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Social Drinking vs. Problem Drinking: Understanding the Difference

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social drinking vs problem drinking
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According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 219.2 million people aged 12 or older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lives.[1] Drinking alcohol is one of America’s favorite pastimes. In any social setting, you can easily access alcohol. Many people use alcohol frequently for a variety of reasons, including socializing, relaxing, celebrating special occasions, and even maintaining health by having one glass of red wine a night. From celebrations and birthdays to work parties and even dinners with your family, alcohol is usually present.

While drinking alcohol is not inherently bad, some people are unable to control their alcohol consumption. Additionally, alcoholism can creep up on you. While you might think you are only using alcohol socially, you can quickly turn into a problem drinker, so it’s important to understand the difference between social drinking and problem drinking.

What is Social Drinking?

Social drinking, also known as casual drinking, is a term used to describe only drinking alcohol in social settings and drinking in moderation. This may include having a drink with your coworkers after work, having a couple of beers with your friends during a celebration, or even drinking alcohol at a concert or large event. People who engage in social drinking often do so to relax and fit in with others.

Social drinkers might also be referred to as casual drinkers. If you are a social drinker, that means you:

  • Drink for enjoyment
  • Know when to stop drinking
  • Do not regularly become heavily intoxicated or blackout
  • Have a designated sober driver and never attempt to drive while drunk
  • Only drink when it is appropriate and safe to do so
  • Never let alcohol get in the way of important things

To be a social drinker, you must be drinking alcohol in a manner that is not risky or harmful. Casual drinkers typically only consume alcohol occasionally and in situations where it is safe to do so. Social drinkers do not consume large amounts of alcohol daily and then try to drive their cars.

What is Problem Drinking?

Problem drinking is characterized by consuming alcohol in a manner that is unhealthy or risky. Being a problem drinker does not necessarily mean you suffer from alcoholism, however, this type of drinking often leads to the development of an alcohol use disorder if you are not careful.

Because problem drinking does not always mean you suffer from alcoholism, you might not require professional alcoholism treatment. However, problem drinking does indicate a need for therapy or some form of expert advice. If you struggle with problem drinking, your alcohol consumption might lead to negative experiences, difficulty quitting alcohol use, or problems in your life.

If you are a problem drinker, you might drink alcohol for the following reasons:

  • To feel comfortable in social situations
  • Attempting to feel good about yourself or have fun
  • To escape from your problems or experience relief from stress
  • To make yourself feel important or self-confident
  • To cope with uncomfortable emotions like depression, frustration, anger, anxiety, or more

There is a thin line between social drinking and problem drinking so it can be difficult to determine what type of drinker you are. In general, if you feel like you have to consume alcohol to have fun, be social, or cope with your emotions, you are a problem drinker. Social drinkers do not need alcohol to have a good time, they simply engage in alcohol consumption because it enhances their fun while they are out with their friends.

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How to Determine if You Have a Problem With Alcohol

There is a common misconception that the only unhealthy relationship with alcohol is suffering from diagnosable alcoholism. While alcoholism is a serious and common issue, you can be a problem drinker without having an alcohol use disorder. However, it can be difficult to tell if your relationship with alcohol is unhealthy unless you meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder.

Thankfully, there are plenty of signs and behaviors that you can look out for to determine if you have a problem with alcohol. These include:

  • Missing work or other obligations because of drinking
  • Avoiding social situations or your loved ones to drink alone
  • Experiencing episodes of anger, aggression, or other types of drastic changes in mood
  • Taking risks while you are drunk that might endanger yourself or others
  • Spending too much money because of your alcohol consumption
  • Having unsafe intercourse
  • Not knowing when to stop drinking and frequently blacking out
  • Driving while under the influence of alcohol
  • Getting into legal trouble because of your alcohol consumption
  • Losing friendships or relationships because of your relationship with alcohol

If you identify with the signs of problem drinking, you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. While this does not mean you are an alcoholic, experiencing intense cravings, developing a tolerance, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you are not drinking does indicate an alcohol use disorder.[2] Whether you suffer from problem drinking or alcoholism, professional alcohol rehab can help you learn how to regain control over your life.

Finding Help for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

If you or a loved one have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it is incredibly easy to develop an alcohol use disorder. Whether you suffer from alcoholism or frequently abuse alcohol, an alcoholism treatment center can help you recover. Our alcohol rehab program in Woburn, MA combines proven therapeutic methods of healing with effective holistic modalities, making for integrated and highly individualized care that cannot be found anywhere else in the area. The levels of clinical care we provide include a Day Treatment Program, Intensive Outpatient Treatment, and Outpatient Treatment. We will customize a long-term program of alcohol addiction treatment based on your individual needs, requirements, and treatment goals. To learn more about our alcohol rehab program, contact Woburn Wellness today.


  1. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohols-effects-health/alcohol-topics/alcohol-facts-and-statistics/alcohol-use-united-states
  2. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder
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Medically Reviewed By

Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC Clinical Director
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Inessa Maloney, MS, LMHC has been dedicated to the mental health and substance abuse field for a decade, providing her expertise to guarantee quality and accuracy.

  • Specializes in outpatient services with a focus on substance abuse
  • Expertise in reality-based therapy, CBT/DBT, and motivational interviewing
  • Holds a Master’s Degree in Professional Counseling
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