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About This Resource

What It Does

This article talks about:

When drinking becomes problematic
Factors that can lead to problematic drinking habits
Steps you can take to cut down your drinking

How It Helps

This resource can help you:

Manage your drinking
Help somebody else who may be struggling with substance use
Understand your relationship with alcohol

This article talks about:

When drinking becomes problematic
Factors that can lead to problematic drinking habits
Steps you can take to cut down your drinking

This resource can help you:

Manage your drinking
Help somebody else who may be struggling with substance use
Understand your relationship with alcohol
There’s a beginning to every journey
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Even if people do not have advice to offer, they still have their own experiences to share. Sometimes just hearing I’m not alone is really valuable.

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If you'd like to join Togetherall's safe and inclusive community, you can create an account for free. Creating an account will give you access to all the resources on the Wellness Together Canada portal, including self-guided courses, webinars, peer-to-peer support groups, live counselling, mindfulness meditations, and more. You’ll also be able to complete a wellness assessment and track your progress towards your wellness goals.

Sobering thoughts

It can be easy to fall into problem drinking. That’s true whether we're using alcohol to cope with problems in our life, or we’re caught up in a heavy drinking culture. And we don't have to be drinking every day or getting drunk regularly for it to be a problem.

Alcohol is part of every social occasion, from celebrations to casual get-togethers. We drink for all sorts of reasons. For example, we drink to unwind, to have a good time, to join in with friends. And if we’re feeling worried, depressed, or lonely, it’s tempting to reach for a drink. We expect it will help us feel better.

It's true that when we’re feeling stressed or down, a little alcohol can relax us or give us a temporary boost. But drink too much, and after the high comes an even worse low. Plus, alcohol is so socially accepted, it’s easy to forget that it’s an addictive drug. Rely on it too heavily and it can have lots of negative effects. It can wreck your physical and emotional health, your relationships, your job, and other parts of your life.

If you’re drinking to feel better, the facts are sobering. Most of us know about the physical health risks of heavy drinking. But reliance on alcohol also takes a heavy emotional and mental toll. It can increase problems like depression and anxiety. It also plays a part in self-harm and in more than half of all suicides.

It can creep up on you

Even though there are guidelines for safe drinking, alcohol has different effects on different people. It’s not just how much you drink. Other factors include your size, sex, and ethnicity. Alcohol’s effects also depend on your mood, your history of drinking, your surroundings, and what’s going on in your life.

In Canada, alcohol problems are common, from alcohol abuse to alcoholism. You don’t have to be physically addicted or drink every day to have a problem. It often happens over time, without you really noticing.

Who’s at risk?

If you have a family history of problem drinking or emotional and mental health problems like depression or anxiety, you may be more likely to develop a drinking problem. But there’s no simple reason why some people are more prone than others. It’s a combination of genetics, background, your own emotional state, and life events. Also, some of us may have more addictive personalities than others.

Speaking out

A number of celebrities have described how their attempts at “self-medication” for emotional health problems resulted in alcohol and drug problems.

The English singer Robbie Williams has talked about why he uses substances. In a BBC documentary in 2006, said that depression and low self-esteem drove him to use drugs and alcohol. But he also said, “Coke gave me a twitch and drink just made me ill.”

On the same program, the comedian Tony Slattery also said he had used alcohol and drugs to “self-medicate.” In his case, he was dealing with bipolar disorder. He was drinking two bottles of vodka a day. The result was a major nervous breakdown, fuelled by alcohol and drugs. Before he became ill, he said: “I wasn’t drinking excessively or taking any substance ... With me, the depression came before the substance abuse.”

But doesn’t alcohol make you feel great?

Yes it can, temporarily. Especially after one or two drinks. Many of us drink because alcohol makes us feel relaxed, happy, and confident in social settings.

Many people believe alcohol is a stimulant. In fact, it isn’t — even though it can feel like one, because it removes inhibitions. It’s actually a depressant. This is a type of drug that slows down the brain and central nervous system. So after the high, you always get a low.

Feeling down—have a drink?

If you have a drink when you’re feeling low, you’re not alone. Research shows about a third of us do. In our society, having a drink is an accepted way to feel better.

Alcohol can relieve negative feelings or make them seem less intense in the short term. However, it depletes the brain’s store of chemicals like serotonin. These are important for combating anxiety and depression. So you can end up feeling worse. You then drink more to try to make yourself feel better. And your problems are still there in the morning —along with a hangover.

So this “self-medicating” is counterproductive. It can be particularly harmful if you suffer emotional and mental health problems like anxiety or depression. If you’re relying on alcohol in this way, it’s important to tackle the underlying reasons for your drinking. Then you can explore other ways of dealing with them.

Down the hatch

Within minutes of sipping your first drink, alcohol is in your bloodstream on its way to your brain. There, it causes chemical reactions in the nerve cells. You start to feel relaxed.

As you drink more, alcohol starts to depress parts of the brain connected with inhibition and self-confidence. You find yourself talking more and feeling more at ease.

Alcohol exaggerates your emotions. You might start feeling angry, aggressive, withdrawn, or sentimental. You start slurring your speech, and your reactions slow down. It’s difficult to remember things and your judgment is worse. You might have trouble walking. You’re vulnerable and not in control of your life. And you might not remember any of this tomorrow. That’s because alcohol can stop us from forming memories.

Peer pressure

“It’s no fun being out with friends and being the only sober one.” “You have more of a laugh once you’ve had a few.” “My mates will think I’m a loser if I don’t drink.”

Do those thoughts sound familiar? When everyone else is drinking, it can be hard to be the only one who’s not. If your friends are used to you drinking, or think it’s needed to have fun they may find it hard to accept too. They might need time to adjust.

We all want to be accepted by our friends. But wrecking yourself by drinking too much isn’t the only way to do it. You can still be fun even when you're not drinking. There are ways to resist peer pressure without necessarily losing your friends.

Self-destruct button

It’s tempting to drink heavily after going through something hard. That includes traumatic events like the death of someone close to you or the loss of a relationship. You know it’s harming you and making you feel bad. But it blocks out your own pain or feelings of guilt. So you keep doing it. But there are healthier ways of dealing with loss and grief.

You may also turn to drink because of low self-esteem. If you feel bad about yourself, the self-disgust or shame you might feel after heavy drinking can help “confirm” your negative feelings about yourself. It can be a way of proving yourself right.

A nightcap before bed?

If you’re feeling anxious or depressed, it can be hard to get to sleep. So maybe you have a nightcap to help you on your way.

The problem is that even though alcohol might help you drop off, it won’t give you a good night’s sleep. Alcohol disturbs the brain and reduces the REM (rapid eye movement) deep sleep needed for essential body ‘maintenance’. So you wake up tired, unable to function efficiently. You end up more stressed, anxious, or depressed, which affects your sleep more. But there are lots of other ways to help you sleep that don’t involve drinking.


Many social encounters begin with “Can I buy you a drink?” But alcohol can fuel arguments, violence, and relationship breakdown. We all know people who are hard to be around when they drink. Alcohol often makes us feel angry and uninhibited. So we pick fights and say things we’ll regret in the morning.

So when does drinking become a problem?

In short, when it starts to affect your everyday life. Even if you don’t drink or get drunk every day, you could still have a drinking problem.

You might have a drinking problem if you need to drink to feel okay, or you can't stop at one drink. If your desire for alcohol stops you from doing other stuff, makes you behave badly, or affects your relationships, these are also signs of a drinking problem.

If you start lying about your drinking habits or feeling guilty or ashamed... if your drinking worries your friends and family... if you know alcohol is affecting your life but you still continue to drink... These are also signs that your drinking might not be healthy.

When does a “drinking problem” become alcoholism?

Alcoholism has many things in common with alcohol abuse. But the big difference is physical dependence: when you and your body rely on alcohol. Not everyone who abuses alcohol will become an alcoholic, but it is a risk. It can happen over time. Or it can happen after a stressful event or period in your life.

First, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol. This means you need to drink more to feel the same effects. Second, your body starts to rely on alcohol. When this happens, you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms if you don’t drink. This can include “the shakes,” anxiety, nausea and vomiting, irritability, depression, fatigue, insomnia, and headaches. You start to need alcohol to feel “normal.”

Finally, alcohol becomes “the boss.” You’re not in charge of your life anymore. You say you’ll just have one drink, but you end up having lots. You try to stop drinking, but you can’t. You know it’s causing problems, but you continue to drink.

If all this sounds familiar, it's probably time to take action.

But what can you do about it?

If you’re worried about your drinking, you’re halfway there. Once you’ve realized that you have a problem, there are ways you change your habits. You’ll feel better both physically and mentally. And you’ll have more energy to do the things you enjoy, with the people you care about. In a nutshell, this involves:

  1. Thinking about why you drink and starting to deal with the reasons behind your drinking.

  2. Understanding your drinking patterns; changing routines can make it easier to cut down.

  3. Finding practical ways to drink less, including managing pressure from friends.

  4. Learning other ways to handle the emotional problems that are driving you to drink.

Next steps

  • Learn how to manage your drinking.

  • If you are worried about someone else's drinking, learn what you can do to help.