Actors Shia LaBeouf and Robin Williams both announced last week that they’re seeking treatment for alcoholism: LaBeouf as an outpatient following an outburst in a New York City theater and Williams in a rehab facility. A representative for Williams, 62, told People that the comedian is still sober—as he has been since a 2006 relapse—but wants to “focus on his continued commitment” to recovery.
Now, not everyone who drinks too much starts hitting strangers at a Broadway play like LaBeouf did. They could be having a more silent struggle like Williams. Regardless, alcohol problems are more common than you think. About 15% of people who drink go on to become alcohol dependent, says Carlton Erickson, PhD, director of the Addiction Science Research and Education Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
“Those who recognize the problem before they develop full-blown addiction have a greater chance they’ll be able to cut down and minimize the role alcohol plays in their life,” says John F. Kelly, PhD, director of the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
So how can you tell if you’re developing a problem? Not all the clues are the same for all people, but here are common signs you could be headed for trouble—and how to turn it around.
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You set limits…but can’t stick to them
If you always try to limit yourself to a certain number of drinks and fail every time, you could be struggling with alcohol. “If you find yourself repeatedly going over your self-defined limit, that’s a common early sign you’re losing control over your drinking,” says Kelly, who is also president of the American Psychology Association’s Society of Addiction Psychology.
What to do about it: Figure out what triggers your desire to drink and try to avoid these people, places, and situations. This drinking analyzer card from the National Institutes of Health is a good place to start; the NIH also has a 4-week tracker to see how well you can stick to your limit. If you can’t avoid a trigger, keep a list of reasons not to drink nearby, as well as a list of trusted confidantes you can call.
Your friends comment on your drinking
One of the first signs your drinking is spiraling out of control is when friends or acquaintances express surprise about how much you’re drinking or how “well” you “handle” your alcohol. “People start to get feedback from [other] people long before they realize it themselves,” says Kelly. “That’s a sign.”
What to do about it: Compare how much you drink with the limits for “low-risk” drinking, which, for women, is up to 3 drinks on any single day and no more than 7 drinks per week. The National Institutes of Health says that only about 2 in 100 people who drink within these limits have alcohol problems. But remember that “low risk” still doesn’t mean “no risk.” While alcoholism can derail your entire life, even smaller amounts of alcohol can raise the risk for pancreatic, liver, esophageal, and even breast cancer.
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The majority of your plans involve alcohol
If drinking becomes the center of your social and home life, if you’re the one urging others to order another round, or if you find yourself cutting back on activities that you used to enjoy that don’t involve drinking, you could be in dangerous territory.
What to do about it: Instead of meeting for drinks, ask friends to do things that don’t involve alcohol, like meeting for coffee, taking a yoga class, going to the movies, or lacing up for a run.
You reach for booze whenever you’re stressed
Everyone experiences stress, from a serious break-up to a biting comment from a colleague. Alcohol can give you some short-term relief from the upset but it can also backfire pretty quickly, leaving you with the stress of everyday life AND the stress of a drinking problem.
What to do about it: Find other ways to handle stress such as breathing deeply, taking a walk, or logging a workout (hey, playing basketball helps President Obama unwind).
You worry about your own drinking
Your alcohol use could be problematic when your first thought in the morning is of how much you drank the night before. “You wake up concerned that you’ve broken your self-defined limit. You wake up thinking, ‘I didn’t stick to it’,” says Kelly. “The worry comes from the innermost part of yourself. That’s a sign of beginning of alcohol dependence.”
What to do about it: Confide in someone you trust. And get a reality check and personalized feedback on your drinking patterns with the Drinker’s Checkup, an online screening tool which also provides strategies on how to moderate your drinking.
Your doctor says you’re drinking too much
Doctors’ visits often involve answering questions about your lifestyle, including how much alcohol you drink. If you’re honest and if your doctor comments that the amount seems excessive, you should pay attention.
What to do about it: A doctor’s remark is not only a sign but also the start of a solution. “It has been shown that when physicians are astute enough to find out more about a person’s drinking behavior, if they make a statement like ‘I think you’re drinking too much,’ patients tend to listen,” says Erickson.
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You frequently wake up with a hangover
Even a sometimes-drinker gets the occasional hangover but if it starts to happen more and more often, you could be headed for trouble. “If you’re waking up three to four times a week with a hangover, that’s indicative,” says Kelly. And if you can’t remember what happened when you were drinking or you have only a hazy recollection, that’s a not-so-subtle clue that your drinking is out of control.
What to do about it: Monitoring your intake can help you stop before you go too far. Track how much you drink with the note function on your phone or an app—try IntelliDrink ($1.99, itunes.com) or AlcoDroid Alcohol Tracker (free, play.google.com). Just record the drink before you actually imbibe, which can help you slow down if necessary. You should include both the number of drinks and the size of each drink.
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