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How can I help someone with a drinking problem?

Recognising when we have a drinking problem can be tricky, yet when it comes to spotting friends or family who may be struggling, it can feel even tougher. How do we know if we’re just reading too much into things? Should we really judge how someone else chooses to relax? When does an occasional treat become a habit that they can’t seem to shake?

If you’re worried about someone else’s drinking habits, it’s important to know that you aren’t alone. According to the latest figures, 9% of men and 3% of women in the UK show signs of alcohol dependence. Over the past decade, hospitals have seen a 19% rise in admittances due to alcohol-related reasons. What’s more, it’s actually older generations (55-64) who have been found to be drinking the most, with many exceeding the recommended maximum of 14 units per week.

When it comes to alcohol addiction, there’s no one set ‘look’, background, or definitive checklist of symptoms that every person fits within. Drinking problems can affect us at any time, no matter what age, social or economic situation, or history with addictive behaviours.

Being worried about a loved one’s drinking can feel overwhelming or nerve-wracking, but it’s important to remember that you are concerned from a place of compassion and care. You aren’t trying to make someone else feel bad about what or how much they are drinking – you’re trying to ensure that they aren’t relying on unhealthy habits or methods of coping that could harm their long-term physical, mental, or emotional health.

Signs and symptoms to look out for

Common signs of a drinking problem can vary from person to person. Not everyone will exhibit all of these symptoms, however, if you’re concerned, it’s worth looking out for:

  • Do they seem to be worried about when or where their next drink will be?
  • Do they insist on planning gatherings with friends, family, or colleagues around alcohol?
  • Have they shown signs of extreme mood swings or irritability without a clear reason?
  • Do they offer excuses for why they drink (eg, to deal with stress, to relax) or have they tried hiding what they are drinking?
  • Do they often drink alone, or start drinking early in the day?
  • Have you noticed an increase in their drinking when they feel stressed or under pressure?
  • Do they exhibit any physical symptoms when not drinking, such as sweating, shaking, or feeling nauseous? Have they had any gaps in their memory or shown trouble remembering things?
  • Have they become distant or isolated from friends and family?
  • Do they prioritise drinking over other responsibilities, engagements, or obligations?
  • Do they drink to excess (binge-drink) over one or more days in the week? (It’s recommended that we drink 14 units at most per week, over at least three different days).

I’m worried someone I love is drinking too much. What can I do?

Broaching the topic can feel difficult, but it’s important to let your loved one know that you are concerned, and are there for them if they need to talk, or want help seeking support. Before starting any conversations about their drinking, make sure you feel able to speak calmly and without judgement.

It’s important to share your concern without seeming accusatory, as this can lead to them feeling defensive, or may mean they are less likely to open up and admit they might need help. If they aren’t ready to talk right now, try not to push. Addiction can become an overwhelming part of someone’s life. It can lead to feelings of loss of control, guilt, low self-confidence, and low self-worth. Just letting them know that you are there whenever they need you can be a big help.

If they are ready to look for help and support, there are a number of different ways in which you can support them through this. These include:

Encourage them to speak with their GP – by going to their GP, they will be able to find out more about specific services and treatment options available in their area. These can vary greatly between counties so this can be a great first port of call.

As well as being able to help your loved one to accurately assess their drinking habits to see if they have clinically reached a dangerous level, they should also be able to signpost other services, such as free helplines, local support groups and group therapy, as well as online resources that they can access free of charge.

Ensure that they know people are there for them – survey results by mental health charity Mind revealed that despite an overwhelming 82% of us believe that meaningful conversations with others are beneficial to our mental health, almost half of us still keep our worries and concerns to ourselves.

Knowing that something can help us, and feeling able to reach out and ask for that help can feel like very different things. By showing your support, and gently reminding them that you – and others – are there when/if they need to talk, it can help to reassure them that it’s ok to speak up when they are struggling.

Ditch the ‘one solution’ mindset – it can be easy to think that there is a ‘best’ way to get help – be that support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, through medication or talking therapy – but there’s no such thing as ‘one size fits all’ in real life. The same can be said for recovery. There are many different ways of seeking help – any of which could be the ‘right’ method for your loved one. It’s more important for them to find a method that works for them.

Talking therapies can help by offering a safe, judgement-free space where your loved one may feel more able to explore and uncover deeper issues that may have led to unhealthy drinking habits. For some, one-on-one sessions offer the best solution, whilst others may prefer a group therapy or support group setting, as this gives them the space to connect with others who may have experienced similar problems, issues, or concerns.

If stress, anxiety, or unhealthy ways of handling big emotional issues have contributed to their drinking, hypnotherapy can be a great option. Working with a hypnotherapist can help some people to better understand themselves, identify and reduce the causes of their stress and anxiety, and challenge unhealthy coping mechanisms that may be impacting their ability to handle day-to-day issues (or bigger, unexpected life events).

Remember that it’s their choice to seek help – no matter how much you care about someone, if they are not ready to admit that they have a problem and seek help, you cannot force them. Admitting that they have an addiction can be a huge first hurdle that they may not yet be ready to make. Pushing when they are not ready, seeming like you are judging or criticising them, or only interacting with them to talk about your concerns surrounding their drinking, can all contribute to them feeling alienated and less likely to reach out for help.

In order to see real change, your loved one needs to want to change. Acknowledging this doesn’t mean you have to sit back and do nothing – but it does mean you can’t push them to ‘make them’ be ready faster. Learning more about alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence, keeping the dialogue, and avoiding codependency can all be ways of supporting them even if they are not yet ready to seek help.

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Bonnie Gifford

Written by Bonnie Gifford

Bonnie Evie Gifford is a Senior Writer at Happiful.

Written by Bonnie Gifford

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