Many of us overindulge during the festive season – too much food, too many treats, and too much alcohol. The society we live in makes this a normal thing to do at this time of the year, so it’s common to just go with the flow and then pledge to clean up our acts in January.


But what if this pastime is actually covering up a deeper, underlying problem with alcohol in particular?

Recent research shows while the percentage of Australians consuming alcohol actually dropped during 2020, those who did partake are drinking more.

This is further backed up by evidence that Australians spent an additional $2 billion on alcohol in 2020, with the COVID-19 pandemic providing those partial to a drink with the environment and excuses to imbibe. Months of being at home, stress, and even boredom have all been quoted as reasons for Australians to increasingly turn to the bottle.

The alcohol consumption trend prompted a rethink in late 2020 of the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) guidelines on what constitutes safe alcohol use.

The new guidelines advised Australians it was not safe to consume more than 10 drinks a week, down from the previous advice of up to 14 drinks a week. The new guidelines also recommended consuming less than four glasses of alcohol on any one day in order to stay healthy.


Three wine glasses cheersing
With new NHMRC guidelines released that reduced the recommended alcohol intake from 14 standard drinks to 10 a week, it might be time to consider whether your alcohol habits are becoming unhealthy.


So does this mean it’s time for you to rethink your relationship with alcohol? And while the guidelines provide an indication of what a reliance on alcohol might look like, how do you know if your relationship with alcohol is unhealthy?


1. You use alcohol to avoid challenging emotions

We often hear alcohol discussed as a way to self-medicate. In fact, alcohol was referred to in 2020 as “COVID medicine” with friends dropping cases of wine over to help others get through lockdown, quarantine, or COVID-related stressors.

But using alcohol as a coping tool, rather than enjoying it harmlessly, is a sign of an unhealthy relationship. No one should need a drink in order to face their emotional or personal challenges.


2. You can’t stop thinking about alcohol

If your first thought each day is “I need a drink” and you feel like you need a drink to get started, then you probably have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. If you have trouble driving past a bottle shop without pulling in, it’s a sign of a troubled relationship with alcohol, as are thoughts about when you can have your next drink, how you are going to pay for your next drink, or how you are going to hide your next drink from your family or employers.


Bar cart of alcoholic liquor and mixers
When your thoughts are consumed with thinking about where your next drink will come from, it may be time to take a careful look at your relationship with alcohol.


3. You feel anxious around alcohol

Alcohol should not make you feel anxious. If it does, it’s a sign of an unhealthy relationship. If you are unable to make choices about your consumption without disgust, fear, trauma, or bad memories, particularly for those who had functional alcoholic parents, it might be an indication that your relationship with alcohol is out of whack and needs some work.


4. You prefer to drink alone

Drinking alone is often indicative of a problem with alcohol. If you feel like you need to hide your drinking from your partner, children, friends, or work colleagues, it’s a sign of a toxic relationship. The social aspect of drinking can also be used as a way to disguise alcohol misuse. If you use boozy work lunches or dinners or large family gatherings to justify your alcohol consumption, it might be time to reconsider your relationship with alcohol.


5. Even the experience of severe consequences is not enough to stop you drinking

If you continue to drink despite severe consequences such as risky decision making, aggressive behaviour, and spending excessive amounts of money without concern, it’s likely you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.


6. People are concerned about you

If your loved ones, friends, or work colleagues have noticed a significant change in you to the point of expressing their concerns, it might be time to rethink your alcohol use and seek professional help. Many people are able to function despite their alcohol use, or at least they think they can. However, if multiple people have said they are worried about you, it’s usually a good indication of a problematic relationship with alcohol.


Two people with a womans head on a friends shoulder
Our loved ones sometimes know us better than we know ourselves. So if you have heard concerns from multiple people, it may be time to listen.


7. Drinking is more important than work or your loved ones

We’re back to those obsessive thoughts again. If drinking has become the most important thing in your life, even more important than holding down your job or being there for your loved ones, it’s time to seek help. Drinking should be an enjoyable supplement to your life, not the overwhelming focus of it.


8. Your consumption has increased over time

Alcohol dependence is a progressive disease – it creeps up on you over time. For example, if you have gone from having a glass of wine after work three nights a night, to a glass of wine after work five times a week, to several glasses of wine five times a week, to a bottle of wine on a weekend night, to a bottle of wine every night, the beginnings of the problem are already there even though no alarm bell has gone off.


9. You experience cravings and withdrawal

Alcohol is an addictive substance so needing more of it to get the effect you want or experiencing withdrawal symptoms – such as shakiness, sweating, feeling nauseous, not being able to think clearly, or a faster heart rate – are signals that your relationship with it is not healthy.


Two beer glasses clinking
Withdrawal symptoms from alcohol can be very dangerous and have many side effects. If you are experiencing withdrawals when you don’t drink, professional help is probably needed.


It is important to note here that alcohol withdrawal, particularly from heavy drinking, can be quite serious and in some rare cases, can be fatal. One of the most severe consequences of alcohol withdrawal is called delirium tremens or “the DTs”. Its symptoms include fever, extreme agitation, seizures, extreme confusion, hallucinations, and high blood pressure. If any of these are experienced, urgent medical attention is required.


10. You’ve tried to stop drinking, but can’t

Repeatedly trying to stop drinking, then drinking again anyway while feeling incredibly guilty about it is a big red flag that your relationship with alcohol is toxic. It may help to go cold turkey for an extended period – one to three months – while focussing on all the positive aspects of not drinking during this time.

This can be very tough so it’s a wise idea to seek help during this period – from a support group, your GP, a therapist, or an Addiction Medicine Physician. It’s also helpful to let your family, friends, and work colleagues know you are working on your relationship with alcohol and that you plan on being sober for a while.

Whether you come away from this period with a long-term commitment to sobriety or you decide to resume drinking in moderation, it is vital to check in every so often to understand the relationship you have with alcohol.


Do I need help?

Having a toxic relationship with alcohol doesn’t necessarily mean you have a substance use disorder – that occurs when someone continues to drink even though they know it is contributing to physical problems caused by its use such as liver disease.

But substance misuse can lead to substance use disorder if it’s not addressed early enough so the beginning of a new year is a great time to look at where your alcohol use is right now and where it might be heading.

The Banyans Health and Wellness specialises in the treatment of alcohol misuse and dependency, among other conditions. To find out more about our comprehensive, multidisciplinary programs that are tailored for every individual, call us on 1300 BANYAN (1300 226 926) or complete an online form for a confidential discussion about how you or a loved one can benefit from The Banyans.