)
- Sexually transmitted diseases
- Unintended pregnancy and poor pregnancy outcomes
- Chronic diseases (high blood pressure, liver disease)
- Cancer of the mouth, throat, liver, etc.
- Memory and learning problems
Heavy Alcohol Use
Binge drinking is not the only risky pattern of alcohol use. Heavy alcohol use is slightly different than binge drinking but just as dangerous. Heavy alcohol use can be defined as more than 4 drinks a day for men and more than 3 drinks a day for women. It can also mean binge drinking on 5 or more days in a single month. So binge drinking can occur occasionally without necessarily becoming heavy alcohol use. But both drinking patterns can increase your risk of alcohol addiction.
Defining Social Drinking
So, what is a social drinker? Many people would call themselves social drinkers if they don’t typically drink on their own but do so with friends or family. But social drinking can be a vague term because many people would define it as drinking the “normal” amount of alcohol in a social setting, and there is some disagreement about what the normal amount is. One person might consider one glass of wine with friends a couple of times a week to be social drinking. Another person’s definition could be four or five beers over the course of a day at a party. So are both of these people social drinkers? Is neither of them correct?
Social drinking patterns are generally context-appropriate. In other words, the definition of social drinking is partly based on what’s accepted within a certain group, culture, or even setting. For example, the amount of alcohol that’s considered appropriate at a New Year’s Eve party may not be appropriate for a business lunch.
As a general rule, it’s good to think about social drinking in terms of moderation. This is the key difference between binge drinking and social drinking. Social drinkers are people whose drinking patterns are low-risk. According to the NIAAA, this means if they are female, they drink no more than 7 drinks per week and no more than 3 drinks per sitting. If they are male, they drink no more than 14 drinks per week and no more than 4 drinks per day. By this definition, a binge drinker cannot be considered a social drinker, even if their binge drinking takes place in a social setting.
When Does Social Drinking Become Problematic?
Social drinking does not interfere with your life. That is, it does not cause problems with work, family, health, or social relationships, and it does not create legal or financial problems. Social drinking should be considered a means of enhancing other activities, not disrupting them. In general, if extreme intoxication is the goal or the outcome of drinking, then it has crossed the line of what’s socially acceptable and healthy.
The definition of social drinking also partly depends on the individual. It’s important to know how much is too much for you and to stay within those boundaries. You may be drinking in a social setting, but if you are drinking a lot, it can become a problem. Just because heavy drinking is considered the norm at a college party, for instance, does not mean it’s advisable. A single night of heavy drinking is not automatically a risk for alcoholism, but it is not necessarily healthy either.
Signs of a Problem
There are other signs of alcoholism to keep an eye out for that go beyond the amount that you drink. These can include drinking when you have reasons not to, such as if you’re taking a medication, or feeling guilty about your alcohol consumption. A major sign is failing to cut back or stop drinking even when you want to. It’s also troublesome if you are lying about how much you drink, sneaking drinks, hiding alcohol, or otherwise deceiving others about your drinking.
If someone confronts you about your drinking habits, it’s a very strong sign you may be dealing with an alcohol use disorder. Feeling shaky or anxious for a while after not drinking is another common indicator that the problem has progressed to alcoholism.
Other signs of addiction include:
- Frequent uncontrolled drinking episodes
- Going to work drunk or drinking on the job
- Driving while drunk
- Doing something under the influence of alcohol that you would not otherwise do
- Having problems at school, with social relationships, or with family members because of drinking
- Using alcohol to decrease anxiety or sadness
- Needing more alcohol to feel its effects
- Feeling grouchy, resentful, or unreasonable when not drinking
Problem Drinking vs. Alcoholism
Being a problem drinker is not the same thing as being an alcoholic. But the drinking habits of the two may be similar. For example, binge drinking can be a component of both problem drinking and alcoholism. The major difference is in the person’s behavior toward alcohol.
When a problem drinker encounters a reason to cut back on drinking, they are able to easily return to low-risk drinking patterns or stop completely. The reasons for cutting back can range from becoming pregnant to a particularly brutal hangover. This behavior is markedly different from that of alcoholics, who continue to drink in spite of the negative consequences they face.
Problem drinkers are not “high-functioning alcoholics.” So-called high–functioning alcoholics exhibit the signs of addiction, but may not believe they fit the stereotype of the typical alcoholic because they are able to maintain the appearance of someone without a problem in their personal or professional lives. But how a person appears to others does not define alcoholism.
Problem drinking is also fairly common. About 72% of people report having a period of problem drinking that they phase-out of. This period generally peaks at ages 18-24. However, just because problem drinking is common does not mean it is safe behavior.
So, is there such a thing as safe drinking? What does it look like? As a general rule, the less alcohol the better. However, there are ways to enjoy an occasional drink without putting yourself at risk for health complications or other problems associated with drinking. If you do want to drink socially, there are steps you can take to reduce risks related to alcohol besides simply monitoring the amount you drink. It’s important to know when to stop, but it also helps to think about why you want to drink. You should not drink just to get drunk or to escape your problems. If that is your reason, you may want to seek help for cutting back.
Other steps you can take to ensure safe drinking include:
- Eat before drinking to help slow the alcohol’s absorption and slow its effects
- Don’t drink alcohol when you are thirsty
- Don’t drink when you are under stress, emotionally upset, or tired
- Don’t mix alcohol with drugs or medicines
- Never drink and drive
Resolve Your Binge Drinking
The difference between binge drinking and social drinking ultimately amounts to a matter of quantity. Social drinkers are generally those who drink in moderation with friends or family. Binge drinkers drink to get intoxicated, whether by themselves or with others. If you find yourself always drinking to get drunk, no matter your social setting, you probably have unhealthy drinking habits that can develop into an addiction.
Binge drinking does not necessarily equate to alcoholism, but that does not mean it is not dangerous. Not only does it have a much higher chance of leading to addiction than social drinking, but it also comes with many health problems of its own. Heavy drinking can still be risky even before it results in alcoholism. It is true many “problem drinkers” can drink heavily for a time without developing alcohol dependence. But many others do eventually lose control over their drinking habits and increase their risk of other health complications.
People who struggle with addiction need treatment, not judgment. There is no shame in needing help when your drinking habits have escaped your control. The defining feature of addiction is the inability to stop drinking even when you know the consequences. Addiction sometimes isn’t a choice, but getting help is. When you call our number, we can help you understand your options for treatment. So contact us today at 405-583-4309 to take your first steps toward an addiction-free life.