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What It Does

This article talks about:

checkmarkWhen drinking becomes problematic
checkmarkFactors that can lead to problematic drinking habits
checkmarkSteps you can take to cut down your drinking

How It Helps

This resource can help you:

checkmarkManage your drinking
checkmarkHelp somebody else who may be struggling with substance use
checkmarkUnderstand your relationship with alcohol

This article talks about:

checkmarkWhen drinking becomes problematic
checkmarkFactors that can lead to problematic drinking habits
checkmarkSteps you can take to cut down your drinking

This resource can help you:

checkmarkManage your drinking
checkmarkHelp somebody else who may be struggling with substance use
checkmarkUnderstand your relationship with alcohol

Save this resource

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Whether we're using alcohol to try and cope with problems in our life, or are caught up in a heavy drinking culture, it can be easy to fall into problem drinking. And we don't have to be knocking it back every day or getting legless on a regular basis 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, to help us 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, thinking it will help us feel better.

It's true that when we’re feeling stressed or down, alcohol in small measures 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 wreck your physical and emotional health, damage your relationships and mess up your job and other aspects of your life.

If you’re drinking to feel better, the facts make sobering reading. Most of us are aware of the physical health risks of heavy drinking, but reliance on alcohol also takes a heavy emotional and psychological toll—it can increase problems like depression and anxiety and plays a part in self-harm and in more than half of all suicides.

It can creep up on you

We hear a lot about government guidelines for safe drinking, but alcohol has different effects on different people—it’s not just how much you drink. Other factors include your size, sex, ethnicity, the mood you’re in, how much you’re used to drinking, what’s going on around you, and what’s happening in your life at a particular time.

In Canada, many of us suffer from alcohol-related problems. You don’t have to be physically dependent on alcohol, or even drink every day, in order for alcohol to cause problems in your life—and it often happens gradually without you really noticing.

Who’s at risk?

If you have a family history of problem drinking or emotional and psychological health problems like depression or anxiety, you may be more likely to develop a drink 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—plus the fact that some 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.

Popstar Robbie Williams, in a BBC documentary in 2006, said that depression and low self-esteem drove him to take a cocktail of drugs and alcohol, but that: "Coke gave me a twitch and drink just made me ill."

On the same programme, comedian Tony Slattery spoke about his efforts at "self-medication" for bipolar disorder using large doses of alcohol and narcotics—he was on two bottles of vodka a day. The result was a major nervous breakdown, fuelled by massive booze and cocaine intake. Before he became ill, he said: "I wasn’t drinking excessively or taking any substance prescribed or non-prescribed. With me, the depression came before the substance abuse."

But alcohol makes you feel great

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

In fact, alcohol isn’t actually a stimulant—though because it removes inhibitions, it can feel like one. It’s actually a depressant, which slows down the brain and central nervous system. So after the high, you inevitably 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 cheer ourselves up.

But while alcohol can relieve negative feelings or make them seem less intense in the short term, it depletes the brain’s store of chemical neurotransmitters like serotonin, which combat anxiety and depression. So you can end up feeling worse. You then drink more to try make yourself feel better. And your problems are still there in the morning—along with a hangover.

So this "self-medicating" is counterproductive, and can be particularly harmful if you suffer emotional and psychological health problems like anxiety or depression. If you’re relying on alcohol in this way, you need to try and tackle the underlying reasons for your drinking and 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, where it causes chemical reactions in the nerve cells—and you start to feel relaxed.

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

With more alcohol, your emotions become exaggerated. You might start feeling angry, aggressive, withdrawn, or overly sentimental. You start slurring your speech, reactions slow down, it’s difficult to remember things, and your judgement goes. You might start staggering or stumbling around. You’re vulnerable and not in control. And as alcohol can stop memories from being formed, you might not remember any of this tomorrow.

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 consider it a sign of social prowess, they may find it hard to accept too—at least until they've had time to adjust to the idea.

We all want to be accepted by our friends, but wrecking yourself by drinking too much isn’t the way to do it. You can still be good company even when you're not drinking. It's about finding ways to resist peer pressure without necessarily losing your friends.

Self-destruct button

It’s tempting to drink heavily after a traumatic event: the death of someone close to you or a relationship breakdown. You know it’s harming you and making you feel bad. But it blocks out your own pain or feelings of guilt—which is why you do it. However, there are other more constructive ways of dealing with loss and grief other than reaching for the bottle.

You may also turn to drink because of your feelings of low self-esteem. If you’re feeling bad about yourself, the self-disgust or shame you can feel after a heavy drinking session 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 you have a nightcap to help you on your way.

The problem is that although alcohol will probably 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 and end up more stressed, anxious or depressed—which further affects your sleep. But there are lots of other ways to help you sleep that don’t involve alcohol.


Many social encounters begin with "Can I buy you a drink?" but too many end with drink-fuelled arguments, violence, and relationship breakdown. We all know people who are no fun 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.

And while alcohol may help you feel sexy, it doesn't necessarily increase your "pulling power." Too much kills sexual performance.

So when does drinking become a problem?

In short, when it starts to affects your everyday life. Even if you don’t drink every single day, get legless on a regular basis, or can drink a lot without getting a hangover (which heavier drinkers often can), you can still have a drink problem.

You probably have a drink problem, if you need to drink to feel ok and can't stop at one, or your desire for alcohol stops you from doing other stuff, makes you behave badly or affects your relations with others.

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, then you may want to consider rethinking your relationship with alcohol.

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 gradually or after a stressful event or period in your life.

First, your body starts to build up a tolerance to alcohol, so you need to drink more to feel the same effects. Secondly, your body starts to rely on alcohol and will react, giving you withdrawal symptoms if it doesn’t get enough. 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, so 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—health, depression, work, relationships—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 accepted that you have a problem there are ways you can kick the habit, or at least cut down. You’ll feel better both physically and mentally, and 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 coping with 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

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