Binge Drinking Versus Alcoholism

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Binge Drinker vs Alcoholic

Binge Drinker


Gaps between binges

Continuous drinking

No cravings

Persistent cravings

Can stop drinking

Compulsive drinking

Drinking on social occasions

Drinking alone/secretively

Drinking for positive feeling

Drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms [2]


Binge drinkers are actively seeking euphoria or positive feelings from alcohol.

Whereas, an alcoholic's accumulated tolerance makes a euphoric high impossible; they are seeking only to avoid withdrawals.

Binge drinkers experience few if any drinking triggers, whereas an alcoholic has accumulated multiple triggers, conditioning, and associations with drinking, over time.

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Whilst binge drinkers laugh it off if questioned about drinking habits, alcoholics overreact or become angry when drinking habits are questioned. This allows them to protect access to alcohol as a coping mechanism.

Binge drinkers can maintain positive relationships and social habits, whereas alcoholics alienate others through borrowing or stealing money and socialise with other alcoholics who endorse drinking habits.

Binge drinkers may commit acute and episodic crimes whilst drunk, whilst alcoholics experience chronic and ongoing legal issues or accidents such as car crashes.

Relationship With Alcohol

Binge drinkers view alcohol as an acute positive gain, but don't need alcohol to be a "friend."

Conversely, alcoholics view alcohol as a "friend"; that understands, and rationalises drinking behaviour, no matter how extreme.

Alcohol As A Coping Mechanism

For an alcoholic, excessive drinking is the only way to cope, and they're no longer able to function without it.

For a binge drinker, alcohol abuse is only one of many destructive behaviours used as a coping mechanism to deal with emotions.

Control Over Drinking

Those who are binge drinking do not need to obsess about alcohol during the day, whereas an alcoholic drinks throughout the day.

A binge drinker is actively seeking positive feelings from alcohol use; whereas an alcoholic drinks to avoid withdrawal.

Casual drinkers remain unaffected by cancelled social occasions involving drinking. Conversely, an alcoholic will overreact and immediately make plans to continue drinking in other ways.

Triggers To Drink

Binge drinkers experience acute or episodic triggers such as feeling down or stressed, or significant trauma such as divorce or the loss of a child.

Conversely, alcoholics develop triggers attached to all areas of life, and may even fixate on old trauma to rationalise drinking alcohol.


Negative Consequences

Alcoholics do not care about the negative consequences of drinking as long as it does not prevent drinking; compared to binge drinkers who are more likely to stop drinking when faced with negative consequences.


Whilst binge drinkers may ask for, or steal money when drunk, this behaviour is more prevalent in alcoholics.

Unlike binge drinkers, alcoholics expect or allow others to make excuses for their drinking habits and behaviours.

Changing Priorities

Whilst binge drinkers may miss appointments due to one-off drinking episodes, alcoholics' consistent state of inebriation causes chronic unreliability.

Alcoholics become trapped in a cycle of obsessing over the next drink. They continue drinking to avoid withdrawal symptoms; prioritising alcohol use over all other responsibilities.

Co-Occurring Psychological Complaints And Complex Diagnoses

Whilst binge drinking does not cause any psychological complaints, alcoholism causes or exacerbates symptoms of:

  • Bipolar disorder
  • Anxiety disorder
  • Schizophrenia [3]

Consumption Patterns


Binge drinking is classed as drinking 4/5 drinks over a 2-hour period once per month; whereas alcoholism is defined as heavy drinking on greater than 5 occasions per month.

This means that while overall consumption levels are similar, frequency of drinking differs between the two groups [4].


Whilst an alcoholic consumes between 8-15 drinks per week, a binge drinker can go any amount of time without feeling the urge to drink [5].


Whilst binge drinking occurs over 2 hours, or one social occasion per month, chronic alcoholics' drinking sessions last for one evening or occasion, but are more frequent than those binge drinking [6].

Physical Dependence

Unlike binge drinkers, alcoholics develop a physical dependence on alcohol as a result of functional tolerance, causing less visible signs of tremor or withdrawal than binge drinkers.

Physical Withdrawal

Binge drinkers do not experience withdrawal symptoms, but may experience 'hangxiety' after drinking that last up to 24 hours after the last drink.

Alcoholics experience recurring withdrawal symptoms such as shakiness, sweating and nausea in the first 24 hours after drinking.

This worsens into delirium tremens or seizures with unsupervised withdrawals or in long-term alcoholics; lasting several weeks.


Binge drinkers develop psychological cravings, using alcohol to socialise and gain positive feelings from drinking.

For an alcoholic, the intensity of emotional trigger required to lapse back into drinking behaviours reduces as the addiction progresses.


Where Drinking Occurs

Whilst a binge drinker is happy to drink in social environments, alcoholics become secretive:

Previous Detoxes/Treatment

Whilst a binge drinker will not have any previous detoxes or treatment, alcoholics take an average of 5.35 recovery attempts in detox or rehab [7].

Patterns Of Drinking Over Time

The drinking pattern of alcoholics is defined as being either:

  • Continuous drinking - drinking every day or almost every day
  • Frequent heavy drinking - drinking excessive amounts on 3 or more days per week

Binge drinking is episodic in nature; whereas alcohol intake increases over time with dependence in alcohol use disorder [8].

When Binge Drinking Becomes Alcoholism

The progression from binge drinking to alcoholism can be seen as:

  • Attending every possible drinking occasion - although social interaction whilst drinking is not automatically alcoholism, it indicates binge drinking may be developing into alcoholism
  • Being unable to drink casually - every drinking session turns into binge drinking
  • Drinking during the day - not hiding alcohol use but increasing occasions to drink

The progression from non-drinkers to alcoholism can be seen as:

  • A significant traumatic event causing alcohol intake to increase - such as grief or physical injury
  • Drastically increased intake - visibly drinking more than previously

The progression from a workaholic to alcoholism can be seen via:

  • Turning to alcohol to de-stress or sleep
  • Fitting into the workplace culture of drinking alcohol

When Alcoholism Regresses Into Binge Drinking

  • Using binge drinking as a way to sustain longer periods between drinking
  • Shock or trauma, such as a car accident, prevents further normalisation of drinking behaviour, but physical dependence on alcohol remains
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About the author

Harriet Garfoot

Harriet Garfoot BA, MA has an Undergraduate degree in Education Studies and English, and a Master's degree in English Literature, from Bishop Grosseteste University. Harriet writes on stress & mental health, and is a member of the Burney Society. Content reviewed by Laura Morris (Clinical Lead).

Last Updated: March 24, 2024