Signs That You’re Drinking Too Much Might Not Be Easy to Notice

It doesn’t have to take a series of blackouts, a drunk driving incident, or the recognition of withdrawal symptoms after a day away from alcohol to realize that you may be drinking too much.

The little things can add up.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) defines heavy alcohol use as consuming more than three drinks a day for women. Binge drinking, a pattern of drinking that brings blood alcohol concentration to 0.08%, typically equates to four or more drinks in about two hours for women.

Not every excessive drinking pattern fits the definition of addiction, but these behaviors can increase a woman’s risk for developing alcohol use disorder.

Sometimes, however, the signs of a problem are far more subtle.

Drinking on the Rise Even Before the Pandemic

A study published in JAMA Network Open in 2020 revealed that women in the United States increased their “heavy drinking days” (much like NIAAA’s definition of binge drinking, this meant four or more drinks over the course of a few hours) by 41% in 2020 compared with the previous year.

That rise most certainly had to do with the pandemic — more time spent at home, an increase in isolation from family and friends, and uncertainty over the future were common threads for most people — but it wasn’t completely uncharted territory. A 2019 review of data from 2002-2017 found that while people drank less overall, women ages 21-44 saw an increase in terms of both moderate and binge drinking.

Popular culture has helped normalize the use of alcohol — particularly in young women and mothers. It’s easy to scroll through Instagram, Facebook, or other forms of social media and find images of tired moms holding an oversize bottle of wine. “Mad Housewife” and “Mommy’s Time Out” are two of the many wines that have been marketed toward women. The ubiquitous hard seltzer brands have targeted men and women equally.

There are more alcohol options out there that appeal to the idea that women turn to drinking simply as a way of coping with the stressors of everyday life — whether that’s raising children, balancing their careers and home responsibilities, or navigating a packed social schedule.

How to Spot Common Signs of Excessive Drinking

Excessive drinking should be defined by outlets like NIAAA, but it can be labeled as such in different ways depending on the individual. If it is negatively affecting your relationships, keeping you from fulfilling duties at work or home, or impacting you financially, odds are that your alcohol consumption may be becoming a problem.

Here are five common signs that may indicate that you’re drinking too much.

  1. Your social life is entirely dependent on alcohol.

So many social functions take place in the presence of alcohol, whether at a bar, restaurant, or other venue where drinks are a primary driver of conversation. But you don’t have to imbibe to hang out at these places. Ordering a soda, water, or some other form of nonalcoholic drink shouldn’t preclude you from gathering with friends at public venues.

  1. You make risky choices when you drink.

If you’re driving home regularly after consuming alcohol or engaging in sexual activity you might not engage in if you were sober, you might be drinking too frequently. Drinking to excess impairs decision-making and releases inhibitions, which can lead to situations you likely wouldn’t encounter otherwise.

  1. You’re focused on the idea of drinking.

Alcohol use disorder is considered a brain disorder, according to NIAAA. If you’re spending time during the day thinking about when you can have a glass of wine or a cocktail, it could be a sign that your brain has become dependent on alcohol. Much like a child’s brain rationalizes eating vegetables to get dessert, your brain can learn that alcohol is a reward for getting through a stressful day.

  1. You have dry and cracked skin.

Excessive drinking can have physical ramifications beyond just feeling hungover. If you feel dehydrated often and your skin is dry, you might be drinking too much. A 2019 study published in The Journal of Clinical & Aesthetic Dermatology found that having more than eight drinks a week is associated with dry skin, upper facial lines, burst blood vessels in the face, and undereye puffiness.

  1. You’re planning for alcohol shortages — and drinking faster than others.

Certain states and municipalities stop selling alcohol at a certain hour or don’t sell on Sundays. If you find yourself aware of these rules and are planning accordingly so that you don’t run out of alcohol, your consumption habits may be a concern.

Also, your glass may be empty faster when you’re socializing with friends. If you notice that you’re consistently finishing your drink, while your companions aren’t even close to running out, that may be a sign that you’re rushing to get through your beverage just so that you can get another.

Simply recognizing these signs is a good first step toward getting help. Even if you don’t think that you’re drinking too much, some of these under-the-radar habits might reveal a different story.