Alison Huffstetler, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician at Fairfax Family Practice. She is also the lead investigator for the Alcohol Misuse Project, a federally funded study focused on reducing risky alcohol use in the general population.

The stress of this past year has changed the way many of us live. Some people are meditating to manage anxiety or poor sleep. Others relieve stress by exercising more or learning a new hobby. And many people admit they’ve increased their alcohol use over the course of the pandemic.

A survey polling almost 1,000 people and found that in the past year:

  • 31% increased their drinking frequency
  • 16% increased their usual quantity on a typical drinking day by an average of two drinks
  • 27% increased the total drinks consumed on “more than usual” days by more than four drinks

Increasing how often or how much you drink doesn’t automatically make you an alcoholic or dependent on alcohol. But it can mean that you are misusing alcohol, or using it in a risky way. Misusing alcohol increases your chances of developing alcoholism or having an accident. It also puts you at greater risk for liver disease, heart disease, cancer and early cognitive decline.

The good news is that if you are misusing alcohol, or have a loved one who has started drinking too much, there is a path back to healthier drinking. Here’s what you need to know:

What Does Alcohol Misuse Mean?

Alcohol misuse or abuse is binge drinking or drinking more than recommended. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) set guidelines for low-risk drinking that minimize the chances of developing an alcohol disorder. The recommendations include:

  • Women: One drink or less daily
  • Men: Two drinks or less daily

The NIAAA defines binge drinking as having more than five drinks (for men) or four drinks (for women) over two hours. It’s important to keep in mind that alcohol use exists on a spectrum. Some people occasionally use alcohol in a risky way, and that’s not a problem. When that alcohol misuse becomes a regular occurrence, it may be cause for concern.

What you Need to Know About Alcohol Misuse

Signs of Alcohol Abuse

Worried that your relationship with alcohol may be more excessive than healthy? Take a hard look at when and how you drink. The warning signs of risky alcohol use include:

  • Buying alcohol on regular basis
  • Consistently drinking more than your family members
  • Drinking by yourself
  • Having a drink every day before bed
  • Impact on other areas of life (such as missed appointments or work, staying home to drink instead of socializing or strained family relationships)

If some of these warning signs sound familiar, don’t worry. It is possible to regain a healthy relationship with alcohol.

Steps Toward Healthier Alcohol Consumption

If you’ve been misusing alcohol, it’s important to address it early, before it becomes a dependency.

Identify Triggers

For many people, drinking alcohol is habitual and often a response to stress. Maybe you grab a drink to unwind after a long day or after the kids are in bed. Perhaps the nightly news or favorite sports game just isn’t the same without a glass of wine or a beer. Take note of when you tend to reach for a drink and what you’re doing at the time. Think about other ways you could combat stress in your life that don’t involve drinking.

Make a Plan

The most important step toward healthier drinking is making a plan to break your pattern of unhealthy drinking. Keep it simple, clear and attainable. Cut back drinking to a couple of specific nights a week and choose a stress-relieving activity to occupy the other nights. Or plan to go for a nightly walk while listening to the news or a sports game instead of watching it on the couch. Even one small change will make a difference and may curb your desire for that drink.

Find an Accountability Partner

Share your plan with someone who will hold you to it. It may help you stay on course. Let your partner, whether a spouse, child or friend, know you are serious about making a change. If you find yourself lying about your alcohol use or avoiding your accountability partner altogether, you may need to seek care from your doctor or a professional.

Talk to Your Primary Care Provider

Your primary care provider (PCP) is an excellent resource and is a safe place for you to ask for help. If your doctor does not already ask you about your drinking habits, bring it up when talking about your diet and exercise. Be honest about your concerns and your alcohol use.

Clinicians have many resources available to help patients with this issue. Your PCP may even recommend medication to help curb your appetite for drinking and make it easier to stop.

If a Loved One Is Abusing Alcohol…

If you notice that your spouse or grown child is drinking more than in the past, approach them about it gently. Explain what you’ve noticed and how it affects you. Ask your spouse or child if he or she has noticed the same thing.

If you feel threatened or scared to have the conversation, enlist a third party to talk to your loved one. Do not have the conversation on your own if you don’t feel safe.

Let Us Help You Develop a Healthier Relationship With Alcohol

To understand whether your alcohol use is risky and how you can reduce alcohol misuse, , schedule an appointment with your PCP. If you do not have a PCP, we welcome you to make an appointment with a provider at any of our Primary Care locations.

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