Recognizing Alcohol Abuse

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Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the U.S. and alcoholism is the third leading lifestyle-related cause of death. Alcohol abuse is also associated with a number of workplace issues including absenteeism, injuries, fatalities, and low employee morale. In the U.S., workers with an alcohol problem are 270% more likely to have a workplace accident. In the UK, the Institute of Alcohol Studies (IAS) estimates that 17 million working days are lost in the UK each year due to alcohol-related sickness.

Alcohol addiction can develop gradually over time, and warning signs can potentially go unnoticed. The U.S. Surgeon General, in his 2016 report “Facing Addiction in America”,  said the most common reason people do not seek help for their addiction is because they are unaware they need treatment or are in denial.

Elaine Rodriguez, LCSW-A

Elaine Rodriguez, LCSW-A, a clinical counselor with Workplace Options, shares three common warning signs indicating you or a loved one may have an issue with alcohol abuse. 

#1. Alcohol tolerance

Over time, consuming alcohol can result in an increased tolerance to its effects. This is the body and brain’s way of adapting in an attempt to keep us safe, despite intoxication. You might notice that your loved one can have drink after drink without experiencing the typical side effects (slurred speech, impaired coordination), or that you now need six beers instead of two to achieve a “buzz.”

#2. Loss of control/prioritizing drinking

A hallmark of any addiction is continuing to drink or use despite it causing a negative impact on one’s life. This can range from behaviors like choosing to drink over other activities, or making multiple attempts to cut-back without success, and drinking even when facing legal consequences such as a DUI. You may notice that someone you care about is only interested in events that include alcohol, or drinks in settings that are inappropriate.

#3. Withdrawal and cravings

When we become dependent on alcohol, suddenly refraining from drinking can cause the body to go into withdrawal. Without the substance the body has become accustomed to, our system goes into a state of shock, resulting in physical and emotional symptoms. This includes intense desire or craving to drink. Have you ever felt anxious, or felt your hands tremble when you couldn’t (or chose not to) drink? Does someone you love seem to be hyper-focused on when they can have their next drink?

Alcohol is a unique drug, in that the withdrawal symptoms can be severe or even fatal. People going through alcohol withdrawal can experience seizures, hallucinations, agitation, and disorientation. Therefore, it’s important to seek medical supervision when attempting to quit.

In addition to seeking medical support, the strategies below may also prove helpful for those deciding to give up alcohol.

  • Build a support network: Sobriety is a journey best handled through recruiting as much support as possible. This includes friends and family, but one can consider external networks as well. Most people are familiar with 12 Step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), however, this is far from the only option available. Other group support options include online forums and chat rooms, some of which also offer in-person meetings. You can also choose to seek guidance from your general practitioner, workplace Employee Assistance Program (EAP), a professional therapist, or a religious/spiritual community. 
  • Change routines and avoid triggers: We discussed the ways in which drinking can alter the brain and body, however, alcohol use also has behavioral components. Over time, the act of drinking becomes associated with certain people, places, and activities. Cravings can be triggered by subtle cues such as the time of day, weather, or stress. When you or a loved one are new to sobriety, it is crucial to understand triggers and avoid them when possible. This can include taking a new route to avoid passing the liquor store, and making an effort to engage in activities that don’t include alcohol.
  • Seek to understand, prevent, and cope with relapse: Relapse is considered a normal and common component of addiction. It is estimated that up to 90% of recovering alcoholics will have at least one slip during the first four years of their recovery. Recognizing your own or a loved one’s warning signs can help prevent relapse. These include increased stress/anxiety, rationalizing and complacency (e.g. thinking it is okay to have one drink, because it is a special occasion), and decreased engagement with one’s support network. Perhaps most importantly, individuals in early recovery and those who care about them should be understanding when a slip occurs, and recognize that this does not indicate failure. Continue being gentle with your loved one or yourself, and revisit what encouraged success prior to the relapse.

Workplace Options helps employees balance their work, family and personal needs to become healthier, happier and more productive, both personally and professionally. The company’s world-class employee support, effectiveness and wellbeing services provide information, resources, referrals and consultation on a variety of issues ranging from dependent care and stress management to clinical services and wellness programs. To learn more visit