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The Difference Between Heavy Drinking and Alcohol Abuse

Lisa Taylor
Lisa TaylorAddiction Counsellor

You may have read information elsewhere on our website describing the three kinds of alcohol misuse as problem drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcoholism. Those three designations are commonly accepted within the medical and recovery communities. However, there is plenty of overlap between them. Alcohol misuse is not always black and white in a way that can be applied across the board. For example, heavy drinking for one person might constitute problem drinking. In another person, it might constitute alcohol abuse.

In this guide, we will go through some of the things that define the differences between heavy drinking and alcohol abuse. For the purposes of clarification, we consider heavy drinking to be no different than problem drinking. If you are drinking enough that there is some question of alcohol abuse, then you are a problem drinker anyway.

Safe Levels of Drinking

The first thing to understand about alcohol misuse is that there are both safe and unsafe levels of drinking. The government has established specific standards that act as a guideline in figuring out what constitutes drinking too much. We have both old and new standards to work with, thanks to the government updating them in early 2016.

Under the old standard, the generally accepted levels of safe drinking are as follows:

  • Men – up to three or four units of alcohol per day; no more than 21 to 28 per week
  • Women – up to two or three units of alcohol per day; no more than 14 to 21 per week

Some experts believe the old standards were too liberal, prompting the government to revise them downward. The new standards say that both men and women should not exceed 14 total units of alcohol per week. Furthermore, those who do decide to drink up to that limit should spread out their consumption over as many days as possible. Waiting until the weekend to do all your drinking is just as dangerous as exceeding the safe levels of alcohol consumption every day.

The standards tell us that anyone who exceeds the safe levels of drinking on a regular basis is a problem drinker. If this sounds like you, then heavy drinking is likely something you do more often than you should. Now it is a question of whether or not the amount you drink is sufficient enough to constitute alcohol abuse.

Learn to Identify the Differences

Using the government standards as a benchmark of alcohol misuse is just one way to identify a drinking problem. But we want to go one step further. In this section of our guide, we will identify some very specific differences that should give you a clear idea of how to distinguish between heavy drinking and alcohol abuse. These are as follows:

Binge Drinking

Binge drinking is defined as the practice of consuming excessive amounts of alcohol over an extended period of time. For example, the university student who begins drinking on Friday evening and does not stop until Sunday afternoon is binging on the weekends. Binge drinking is a classic sign of alcohol abuse.

A heavy drinker may binge every now and again, but it is rare. Perhaps one or two times a year is all the heavy drinker can deal with. The alcohol abuser goes further. A person abusing alcohol tends to binge more frequently and more predictably. A person who binges more than one or two times every 6 to 7 months is likely an alcohol abuser.

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Increasing Volume of Alcohol

How much a person drinks over an extended period establishes another difference between the heavy drinker and the alcohol abuser. The heavy drinker may drink more than he or she should when being based on government standards, but his or her volume of alcohol does not increase noticeably over time. In fact, he or she may decide that drinking less would be a good idea.

The alcohol abuser is just the opposite in that his/her volume of alcohol gradually increases over time. Increases are noticeable among friends and family; they may or may not be noticeable by the drinker him/herself. In either case, the alcohol abuser increases the amount he/she drinks to overcome tolerance. He/she needs more in order to derive the same amount of pleasure.

The Inability to Stop

Next on our list of differences between the heavy drinker and alcohol abuser is one of having the ability to stop. The heavy drinker, despite consuming more alcohol than he/she really should, can genuinely stop if he/she puts forth enough effort. It may be challenging, but he/she can succeed when putting his/her mind to it. The alcohol abuser cannot.

Alcohol abuse is driven by cravings that are the result of compulsive behaviour. The late stage alcohol abuser continues drinking even when others tell him or her that he/she needs to stop. As hard as he/she tries, he/she just cannot seem to overcome his/her cravings in any other way than drinking. For the record, an inability to stop drinking indicates that an alcohol abuser is just steps away from addiction.

Routinely Engaging in Risky Behaviour

One last difference between the heavy drinker and alcohol abuser is the individual's appetite for risky behaviour. Heavy drinking may result in a willingness to take greater risks, but the heavy drinker understands what those risks are and thinks twice about them. More often than not he or she will avoid any behaviour that poses risks to people other than him/herself. Once again, the alcohol abuser is just the opposite.

You might warn the alcohol abuser that he/she is endangering him/herself or others by risky behaviour related to drinking. He or she is likely to ignore you, claiming that everything is under control. A person who regularly abuses alcohol is a person who routinely engages in behaviours that result in accidents, injuries, and other negative consequences.

Alcohol Abuse Requires Treatment

Friends or family members may come to you with unsolicited drinking advice and recommendations that you cut down. If so, this is another strong indicator that you may be an alcohol abuser. Please understand that alcohol abuse requires professional treatment if you are to avoid all-out addiction.

We urge you to contact us and let us provide a comprehensive evaluation of your circumstances. If your only problem is heavy drinking from time to time, we can refer you to certain NHS programmes or counselling opportunities that may help you get your drinking under control. If you are an alcohol abuser, we can connect you with a rehab clinic for the purposes of getting the right kind of advanced treatment you need.

The differences between heavy drinking and alcohol abuse are real, but there are just a few steps between the two. Do not make the mistake of ignoring a drinking problem in the hopes that it will go away by itself. It will not. Take the steps necessary right now to control your drinking before things get any worse.

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