Trouble controlling my drinking

Dear Alice,

I have just realized that I am not able to handle alcohol. Whenever I go to a bar or a club, I drink to excess. I do not have any urge to drink. However, when I am in a club or a bar, the same thing happens: I drink too much! This is making me think that I am an alcoholic. My question is: Where can I go for help? Thanks.

— Binger

Dear Binger, 

Reflecting on drinking habits is a worthwhile endeavor for anyone who regularly consumes alcohol. Before you diagnose yourself with an alcohol use disorder, you may want to take some pause to consider more. Alcohol use disorder is a condition in which someone has difficulty controlling alcohol consumption, continuing to drink even when it causes problems, or even going through withdrawal symptoms when drinking has stopped. If you find yourself preoccupied thinking about when you’ll get your next drink, or if you’ve noticed that your drinking is causing you distress or problems in your personal or professional life, it’s possible your experience may be reflective of this disorder. This disorder can be thought of as a spectrum — it may be anywhere from mild to severe. If you feel that your drinking is a problem for you, it may not be a bad idea to reach out for help. There are many options for anyone who wants to put the brakes on their drinking habits, whether it’s from alcohol use disorder or to just rethink their drinking habits.

One way to take control of your drinking habits is to identify any cravings you may experience and what triggers them. For some, problematic drinking is situational: they may only misuse alcohol when they’re in certain environments or when there are specific triggers present. For example, external triggers can be places such as bars and clubs or they can be certain people that you associate with drinking. Internal triggers are thoughts or feelings you have that produce or amplify the urge to drink, such as stress or excitement. These triggers may lead to alcohol cravings, which can in turn lead to drinking even when you don’t want to or that isn't your plan for the night. 

Since you've noticed that you drink too much when you're in clubs and bars, these physical places might be triggers for you. There are other influences you may want to consider as well. When you go out drinking, are you with the same people? How do their drinking habits compare to yours? Do you only go out when you're stressed out or upset? If you can identify the circumstances around your heaviest drinking, you may be able to avoid them in the future or address any underlying issues.  

There are other strategies you can use to avoid triggers or address cravings when they come up. Some of them may include: 

  • Reaching out to a sober buddy when intense cravings occur. 
  • Distracting yourself by leaving the triggering environment or picking up a hobby. 
  • Avoiding common trigger spots, such as sporting events or bars. 
  • Creating flashcards for yourself with strategies for how to deal with cravings when they come up. 
  • Writing in a journal after experiencing a craving or when you come across a trigger. This can help you have a coping strategy in place in case you’re put in a similar situation in the future. 

If you find that these strategies don’t cut it for you, there are other options. Many communities have programs that help you connect with others who are in various stages of recovery. Additionally, many people coping with substance use disorder find cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helpful in addressing negative thoughts that lead to excessive drinking. You may want to consider reaching out to a mental health professional, health care provider, or health promotion specialist if you’re worried about your drinking habits. 

Drinking more than you intended or than you'd like doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a substance use disorder, but if you’re concerned about your drinking habits, it doesn’t hurt to experiment with strategies to cut back. The Go Ask Alice! Q&A How do I drink in moderation? may provide some guidance to help you. If you want more information about drinking habits, you can check out the Go Ask Alice! Alcohol & Other Drugs archives.  

Good luck to you! 

Last updated Feb 19, 2021
Originally published Sep 01, 1994