Are you doing ‘Dry January’ – and finding it hard to stick to? Many of us overindulge in alcohol over the festive period – and then try to make up for it with a New Year detox. We might enjoy a drink on social occasions, at special events or during particular seasons. But are you concerned that you’re drinking too much – and all the time? Do you ever ask yourself: “Why do I drink alcohol so much?”

The New Year can be a good time to reflect on our drinking habits. So if you’ve been concerned about how much you’ve been drinking lately, here are some reasons you may be drinking too much, signs to watch out for – and what to do about it.

Am I drinking too much alcohol?

If you drink a lot, you’re not necessarily an alcoholic. It’s possible to have a drinking problem that’s not defined as ‘alcoholic’. But you could be on the way. So how much is too much? And when does it become a problem?

According to the NHS, to keep health risks from alcohol to a low level, both men and women are advised not to regularly drink more than 14 units a week. A unit of alcohol is about half a pint of normal-strength beer or cider or a single shot of spirits. A small glass of wine (125ml) is about 1.5 units. And these units should be spread across the week: binge drinking is also problematic. A good way to keep the risks from alcohol low is to aim for several alcohol-free days each week.

There are various online quizzes to help you determine if you’re drinking too much – including this unit calculator from Alcohol Change UK. Even if you’re not addicted to or dependent on alcohol, drinking more than 14 units per week is considered excessive, and you could benefit from cutting down.

Alcohol affects your mental health as well as your physical health. The benefits of cutting down or quitting alcohol are physical, psychological and social. You’ll feel fitter, healthier and happier. It can be a way to lose weight, sleep better, feel better, save money – and avoid hangovers. And when you meet people socially without alcohol being involved, you can make more meaningful connections.

Why do I drink so much?

You may recognise that you’re drinking too much – and that is absolutely the first step to doing something about it. But do you ever wonder “Why do I drink alcohol so much?”

There are physical reasons why anyone can become overly dependent on alcohol, to do with how our brains work. When we drink alcohol we get a rush of the feel-good hormone dopamine. For a while, we feel happy or ‘buzzed’. However, this feeling quickly fades. And the morning after, you may wake haunted by the memory of what you said the night before! The brain relies on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes every day. The key word here is ‘balance’. This means that the fleeting feeling of calm and happiness you experienced the night before needs to be paid for – usually with interest.

To counteract that surge of happy hormones you experienced while drinking, your brain won’t produce as much dopamine the following day. As your dopamine levels plummet, you’ll likely experience a wave of anxiety, guilt and stress. And, over time, chronic drinking actually depletes the amount of dopamine in your brain, making it harder to get that ‘buzz’.

The real danger is that you may start to chase the momentary happiness alcohol provides, which can lay the groundwork for addiction.

10 reasons you may drink too much

Everyone is different and, aside from brain chemistry, the reasons you might drink too much are as individual as you are. There are lots of possible psychological and social reasons. Some of them may include:

  1. Stress. Alcohol can offer a sense of temporary relief from stress. However, in the long term, it can often end up making things worse. Excessive drinking can lead to low mood, poor sleep and impaired decision-making. If you’re managing a stressful situation, you need access to your inner resources. Drinking more only makes you less likely to be able to access these resources.
  2. Anxiety. If you struggle with anxiety, you might turn to alcohol as a way of managing situations that make you feel self-conscious and uncomfortable. But, while alcohol might provide a temporary relief from anxious thoughts, it tends to exacerbate symptoms of anxiety longer term.
  3. Social anxiety. You might be tempted to turn to alcohol for some ‘Dutch courage’. A drink or two might make you feel more at ease before going to a party or on a date. However, using alcohol as a coping mechanism for social anxiety is likely to make things more difficult long term.
  4. Depression. Which comes first – depression or drink? You might drink to boost your mood. But alcohol itself is a depressant, and is likely to lead to more low mood in the long term.
  5. Relaxation. Do you like to unwind with a glass of wine – or several – at the end of the day? If you associate alcohol with relaxation, you may be storing up problems for the future. Can you find another way to relax?
  6. Peer pressure. It’s common to drink more than we otherwise would due to the social situations we find ourselves in. If everyone is drinking at a party or social gathering, the pressure to join in can be intense.
  7. To mask another problem. Drinking too much may be a symptom of something else going on. You may drink to cope with stress, anxiety or depression, or to escape from another problem, such as money worries or an unhappy relationship. The problem is your problems will still be there when you sober up.
  8. Escape from reality. We get it. Reality hasn’t been that great lately. And drinking has certainly increased during the pandemic. You may simply want to blot out the reality of your life for a while, to get some respite from your troubles. Again, getting drunk only gives us a temporary break from reality. And alcohol is likely to make you less able to deal with an already challenging situation.
  9. Self-medicating. Do you have a physical health problem and use alcohol to numb the pain? Or do you drink to blot out your psychological pain? There are healthier ways of dealing with both kinds of pain.
  10. Availability of alcohol. Is alcohol just all around you and easily available? Has drinking become habitual just because it’s there?

Drinking too much to alleviate, mask or cope with mental health difficulties is an unhealthy, temporary and counterproductive ‘quick fix’. It will only make your problems worse. Alcohol essentially exacerbates any existing vulnerabilities. So if you suffer from anxiety or low moods, drinking is only going to increase those symptoms.

Signs of drinking too much – 7 things to watch out for

Recognising that you’re drinking too much, and understanding some of the reasons why, is the first step to cutting back or quitting. But if you’re still unsure if you’re drinking too much, here are some warning signs to watch out for:

  1. You set limits – but can’t stick to them. You might decide to cut down – perhaps try ‘Dry January’ – but never seem able to stick to your limits, and feel bad afterwards.
  2. Others comment on how much you drink. Do your friends comment on your drinking, even jokingly? And do you get defensive about it? They may recognise the problem before you do.
  3. Alcohol has become the centre of your social life. Does your social life revolve around drink? Do you turn down social invitations that don’t involve alcohol?
  4. You use drink as a coping mechanism. If you have a bad day at work, is your immediate reaction “I need a drink”? If you become used to feeling better after a drink, you’ll condition yourself to use that as a coping mechanism.
  5. You regularly wake up with a hangover. Are you regularly hungover? Even an occasional drinker gets hangovers. But if you’re waking up several times a week with a hangover, that’s indicative of a drinking problem.
  6. Your doctor says you’re drinking too much. Doctors often ask you lifestyle questions, such as how many units you drink per week. If your (honest) answer is met with a recommendation you cut down, take it seriously.
  7. You’re worried about your drinking. Perhaps the most obvious sign is if you’re worried about your drinking. Those who don’t have a drinking problem don’t worry if they do.

If you recognise any of these signs, or if you’re concerned about your drinking, it may be time to seek help.

Where to get help with quitting drinking

Drinking too much is nothing to be ashamed of, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re an alcoholic. If you’re concerned that you’re drinking too much, the good news is that you don’t have to deal with it alone – help is available. Here are some sources of support that may help:

  • Your doctor. A good first step is to see a GP. They’ll assess your alcohol intake and discuss the services and treatments available to help you get back on track.
  • Alcohol charities. There are also a number of great charities that provide support for people who have an alcohol misuse problem, such as Alcohol Change UK, Alcoholics Anonymous and We Are With You.
  • Online resources. There are useful online communities and resources such as the Soberful podcast. And if you struggle with alcohol cravings, you might find it helpful to listen to the ‘Urge Surfing’ and ‘Distraction’ episodes of Self-care, our library of audio courses and skills.
  • Therapy. More often than not, people turn to alcohol because they want to numb painful emotions, manage social situations or deal with psychological problems such as anxiety or depression. Because of this, therapy, such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), can be really useful. And it’s a healthier and more effective way to deal with those underlying causes. In your session, you’ll get to the root of these difficult problems and overcome them, improve your self-control, identify your triggers and identify coping strategies to help you control your urges.

If you want to cut back, quit or address your drinking, now is a great time. You don’t necessarily have to do ‘Dry January’ if that’s too challenging right now. Giving up drink can seem a daunting prospect. But with the right help and support, you can make this the year you tackle your drinking. And you’ll feel healthier and happier for it.