Problem Drinking vs Alcoholism – is there a difference?


Problem drinking vs Alcoholism

So problem drinking versus alcoholism, is there really a difference? Firstly you can read about my symptoms of liver disease here if that is helpful. I was certainly an average drinker with only really wine as my drink but the drinking can be exasperated by stress and other conditions.

It is probably an increasing hidden killer as well. So as well as getting more choice in the 0.0% abv market, I am passionate about understanding more why we drink.

Firstly why are we even reading this if it’s like a few glasses after work! According to some doctors even if you drink just over the recommended units you’re an alcoholic, go and figure that one out.

This is firstly just a bit of light relief from the many articles that are out there but if you want information please get it. I will try to write this from a personal perspective and hope that is helpful.

Sometimes it may feel that there is very little help out there apart from very expensive clinics. Also, I have come to the conclusion that there is not much difference between alcoholism and the average drinker in everyday life. I will repeat that a few times because I think it’s really important.

Let’s break it down into 5 logical levels to see where the problem lies


This is one of the biggest hurdles to be people getting help or even getting the awareness of their drinking pattern. It’s all locked up in one label and I ain’t a fan of labels, I think they can become a cause of a lot of grief. If I may, let me give you a sideways example. Say your job be a managing director and then you lose it? If you have no other labels what do you call itself?

The difference between alcoholism or an alcoholism versus problem drinking is probably nothing at all but the emotion they carry with them is very different. It becomes more difficult to change your identity than your behaviour. Some people are reluctant to give up something because it changes them at an identity level.

Tip : Avoid making your issue about you as a person or who you think you really are. You are more than a label.

Limiting Beliefs

People have beliefs about too much drinking versus being an alcoholic. There is no one interpretation. One of my colleagues went to the doctor and had two large glasses of wine a night and was deemed to be an alcoholic and yet in many people who drink too much they are seen as wearing a badge of honor. So what are your limiting beliefs about having to drink from social pressure and if you need it to survive or socialize?

Many of these beliefs are myths and some are made up. Limiting beliefs are only thoughts’ nothing more nothing else! The only one that can be counted on is that alcohol beyond safe limits causes you physical and mental harm as well as other drugs, over eating, not exercising and extreme sport.

Tip: What limiting beliefs do you hold about your drinking? Are they wrapped up in your limiting beliefs about yourself?

Do you say you are just a problem drinker when really the problem drink is very much the same as alcoholism. Is there a difference? Someone said to me on this blog, I do not have a problem drinking as I don’t drink in the morning.

Could that be a limiting belief. It could be a problem for your life if you only have two glasses each evening. The boundaries are blurred.

Tip: Make a list of your limiting beliefs around drinking. What are they and are they really true?


Here a question: If you had to teach me how to drink too much how would you get me to do it?” If it is safe to do so, get someone to ask you this question. This puts you in an empowering position rather than feeling dis empowered.

The fact is drinking more than you should be is a skill as well as a habit. You have learned to do it just as you learn the alphabet.

When you first start to have one drink a new link let’s say a “neuron” is formed then as you drank more so more “neurons” were formed so as you moved away from pain and towards pleasure albeit a temporary more “neural pathways” were created so you have the equivalent of an autobahn or motorway running through your head.

The brain would look for a shortcut until even you were amazed at the length you would go too to get a drink. I accept this does not apply to everyone, but if it’s one glass or twenty the same principle applies.

What skills do you have that make you an expert at drinking. Be aware of them and write them down.


Forget the identity and the labels. Start thinking about your behaviors? Do you drink after work each evening. Have you bought bigger wine glasses? Is your behaviour affecting your health and well-being from functioning?

When you start to analyze your habits it may start to show a pattern. Remember small changes can lead to another and then another and it works both ways.

Tip: Think of your behaviour as separate to who you are! You are not your behaviour!


I always put social pressure under this one along with triggers, what is the environment that makes you drink, it is dinner, a night out with the girls/boys where you are seen as “having to drink”. A limiting belief in a way but still a trigger. For other people drinking triggers include family life stress, issues at work. For many people if they remove the triggers this can be really helpful.

Go to the cinema rather than stand at a bar. Make a list of all your triggers and how you can reduce them. There is no difference between drinking and alcoholism in terms of triggers as they all start somewhere.

Problem Drinking vs alcoholism is probably an unhelpful category.

So the answer are you are an alcoholic or a problem drinker is probably the same it depends on your perceptions as an individual and those around you. The labels help people categorize as opposed to seeing the person behind the illness.

There are many people who drink the same as both alcoholics and problem drinkers and yet never get labeled. When I was rushed into hospital the doctors could not find any alcohol in my bloodstream. Why would they? It has been a few nights’ alcohol free and only then a few glasses of wine yet my liver was failing. We are all different and yet the labels stick.

Need more advice ? In the UK Drink Aware would be a good place to start and they can also direct you internationally as appropriate. You are not alone. Leave a message below and let me know your thoughts’. I have tried to come at this from a different angle around identity, and knowing that alcoholism vs problem drinking means a hundred different things to everyone.

So you can make a change and alcohol in excess is not good news but apart from that anything goes for discussion! I am also aware choosing a 0.0 abv alcohol free lifestyle is not the right one for everyone. Please consult your medical practitioner.

Comment below! It gets the debate started.

4 thoughts on “Problem Drinking vs Alcoholism – is there a difference?”

  1. Thank you for your post. it is useful for me. I think I am not a alcoholism, but I am a problem drinking. I drank beers every day until the day I suffered from severe gout, which was so painful that I could not move at all. 

    My doctor informed me that drinking beers could be the cause for my gout. I followed my doctor’s advice and quit drinking beers, which was indeed helpful. However after healing for a while, I forget all about it and started drinking beers again. Undoubtedly, my gout pain returned.

    I like your description on Behaviors. Apparently, my behavior affects my health and well-being. I need to change my behavior definitely. 

    • Thanks Anthony, these are important stories to tell and of course certain drinks can have different unpleasant causes. It sounds and feels like you took action straight away. It is all useful feedback for us. I think the link between physical symptoms and our behaviour is always an interesting topic in many ways. I really appreciate you taking time out to comment and contribute to the debate. Phil

  2. You bring up an interesting conundrum. Is heavy drinking the same as alcoholism? What is heavy drinking in the first place? When I first started my working career, I used to stay at a family boarding house. There were about 4 boarders most of the time. We didn’t have our own living room to chill out.

    Hence, every evening after dinner, two to three of us would walk to our local pub. The custom in the UK is that we each buy at least one round of drinks. Most of the time we bought each other a pint of our favorite draught beer. Every evening we used to drink at least three pints of beer. Sometimes six, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. We definitely got light headed. Since we walked to the pub and back, there was no risk of driving and having an accident. 

    I would class this as heavy drinking. However, I would not classify us as alcoholics. Taking me as an example, when I moved out into my own apartment after several months, I had no craving to go out drinking every evening. More to the point, I did not have a craving to drink  beer. \

    Would you say this was the exception rather than the rule? In the UK it is very common for people to go to the pub a several times a week. I do not recall seeing people becoming addicted to drink. This begs the question for me, what actually makes a person an alcoholic? I think it is a combination of being in despair and using drink to drink to escape from that feeling. In that situation, drinking will take place in private. It is not a means to socialize anymore. 

    My conclusion is you can be a heavy drinker without being an alcoholic. Having said that, I do not condone regular heavy drinking as it is bad for ones health. 



    • Thanks Edwin and the question was designed to provoke. I think it comes down to what society says, what we believe and of course what medics say. I think it crosses the line very often and I suppose my premise is that labels can be unhelpful.

      That said I think many people  describe the lifestyle you discuss and for most that is perfectly fine. It fact I know doctors who probably drank more than me. So hopefully it gets the debate going and if you are labelled as such it does not stop you from getting help regardless of the amount you drink. So separate the behaviour from the label/ identity which you do well in your comment.

      Thanks so much for responding, this article gets really enhanced by the debate in the comments and you have gone the extra mile, so thankyou! Phil


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