Where Do You Fall on the Spectrum of Alcohol Use?

Two glasses of wine next to place setting on tableNot everyone who drinks alcohol has a drinking problem. Most people fall on a continuum of alcohol use throughout their lives. An increase in alcohol use and problems associated with it is typically gradual. No one becomes dependent on alcohol upon their first sip.

Check out where you fall on the spectrum of alcohol use:

Experimental Use

This first stage is often driven by curiosity about what alcohol does and what it tastes like. This often occurs during the teenage years. First-time alcohol users often want to see what all the fuss is about. After trying it, some decide they can take it or leave it. Others will have too much, pray to the “porcelain god,” and not drink again for a long time, having gained a better understanding of their limits.

A small percentage of first-time drinkers will describe their first intoxication as “meeting my best friend,” “finding the answer to my problems,” or “something I couldn’t wait to do again.” This population has experienced not only the chemical change associated with alcohol, but also a physiological rush. Dr. Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse since 2003, describes this as a hijacking of the brain. It is like flipping a switch. Once on, it stays on. This group of drinkers may develop addiction if their alcohol use continues. The experimental use of alcohol becomes potentially dangerous when curiosity is quenched, yet the person returns for more.

Occasional Use

Occasional users are not preoccupied with drinking. They often drink only in social situations like when they go out to eat, attend a party, celebrate an important event, or want to relax on some weekends. Left unsupervised, teenagers may choose to consume alcohol as part of an event like homecoming, prom, or a concert. This type of drinking is often not a major concern; however, younger drinkers tend to drink more for effect and to binge drink to become intoxicated, potentially leading to problematic or dangerous behaviors.

Situational Use

Situational use is also not usually a problem. However, the amount and frequency of alcohol use begins to increase. What was once special-occasion drinking becomes more consistent and may be associated with specific events such as every weekend, parties, birthdays, sporting events, clubs, and other such things.

Bingeing can be a part of normal experimentation. The person who experiences the consequences of drinking too much and refrains from use for a period of time may not develop a problem, whereas a problem drinker may experience the consequence yet do the same thing the very next night, weekend, or party.

Binge Use

A binge drinker is someone who consumes a large quantity of alcohol—usually five or more drinks in two hours for men and four or more drinks for women—with the intent of becoming intoxicated. Bingeing can be a part of normal experimentation. The person who experiences the consequences of drinking too much and refrains from use for a period of time may not develop a problem, whereas a problem drinker may experience the consequence yet do the same thing the very next night, weekend, or party.

In this middle part of the spectrum are individuals who drink too much or drink on a regular basis. They may drink in college, in early adulthood, after a breakup, in a crisis period, or because of grief. Many people in this group recognize that their drinking, either the amount or the frequency, is getting out of control and can make some behavioral and lifestyle changes to bring it back to a non-detrimental level.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates about 28% of adults drink at levels that put them at risk for alcohol dependence and alcohol-related problems. They include these next two areas:

Alcohol Abuse

This consumption pattern tends not to occur every day and is not a problem every time a person drinks; however, it is beginning to cause problems. Many drinkers will slow down or stop drinking when they have had a fight, developed a health problem, or faced legal consequences. People who abuse alcohol tend to continue their drinking patterns despite recurrent problems.

The person who abuses alcohol tends to drink in a larger amount than others and does so more frequently. However, at this stage, many people either minimize the existence of a problem or deny alcohol’s impact. They may say such things as “I can stop anytime I want,” “It’s not like I drink every day,” or “I’m not as bad as _____.”

Alcohol Dependence

At this stage, alcohol use has become a serious problem, and the person may be commonly described as an “alcoholic.” Someone who is dependent on alcohol tends to imbibe on a very regular basis and in large quantities, needing it to function despite having suffered severe consequences such as DUIs and losing something of importance or value to them—spouse, child, job, home, or health.

When someone is dependent on alcohol, the body has changed. The person has developed a tolerance to alcohol, meaning increasing amounts are necessary to achieve the same effect. This person may also experience withdrawal symptoms if denied alcohol, including physiological responses such as delirium tremens (the shakes), seizures, hallucinations, delusions, heart attack, or stroke. These are dangerous, can be life threatening, and may require medical attention.

Only a small percentage of the population, about 6%, is dependent on alcohol. People who are alcohol dependent or experiencing a severe alcohol use issue are what many nondrinkers, drinkers, and even treatment providers picture when they think of someone with a drinking problem. This 6% of individuals may be the ones you compare yourself to in order to validate that you do not have a drinking problem.

So, where do you fall on the spectrum of alcohol use? What are you willing to do about it?


  1. Alcohol facts and statistics. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/alcohol-facts-and-statistics
  2. Maldonado, L. (2014). Drug addiction statistics – Alcoholism statistics and data sources. Retrieved from https://www.projectknow.com/research/drug-addiction-statistics-alcoholism-statistics
  3. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2013). Results for the 2012 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. NSDUH Series H-46, HHS Publications No. (SMA) 13-4795. Rockville, MD.
  4. Turner, C. (2017). Can I keep drinking? How you can decide when enough is enough. New York: Morgan James Publishing.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Cyndi Turner, LCSW, LSATP, MAC, GoodTherapy.org Topic Expert

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Lori

    October 24th, 2017 at 10:29 AM

    Definitely both a situational drinker and smoker

  • Cyndi Turner

    October 24th, 2017 at 1:16 PM

    Lori- it’s great that you can keep it to that! Just watch to see if your amount and frequency starts to creep up. It’s always easier to address issues before they reach a problematic level.

  • Lori

    October 24th, 2017 at 3:19 PM

    Yeah there are those times like during the holiday season that I have to really work to keep things in check. Like every night there is something going on, a dinner or a party, and you know, those are my times when I drink and I smoke. I might not have any desire to do that when I am home but when I get in those social situations then that is when I want to unwind a little. It’s all better when I can keep in moderation that’s for sure.

  • Murray

    October 25th, 2017 at 9:46 AM

    I know first hand how easy it can go from having a few drinks here and there to then becoming dependent on those few drinks.
    I have been there done that, ruined a marriage along the way too.
    So yes, keep a running tab on what you can handle and when too much becomes too much, it is time to step away from the table.

  • Cyndi T.

    October 25th, 2017 at 12:48 PM

    Murray– great advice from someone who sounds like he’s been through really hard times.

  • Ted

    October 26th, 2017 at 8:12 AM

    That stat that only 6% of the population experience dependence seems awfully low to me

  • Cyndi Turner

    October 30th, 2017 at 5:32 PM

    Ted- a lot of people are shocked that this number is relatively small (17 million people). As I was doing the research for my book “Can I Keep Drinking? How You Can Decide When Enough is Enough” I found that there is a much larger number-90 million- who are starting to develop problems but are not yet physically dependent (addicted). All of the major research institutions (SAMSHA, NIDA, NIMH, NIAAA, etc. have found similar statistics).

  • Phillip

    October 27th, 2017 at 11:27 AM

    Sadly there are probably way more people who actually have a problem with controlling the amount of alcohol that they consume than are willing to admit to it. I think that there are many who are what I would call functional alcoholics in that they can go about their day perfectly fine but they can put on a big front and even if they are intoxicated you would not know it just to interact with them. But this is where it can get so dangerous in that they likely don’t even realize the level of their own impairment and then they get brace and do something stupid like oh say drive a car. I just wish that more people could be up front about their issues and at least learn to stay safe even if they can’t say no to the substance.

  • Cyndi Turner

    October 30th, 2017 at 5:35 PM

    Phillip- sadly, denial is often part of this disease. My goal is to reach as many people as possible before alcohol use results in a major consequence and/or progresses further along the Spectrum.

  • Connor T

    October 28th, 2017 at 10:20 AM

    It would be so nice if everyone could just enjoy a drink or two every now and then in moderation but unfortunately there are some people who don’t possess the ability to handle their alcohol like that. It is best to recognize this ahead of time before the tendency to over drink and indulge becomes too great.

  • Cyndi Turner

    October 30th, 2017 at 5:37 PM

    Moderation is hard for some people. You may have heard the term “One is too many and twenty is not enough.” Most people can stick to their limits for alcohol, but a percentage of people may need to come to the realization that drinking is like an allergy for them and they cannot ever safely imbibe.

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