When Does Social Drinking Become Harmful?

By Robert Common, Managing Partner, The Beekeeper

When you encounter stressful situations, what routines have you developed to handle them? Do you meditate? Do you engage in an activity as a physical outlet for the stress? Do you pray? Do you let the emotions pass and flow through you? Coping mechanisms for stress can be just as diverse as its causes.

For some, drinking alcohol is a short-term method of addressing urgent problems. For people who engage with alcohol this way, a major part of the appeal of drinking is how immediate and complete the effect can be. However, there are significant risks to drinking to relieve the stress of problems in the short-term, and without intervention, these risks can escalate quickly.

Since near the beginning of humanity, alcohol has been used to decrease inhibitions and as a tool of social engagement. Used in moderation, it often promotes interpersonal bonding and decreases anxiety. In excess, alcohol can have severe health consequences, both immediate and chronic. It can rapidly become a habit and can create physical and psychological dependence. Some people rely on alcohol to negotiate their world.

Yet many people are able to enjoy alcohol socially without significant consequences. They can enjoy drinking with friends and not increase their usage, or suffer any physical or emotional manifestations. At the other end of the spectrum, some individuals can quickly develop a problematic relationship with alcohol, even after moderate consumption. For them, even casual or social drinking can become a threat to physical or mental well-being.

The definition of “moderate consumption” depends on many factors, including culture, biological sex and other factors. One of the more commonly used Western definitions comes from American dietary guidelines, which define moderate drinking as no more than two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women. Women have less water content in their bodies to distribute the alcohol than men do, which accounts for the difference between genders in the definition of moderate drinking.

One of the more common uses of alcohol is to find short-term relief from psychological and spiritual challenges. Examples of such challenges include stress, social anxieties, sleep problems or depression. One of the reasons why alcohol is so popular to use this way is because it is extremely effective at creating a sense of relief. Even though its effects are temporary and sometimes risky, alcohol allows people to experience a sense of escape from the burdens of their fears, worries and other emotions.

However, for some it is surprisingly easy to develop a reliance on alcohol to find an escape from emotions. This is especially true for people who have had a previous alcohol use disorder, or who are at risk for developing an alcohol use disorder. For these groups, at the first experience of pressure, cravings for alcohol ensue; that is evidence that a psychological reliance on alcohol may have been established.

Both the Western understanding and traditional Buddhist teachings warn against this possibility. From science, it is understood that consuming alcohol, even short term, reduces the body‘s ability to naturally bring itself back to a state of rest and normalcy after it has been stimulated or stressed. When a person stops drinking for a period of time, this natural ability of the body is usually restored. But in some people, that is not the case; these individuals find themselves increasingly reliant on alcohol to resume a normal emotional and physical state. It is difficult to know who is going to quickly recover the ability to have the body return to its normal state and who will not.

The Fifth Precept creates a similar understanding of the risk of alcohol use. Excessive usage is discouraged because of its effects of making it more difficult to achieve mental clarity. When people drink, they may be more likely to act outside of integrity or in ways that tax the spirit rather than nurture it. While it is not clear exactly what is “excessive” and what isn’t, there is general agreement that using alcohol to the point of intoxication fits the intended meaning.

But there is a diversity of opinions within Buddhism about how the Fifth Precept ought to be interpreted. Some monks, leaders and scholars believe that alcohol use of any type should be discouraged. Others make exceptions for spiritual practices which are designed to raise consciousness and awareness. Many believe that the intent of drinking is important to consider. This school of thought is generally the most widespread, and is also open to the most interpretation. Whether in Tibet or Thailand, Mongolia or Myanmar, there are several opinions about how much alcohol a person can drink before their intake raises concerns about their ability to maintain a sense of true self.

Yet, both Western and Buddhist understanding of the short-term effects of alcohol arrive at a conclusion: to stop the harmful potential effects of using alcohol to address immediate problems, one may have to intervene swiftly. For over 20 years, studies have shown that even brief interventions with someone when they have a problematic relationship with alcohol can be quite effective, and the earlier the better. These interventions do not necessarily need not be complex. They can be as simple as stating something like “I’m concerned about your drinking and what it seems to have done to your body, to your energy, and to your community,“ or “Do you feel like you’re having trouble coping with your life without alcohol?”

For someone with a more severe alcohol use problem, a more stringent intervention may be necessary. For those who develop disorders of alcohol use, it may be best to talk with trained spiritual advisers in a more structured and rigorous manner. But how does a person know if they are likely to need a stronger intervention after the short term usage of alcohol? Many times, individuals do not know what shape their relationship with alcohol will take, and only understand this after that relationship has created harm.

If you are a person who uses alcohol to address short-term problems,You are more likely to need an early intervention if you:

  • Use alcohol in large quantity
  • Use it regularly
  • Have difficulty coping with routine stresses without alcohol
  • Experience physical withdrawal symptoms when you stop using alcohol

If an individual’s alcohol usage becomes severe, or if stopping alcohol creates physical withdrawal symptoms, those individuals need to seek medical attention.

The people who are most at risk of developing a problem from the short term use of alcohol tend to be those who have not found, or easily found, ways of navigating difficult emotional experience.

People who have strong supports tend to fare better. As in so many other situations, having a supportive community is a fundamental aspect of decreasing a person’s reliance on alcohol for relief of short-term stressors.  Such support can come from family, trusted friends, spiritual leaders or from trained professionals. Often, all of these groups are involved, producing a symbiotic and synergistic tapestry of connections that can keep you afloat and help you develop other strategies for navigating life’s challenges.

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Benn JA (2005) Buddhism, alcohol, and tea in medieval China. In: Sterckx R (ed) Of tripod and palate. Food, politics, and religion in traditional China. Palgrave Macmillan, Gordonsville, pp 213–236

Kaner, E. F., Dickinson, H. O., Beyer, F., Pienaar, E., Schlesinger, C., Campbell, F., … & Heather, N. (2009). The effectiveness of brief alcohol interventions in primary care settings: a systematic review. Drug and Alcohol Review, 28(3), 301-323.

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