What Is Considered A Social Drinker?

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KEY TAKEAWAYS

A social drinker is someone who regularly drinks alcohol with friends, family, or colleagues in group settings and at social gatherings [1], but does not suffer from alcohol use disorder.

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What Is Social Drinking?

Social drinking is alcohol consumption which conforms to cultural expectations and norms [1].

In cultures where a healthy relationship with alcohol is represented, social drinking involves one or two drinks (a single glass of wine, a few beers, some malt liquor) to celebrate special occasions, and typically does not include the negative consequences of alcohol use.

In such cultures, social drinking is associated with safe and responsible drinking habits [1], such as:

  • Drinking only a few drinks at once
  • Drinking only with family members
  • Drinking only on special occasions
  • Socialising and celebrating in ways which do not revolve around alcohol

Conversely, in cultures where alcohol consumption is stigmatised, social drinking is more problematic [2].

In these cultures, social drinking involves:

  • Binge drinking (to consume alcohol as quickly as possible whilst able)
  • Illicit drinking (drinking in isolated or dangerous places)
  • Risky methods of home alcohol production (distilleries and stills made from household equipment which may cause methanol contamination)
  • Particularly heavy drinking, with all the associated health risks (e.g. high blood pressure, liver cirrhosis, cancer, depression)

In cultures where heavy drinking is normalised, social drinking may involve using alcohol to relieve stress and to escape negative feelings [3].

Social drinking may also involve:

  • Drunken behaviour whilst under the influence of alcohol (e.g., disinhibition, aggression, or domestic violence)
  • Risky behaviours, including drunk driving and risky sexual activities
  • Exceeding safe drinking limits, leading to increased risk of the adverse health effects of alcohol (e.g. high blood pressure, liver cirrhosis, cancer, and depression)
  • Showing signs of alcohol addiction or alcohol use disorder (e.g., drinking significantly more than others, drinking alone, socialising only with other heavy drinkers, prioritising drinking over work and family, and experiencing physical withdrawal symptoms after consuming alcohol)

When Does Social Drinking Become Problem Drinking?

Social drinking becomes problematic when an individual drinks more alcohol than is socially acceptable, and begins to show signs of alcohol abuse or of alcohol use disorder [1].

In cultures with problematic attitudes towards alcohol, social drinking can lead to more hazardous or harmful alcohol consumption and require substance abuse or addiction treatment [2].

Signs that a social drinker is developing a drinking problem or alcohol use disorder may include the following:

In social settings, the social drinker drinks more alcohol than friends or family.

The invidual may arrive at social gatherings already intoxicated or behave aggressively or anti-socially when drunk.

Those with alcohol use disorder may find it hard to stop drinking when drinking socially [4].

At home, the social drinker drinks alone, concealing the extent of their alcohol consumption from friends or family.

Social drinkers may hide alcoholic beverages around the house, in hopes that loved ones do not notice the empty bottles [5].

The Covid-19 pandemic led to an increase in individuals drinking alcohol at home, as they were unable to drink with friends and family in social settings. [6].

The social drinker socialises with heavy drinkers or binge drinkers.

For people accustomed to moderate drinking, drinking with people who drink heavily can normalise alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction [7].

The social drinker prioritises their drinking above their work commitments or family relationships.

Social drinkers may lose their jobs due to being drunk or hungover [4].

People with alcohol use disorder may spend a significant amount on alcohol, even to the point of leaving partners and children without their basic needs being met [7].

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Family members may tell the social drinker that they need to stop drinking.

The problem drinker may react angrily or ashamedly when loved ones address their drinking habits.

Violence, particularly domestic violence and child abuse, is frequently associated with alcohol abuse [8]. Social drinking should never cause harm to others.

The social drinker may need to drink alcohol to get up each morning.

The social drinker may show signs of physical dependence on alcohol, including blackouts, seizures, convulsions, and physical withdrawal symptoms which begin soon after drinking alcohol [4].

These are symptoms of alcohol use disorder, and indicates that the individual should seek help from an addiction treatment specialist. This is beyond the scope of social drinking [1].

How To Prevent Social Drinking From Becoming Problem Drinking

Limiting alcohol consumption to social settings and avoiding excessive drinking can help prevent social drinking from becoming problematic [4].

There are a number of ways that social drinkers can prevent the onset of problem drinking:

Being mindful of family history

There is increasing evidence that alcohol use disorder is genetic [9].

Social drinkers whose blood relations have had problems with alcohol are likely to become physically dependent or addicted to alcohol more rapidly than others.

Such social drinkers should be mindful of the amount of alcohol they are consuming.

Getting involved in social activities that do not involve alcohol

There are always social activities that do not involve drinking.

Engaging in activities where social drinking is not the main event can help decrease the risk of problem drinking [7].

Eating a meal before going out drinking, and alternating alcoholic beverages with non-alcoholic drinks

This can lower alcohol consumption, and help the body absorb alcohol more slowly [4].

Can A Drinking Problem Ever Return To Drinking Socially?

Abstinence-based recovery programmes (for example, Alcoholics Anonymous or AA [7]) assert that addiction is an illness from which a problem drinker gains remission, not recovery.

As such, a person who identifies as an alcoholic must quit drinking and remain sober for the rest of their lives.

Harm-reduction-orientated treatment programmes take a more open position [10].

Addiction treatment specialists believe that people with harmful drinking habits may learn to return to low-risk social drinking. However, they will usually require intensive amounts of treatment.

How To Return From Problem Drinking To Social Drinking

Addiction researchers, practitioners, and people with lived experience of problem drinking recommend the following strategies:

Get the help needed, whether detox, rehab, or community treatment, and stop drinking whilst doing this

Abbeycare [11] is one of the UK's leading private providers of alcohol treatment.

In addition to its own services, Abbeycare's website provides a guide to finding and accessing the right forms of treatment [12].

Beyond the private sector, NHS alcohol and drug services [4] provide addiction and mental health treatment, care, and support to people drinking alcohol problematically.

These services can be accessed through referral from GPs and social care, signposting from pharmacies, and outreach from other services.

There are also many voluntary sector organisations providing a range of alcohol addiction services. The NHS website provides a directory of services available across the UK [13].

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Seek advice from people who have been through the same thing

Alcohol Change UK [14] and SMART Recovery [15] offer peer support from people with lived experience of alcohol recovery.

Research shows that people with addiction problems may find talking to one another more beneficial than talking to professionals [7].

Keep your alcohol consumption low

Avoid binge drinking. Always eat a meal before going out drinking, and always alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks.

Drink slowly, focusing on surroundings and conversations rather than the alcohol [14].

Build a social life beyond alcohol

Seek out friends and social opportunities which do not require drinking.

Volunteering [16], or using social apps and platforms such as Meetup [17] can be useful in meeting like-minded individuals outside of social drinking settings.

If problem drinking returns, stop drinking and seek help.

Abbeycare Pricing Bot

Last Updated: January 18, 2023

About the author

Peter Szczepanski

Peter has been on the GPhC register for 29 years. He holds a Clinical Diploma in Advanced Clinical Practice and he is a Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Misuse for Abbeycare Gloucester and works as the Clinical Lead in Alcohol and Substance Use in Worcestershire. Peter also co-authored the new 6th edition of Drugs In Use by Linda Dodds, writing Chapter 15 on Alcohol Related Liver Disease. Find Peter on Respiratory Academy, Aston University graduates, University of Birmingham, Q, Pharmaceutical Journal, the Dudley Pharmaceutical Committee, Dudley Council, Twitter, and LinkedIn.