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From Social Sips to Addiction: The Slippery Slope of Social Drinking


Whether it’s a fine cognac with friends after a night out, or a round of beers after 18 holes of golf, across various cultures, social drinking is a common practice. Social drinking can be defined as alcohol consumption in social settings, such as gatherings, parties, or with friends and family. People may drink in social situations to relax, ease social anxiety, celebrate, or simply bond with others. It’s important to note that a key characteristic of social drinking is moderation and responsibility, however. Social drinkers are typically aware of their limits and the expectation for the social environment they are in. On the other hand, excessive drinking can lead to a dependence or addiction to alcohol.


Social drinking can easily lead to binge drinking if a person constantly feels pressure to drink or is not aware of limits or tolerance to alcohol. Having at least four to five drinks (four for women, five for men) within a two hour period constitutes binge drinking. This behavior in particular can pose health and safety risks, particularly in social situations, and it can escalate to addiction if the pattern persists.


At the same time, social influences are but one potential cause of addiction to alcohol. A person may be dealing with trauma or with a mental illness, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or obsessive compulsive disorder, and turn to alcohol as a way to cope with their struggles. Regardless, alcohol addiction is an illness, predominantly associated with an inability to control alcohol consumption. Those with an alcohol addiction may also experience depression or anxiety when they don’t have access to the substance. They may even be aware of the issues their dependence causes–whether those issues are mental, social, professional, relational, or health-related–and struggle to quit despite these consequences.


An addiction to alcohol may mean that the person has developed a higher tolerance for alcohol and has to increase their intake to feel the effects. As a result, higher tolerance and levels of alcohol in the bloodstream can lead to withdrawal symptoms if the person goes without drinking for a period of time. Although alcoholism is a condition that develops over time, those who engage in social drinking on an increasingly regular basis can develop a dependence on the substance and not realize it.


Some of the indicators that social drinking is becoming an addictive behavior may also include the following:

  • Driving while intoxicated

  • Drinking until one blacks out

  • Drinking outside of mealtimes

  • Not realizing when it’s time to stop drinking

  • Using alcohol as a reward or relief from stress and anxiety

  • Not being able to imagine one’s life without alcohol

For those who are struggling with alcoholism or concerned that their drinking (or other substances) may be causing larger issues within their life, there are various options for treatment. Depending on one’s lifestyle and what they are dealing with, one may opt for therapy, inpatient or outpatient rehabilitation programs, or support programs like Alcoholics Anonymous.


Social drinking is indeed a common practice across cultures, and the expectations and norms associated with it may vary from situation to situation. Generally, social drinking is characterized by moderate alcohol consumption, mostly for the purposes of relaxation and social bonding. Nevertheless, social drinking can easily escalate into alcoholism. Recognizing the warning signs of excessive drinking and understanding one’s limits are key practices for drinking safely in social settings.


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