Alcohol Abuse vs. Alcohol Dependence

According to the 2019 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 85.6% of people ages 18 and older reported that they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime. We know that since the COVID-19 pandemic this number has only increased due to loneliness, finding ways to cope with stress and even boredom. Although pandemic-related restrictions have lessened throughout the United States, the effects of increased alcohol use remain.

We know that alcohol use can increase even without social upheaval. Social drinking can be a major contributor to increased alcohol use. Drinking has found a secure place in our culture as a primary source of fun or entertainment. It’s easily established itself as part of our social norms, much like smoking cigarettes used to be. As a society we’re acutely aware of the effects of both alcohol and cigarettes, and yet, we’re still more inclined to want to be around people who drink than people who smoke.

Even with alcohol use being so prevalent in our society, there isn’t enough awareness about the differences between social drinking, alcohol abuse, and alcohol dependence. Let’s start with understanding the differences between all three and the symptoms related to the latter two since they are closely linked to serious negative health outcomes.

The Definitions of Social Drinking, Alcohol Abuse and Alcohol Dependence

What is a social drinker?

It’s really hard to define the difference between a person who is a social drinker and one that may have a drinking problem. Those who drink socially usually do not find that drinking disrupts their life in any way. They do not seem to have physical, mental, social, or personal issues associated with drinking. They more than likely schedule their drinking or can stop drinking without any assistance or negative physical effects.

Social drinking is a large part of our national culture and has been a part of celebrations throughout our history. These days, people drink socially as part of dining experiences, networking, relaxation, vacations, and just to fit in. It’s rare to attend a sporting event where alcohol isn’t being sold or consumed before and during a game. Social drinking crosses all age groups as the legal drinking age is 21, yet many consumers are said to have had their first drink at a much younger age.

What is alcohol abuse?

Alcohol abuse, as defined by the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, is described as drinking too much and too often. They go on to state that alcohol abuse can lead to a pattern of drinking that leads to a failure of responsibilities that put you in repeated situations that can be hazardous to your health and safety.

Alcohol abuse is classified under a larger medical condition called alcohol use disorder. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism characterizes alcohol use disorder as, “an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” Alcohol use disorder can include a spectrum of conditions ranging from mild to severe defined as alcohol abuse, alcohol dependence, alcohol addiction or alcoholism.

Alcohol abuse left unaddressed can lead to increasing physical, emotional, and mental health conditions that can be fatal.

What is alcohol dependence?

The Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation describes alcohol dependence as a compulsion that does not allow you to turn down a drink or quit drinking, as well as the desire to continue drinking no matter what is affected by it. The signs of alcohol dependence can include an increase in tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, relapses, loss of control, and a consistent increase in consumption and duration.

Although alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence are not the same things, they are very much related and both are referred to as alcoholism. Dr. Caroline Schreiber from Alta Bates Medical Center explains that “alcohol dependence is the psychological dependence on alcohol from consistent, heavy use.” She goes on to state that alcohol abuse is more common, and those individuals generally do not suffer from withdrawal symptoms if they quit drinking. People with alcohol dependence will have physical effects if they abstain from drinking.

What Are the Symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder?

We know that alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence can be part of the spectrum of alcohol use disorder. Here are some questions to consider that may offer you clarity if you think you or your loved one could use professional help with a drinking problem.

In the past year:

  1. Have you had times when you drank more or longer than you intended?
  2. Have you tried to quit drinking but found it difficult or you could not stop?
  3. How do the after-effects of drinking feel? Do you get sick?
  4. Does drinking preoccupy your mind?
  5. Does your drinking cause problems with family or friends, work, school?
  6. Do you continue to drink in spite of difficulties with your relationships?
  7. Has drinking caused you to cut back on activities that you enjoy doing?
  8. Do you have to drink in order to enjoy doing certain activities?
  9. Has drinking gotten you into risky situations?
  10. Have you increased your drinking habits to derive more pleasure?
  11. Have you experienced negative physical effects when you have stopped drinking?

*Adapted from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction

What Are the Types of Treatments for Alcohol Use Disorder?

Like with any addiction, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to treating alcohol use disorder. However, an inpatient addiction treatment or residential treatment has shown to have greater success because it offers the space and time to focus on treatment goals.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism has cited many evidence-based treatments to address alcohol use disorder, such as behavioral treatments, medication therapy, and mutual support groups.

Behavioral Treatments

  • Alcohol and addiction counseling
  • Talk Therapy
  • Group Therapy
  • Mindfulness Therapy

Medication Therapy

  • Medications approved to stop or reduce drinking and prevent relapse
  • Used in combination with behavioral treatments and mutual support treatments
  • Also, referred to as Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Mutual Support Groups

  • Peer support and coaching
  • 12-step programs
  • Sober living groups

Can You Recover From Alcohol Dependence?

]With proper treatment and care, many people do recover from alcohol dependence. Although setbacks and relapses can happen, it’s hard to find anyone who regrets seeking professional help for their addiction.

Looking for a Residential Alcohol Treatment Facility near Austin, TX?

If you’re concerned about your drinking habits or those of a loved one, please call Plum Creek Recovery Ranch at 512-398-3000. We offer a free, no-cost, confidential assessment and are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, nights and weekends to receive your call.

Plum Creek Recovery Ranch is a residential treatment facility located just outside of Austin, Texas in the beautiful countryside near Lockhart, Texas. Our treatment facility handles both adult men and women with addiction or substance abuse disorders as their primary diagnosis in a comprehensive, therapeutic environment.

We offer advanced, unique treatment programs for addiction in a comfortable, relaxing setting. Our treatment professionals will immerse you in a daily program that is pointed to your recovery. At Plum Creek Recovery Ranch, residents will discover ways to detach from the distractions of the outside world and focus on their connection to healing.

We work with most major insurance carriers and are in-network with Blue Cross Blue Shield, ComPsych, and Aetna. You can also choose to pay privately for your treatment. Call us to learn more, at 512-398-3000.

When you’re ready. We’re here to listen.



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