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  • Writer's pictureChristine Coulson

"Am I drinking too much?" How to take an honest look at your relationship with alcohol

Updated: Jan 22

Woman drinking wine wondering if she drinks too much

If you talk a lot of people who have been sober for any amount of time; you'll soon notice a common trend - after a number of failed attempts at quitting or moderating their alcohol in the past, almost all will have looked at their drinking in such a way that their mindset changed when they embarked on their successful venture into sobriety.

So when people say they've done a lot of work on their relationship, what do they actually mean? And will it always end in sobriety?! Well not necessarily, but it's the the first step to having a healthier relationship with booze.

Fancy giving it a go? Well here is my guide to looking at your relationship with alcohol.

1 - Honesty

Sounds simple doesn't it, Honesty. But actually being honest with yourself about the amount you're drinking is incredibly difficult. I remember in my 20s a friend and I decided that we would write down the number of units of alcohol we drank and I think I decided within a week that I just didn't want to know. If you're drinking a lot, it can be frightening to know the truth. Horrific, even. I can't sugar coat that.

But being honest with yourself is the first step, and it is the most important. If you're not prepared to be honest with yourself and accept whatever that may bring, you will not change your relationship with alcohol. It's that simple.

2 - Where you are now

Now you've promised to be honest with yourself; the next thing to do is to take a look at the amount you're drinking. You can write this in a diary, keep a log in a notebook somewhere or use of the the 'alcohol counter' apps that are widely available. An app may be a more accurate representation, as it is likely to take into account the ABV% (Alcohol By Volume) of the drink, as this can impact on the overall number of units of alcohol you're consuming.

A pint of a "low-strength" lager, such as Foster's (now 3.7%) or Carlberg (3.8% in the UK) is two units of alcohol. Something stronger, such as a Stella (5.2%) or Staropramen (5%) is three units per pint; one unit more in just one pint.

Wine can pose a problem; as pubs are very unlikely to have ABV information on prominent display; and you're more likely to ask for a wine based on a type of grape, which will come from a bottle that you can't see the label of. A 250ml glass of 12% wine is 3 units; 14% is 3.5. When you're counting your units these things can really make a difference. If you don't want to ask the bar staff for the ABV information of their wine, just err on the side of caution and log it as 14%.

Government guidelines stipulate that adults should not consume more than 14 units of alcohol a week; and more that 6 for women and 8 for men in one session is binge drinking. Women drinking over 35 units of alcohol a week and men drinking in excess of 50 are deemed to be at higher risk of serious health problems.

To help you with context, 35 units is just over 3 bottles of 14% wine; and 50 units is the equivalent of 3 pints of low strength lager a night. If you are drinking more than this, you may find information on alcohol dependence on the Drink Aware website helpful (here).

Keeping track of what you are drinking is the only way to get an accurate picture of what you're actually drinking. And it may go without saying, but I'd always recommend logging as you drink, as things may be a little blurred if you try and remember on the morning after...

3 - Why are you worried?

I want you to ask yourself why you're concerned about your drinking. And be specific. "Oh, I just worry it may not be good for my health" is a brilliant starting point; but what is specifically that is making you worried. Have you noticed something? Do you look or feel different? What is it that you're questioning. You need to really work down to the nitty-gritty of the situation.

If you've got drunk and have done something crazy or said something to a family member or colleague - really think about that too. Would you have done it or said it had alcohol not been a factor? Is this happening regularly? How does that it make you feel?

This can often work better if you write down how you're feeling. You don't have to write it in a posh notebook - it can be on A4 paper that you shred so no one else can read it, or as a note on your phone which you can delete. This isn't about sharing your thoughts with anyone else - it's about being honest with yourself.

4 - What sort of a drinker are you?

It's very common to think you drink because everyone else does, and to an extent that's totally understandable. In the UK, we live in a society where alcohol is incredibly prevalent. Getting drunk as an underage teenager is often seen as a rite of passage; the 'first legal drink' when you're 18 can be celebrated. You only have to look at the range of birthday cards available to see that.

But that isn't why you drink. If it was, there wouldn't be 20% of the UK population who totally abstain from alcohol or a further 56% who drink within the government guidelines of less than 14 units a week.

So why do you drink? And when? When you head to the fridge for that next cold glass or wine or can of beer; why are you actually wanting it? What is your underlying emotion as you open that door?

Maybe you're stressed and see alcohol as a good way of relaxing. Maybe you're struggling to sleep and want that drink to help you to nod off. Maybe you're going through a tough time and want to numb your emotions.

Pull out that trusty A4 pad of paper or phone and write down the truth about your drinking habits. Is there a trend to when you drink? Are there any triggers that make you reach for a drink? And be honest. This is unlikely to be easy; but, again, until you know why you're drinking it's unlikely that you will be able to make any positive changes to your drinking habits.

Then what?

So you've looked at your relationship with alcohol, you've done some real soul searching and have looked at what you're drinking, why and when. So what does this mean?

Well, that's entirely up to you. This has to come from within.

You may decide that you're happy with everything you've learned and are comfortable drinking in the way you have been. Hopefully you've found this exercise helpful, and have at least become more aware of the ABVs of the drinks you consume.

Or you may have identified that you don't have a good relationship with alcohol - be that drinking too much or for reasons that you aren't happy with. You may want to make changes, but don't know where to begin.

Firstly, it is essential that if you have identified that you are a 'high risk' drinker, or you're drinking because you are physically dependent on alcohol, you must seek guidance from your GP or your local alcohol services team. Changing your drinking habits if you are dependent on alcohol can be incredibly dangerous, and you should seek professional guidance. In this case, it's essential that you're honest with them, too. Take the knowledge you've gained through this experiment and talk to the experts, who can guide you on changing your habits in a safe, monitored way. Agian, more information on alcohol dependence can be found on the Drink Aware website here.

If you're not dependent on alcohol and aren't experiencing physical symptoms of withdrawal you need to decide where to go from here. What role do you want alcohol to take in your life going forward? Do you want to look at cutting down, or quitting completely? It's very possible that just by doing this work has already made you change your drinking habits; and this is good.

If you want to moderate your alcohol, it's very likely the alcohol unit tracker app you have been using also has a way of tracking your 'drink free days', which can be a real motivator. Work out when you're going to drink, and (importantly) when you're not and stick with it.

Depending on what you have found your triggers to be, you may have to look at alternative, alcohol free drinks to drink or other activities for stress relief. This is quite often called your 'sober toolkit' - and I will write about what these can look like in due course. But as an example, my 'sober toolkit' for situations where I would usually drink, or things to do when I'm stressed include - drinking alcohol free lager, classes at the gym, getting engrossed in cooking more complex meals (so I'm not just whacking something in the oven and sitting down with a glass of wine) and having a relaxing bath of an evening before taking myself off to bed.

If you're drinking because of a specific job, or a specific person, or something traumatic that happened in your past; it may be that you need to address those triggers head on. It is unlikely to be as easy as quitting your job, or cutting that toxic friend out of your life, so you many want to consider counselling or some sort of therapy to help you address these reasons so you aren't reaching for alcohol to numb them out. Again, your GP may be a good place to start, or search for counsellors online or in your local area.

If you would like to quit alcohol and don't know where to begin, speaking to a sobriety coach can be beneficial - in the same way you may have a couple of sessions with a personal trainer in the gym if you're not sure where to begin to increase your strength or cardio capacity. Details of the coaching packages I offer can be found here.

If you're not ready to quit alcohol but you'd like to talk about your drinking habits, you can book a chat with me here.

I hope you found this to be interesting, and beneficial. I would love to read your thoughts in the comments, or feel free to contact me.


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