Getting together at a bar with friends is the highlight of many people’s weekends—especially now, when we’ve felt cooped up at home for the past couple of years. And even if we’re having a night in, sharing a bottle of wine over dinner or mixing up a fun cocktail can make an evening feel special. Sipping a drink is a relaxing ritual for many, but when you’re imbibing, there’s one thing that experts advise you to be wary of. Read on to find out what reaction to alcohol could be a sign that you need to slow down, or even stop drinking entirely.
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Many of us pour a glass of wine or pop open a beer to help us relax when we’re kicking back at the end of the day. And while enjoying a drink—or even two—doesn’t necessarily mean you have a problem, if you consistently feel more energized once you start sipping, you might want to take a closer look at your drinking habits.
“Research shows that people who have increased energy after a couple of drinks are at risk for problematic drinking,” says Joseph Volpicelli, MD, addiction specialist and head of the Volpicelli Center. In other words, if alcohol livens you up rather than winding you down, it could signal trouble.
Although getting a boost of energy from booze isn’t a problem by itself, it can play a part in a larger pattern of behavior that’s cause for concern. For example, if that energized buzz leads you to finish the bottle or polish off a six-pack, you could be headed down a dangerous path. “If you find that when you begin drinking, your desire to drink increases, you are at risk for alcohol addiction,” says Volpicelli.
“The pandemic has caused 60 percent of people to drink more,” Daniel Hochman, MD, tells Best Life. A board-certified psychiatrist and the creator of an online addiction recovery program, Hochman names “stress and boredom” as the most common culprits for an increase in alcohol consumption—and during the height of the pandemic, there were plenty of both to go around. “A lot of us got stuck inside with family, and even in a well-functioning home, that can take away healthy outlets and space,” he says.
According to Hochman, things like finishing your drink quickly or always ordering a second drink—which could be the result of an alcohol-fueled increase in energy—don’t necessarily mean you’re at risk of problem drinking. But he urges people to think about what’s motivating them to drain that glass or flag down the bartender for another round. “It’s helpful to honestly ask yourself if that signals a larger problem.”
How do you know if getting a kick of energy when you knock back a drink or two is something to worry about? “If you aren’t sure whether your drinking is problematic, start by getting feedback from people you trust,” advises Hochman. “Your closest people can help you learn all kinds of things, like what consequences they notice, patterns of triggers, like work or certain relationships, or whether to worry at all.” He cautions that it’s best to ask when things are peaceful between you, not when you’re arguing, and says to “make a rule that you won’t attack them for answering honestly.”
Be aware, however, that if you decide you’d like to cut back on drinking, or stop entirely, some people may not be as supportive as you hoped.
“This is actually the biggest stumbling block people experience [when quitting drinking] because of the collective belief system we have that alcohol is the best way to have fun,” says Veronica Valli, psychotherapist and founder of the Soberful sobriety program. “When we stop drinking, other people take that personally. If we drink together and you stop because you’re saying it’s a problem, what does that say about my drinking? It makes people very uncomfortable.”
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If you do decide you’d like to cut back on drinking, or to stop entirely, what is the best approach? Twelve-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous are one option, says Hochman, but might not be necessary for everyone. “Unlike the common notion that alcoholism is a lifelong, progressive disease that worsens and never self-resolves, good population data shows that alcohol abuse usually will fade.” He stresses that the key is addressing the underlying reasons for your drinking. “If you still look to alcohol to tolerate life’s challenges, it can be too much to ask yourself to stay controlled…if you address underlying issues, [problem drinking] can completely resolve.”
Consider, too, that while some studies have found that moderate drinking can be beneficial for health, others indicate that the healthiest amount of alcohol is consumption is none at all.
Sarah Church, PhD, an addiction psychologist and the founder and executive director of Wholeview Wellness, points out that “approximately 45 percent of emergency room visits are partially or exclusively due to alcohol use” and that in addition to the “acute safety risks” of drinking, “there are also long-term safety issues to consider, including increased risk of cancer, and cognitive effects such as dementia.”
Church says different approaches to quitting drinking work for different people. “Some people find cognitive techniques helpful—for example, remembering what motivates them not to drink or having a negative consequence in their mind when craving. Others do better with behavioral techniques like avoiding triggering people or places, taking a walk, or going for a run. Still others find medication helpful. You try one approach, and if that’s not successful, you pivot and try a different plan or add another intervention. Eventually, you find strategies or combinations of techniques that work.”
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