Stress drinking. When does casual drinking become a problem?


Alcohol consumption is a prevalent challenge we face today. But is your drinking just social or is it stress drinking? And what is the impact of stress drinking?

The scale of stress drinking and its consequences is staggering. The World Health Organization reported that more than 3 million people died because of the harmful use of alcohol in 2016 (think disease, accidents, violence). For perspective, COVID killed just under 7 million people in 3.25 years…alcohol kills upwards of 3 million in a single year.

But back to you. You are wise to be thinking about the type of drinking you do. For the sake of your physical and mental health, your relationships, family, work, and livelihood. Even if your drinking is not a problem right now, participating in frequent drinking or occasional binge drinking can put your future at risk.

The warning signs are there

You drink a bit, sometimes a lot, but you could go without it if you had to. You enjoy a nice glass of red or a beer with mates, and you will happily pop the bubbly for a special occasion. Surely, there isn’t a problem with that?

I agree that’s not a problem. The problem is how strong it can be – the urge to have a drink. Sometimes it’s hard to stop at one or two. It’s tempting to have one to take the edge off after a rough day or to help ease you into a good night’s rest.

The problem is when we use alcohol. When we use it the way we use other analgesic drugs. But instead of using it for headaches or lower back pain, we use it to ease tension, lift our mood, and numb the day away. In other words, we use it sometimes to regulate our stress levels.

The risk of stress drinking is real

You might be right that your, your friend’s, or your partner’s drinking is not an issue. However, it is very easy to become a problem. Not only are there increased health risks, but there is a risk that your casual drinking can quickly turn to stress drinking which then can become a struggle.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: Low Risk Assessment

  • For woman, you are considered low risk if you do not consume more than 3 standard drinks on any single day, and no more than 7 standard drinks per week.
    (An average bottle of wine is 8 standard drinks.)
  • For men, you are considered low risk if you do not consume more than 4 standard drinks on any single day, and no more than 14 standard drinks per week.
    (4 beers at the pub and a bottle of wine are more than 14 standard drinks.)

If you stick within these limits the NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism in the US) suggests you are low risk of developing an alcohol use disorder.

Note: The strength of alcoholic beverages varies, the effect of alcohol on an individual varies depending on body weight, and even what is considered a standard drink varies in different countries. So yes, these measures are not universally applicable.

Do you ever look around the room and wonder about how high the rates of divorce are, or how prevalent cancer is – and wonder whether it will be you? Of course, we all wonder. But why don’t we wonder if we will lose control of our stress-drinking habits?

The old friend whom everyone knows drinks too much, the neighbour who always looks ill, the hassled parent who’s always getting the kids to school late, your coworker for whom stress and sleeplessness is a way of life-the casual drink wasn’t a problem for them either until it was.

And they’re no different from you and me. It’s not because they had an alcoholic parent, or because they have a history of depression, or because they’re weak or have an ‘addictive personality’. It’s just not that simple.

We all know of someone who held it together for so long. Through the shock of the diagnosis, the disruption of life and discomfort. The drinking crept up on them, and it’s just so hard to cut back even though they’ve been given the all-clear now.

Why we’re at risk of stress drinking

I reckon there are two key risk factors. This is why stress drinking can be your problem. They are social and stress factors.

First, let’s be frank, drinking is an undeniable foundation of social life for most of us. It’s everywhere, all the time. It’s not just acceptable or normal to drink, it’s almost expected in most social circles.

Second, stress is unavoidable. You will encounter stress to varying degrees throughout your life. The combination of these two facts puts us at risk.

Because drinking is a part of life, it is too easy to use it when that inevitable stressful time occurs. So, while you have a handle on your drinking now, you can’t know for sure that it won’t become a struggle.

Don’t stop drinking

I’m not so foolish as to suggest that you quit drinking. I know that would be un-Australian of me and understandably unwanted advice. I’ll leave that to the very Australian, former test rugby-playing, quintessential Aussie Bloke, Peter Fitzsimons. He is pretty convincing – he explains that he lost 34kg and notes that a bottle of wine has the same number of calories as a Big Mac!

He understands now, having quit, about having a better mood, improved sleep and thinking more clearly. He also understands that while it might be a “better night” with booze, it’s a better life without it.

He didn’t want to rely on willpower. He felt he knew that if he had just one, why not two, and so on. If all that resonates for you, maybe you want to think about giving it away altogether.

Otherwise, don’t stop drinking but do be aware of the risks. Be conscious of how you use it, and, how you use it in the context of stress.

Top 3 tips for enjoying alcohol and avoiding stress drinking

Measure up

Simple but effective. Count your drinks, measure your alcohol, and keep track of your consumption. You’ll be surprised how this reduces your intake almost without trying.

Rule your world

Make life easier for yourself by choosing the rules of drinking by which you wish to abide. Never more than two a day? A minimum of two alcohol-free days a week? Not on a school night? Don’t open a bottle on your own? You make the rules for yourself and stick to them.

Have your party line ready

Have an explanation up your sleeve. When you’re not joining in with the amount that others are drinking, people will be ready to think you are being antisocial, strange, or judgmental. Pick your line and use it liberally. ‘I’m on a health kick’ , ‘I need to be on the ball tomorrow’, or just, ‘I’m cutting back and feel good for it.’

In closing, I’m not telling you not to drink, I am suggesting you be conscious of slipping into stress drinking habits and to notice when and how you use alcohol.