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Who Are High-Functioning Alcoholics?
High-functioning alcoholics, or “functional alcoholics,” contradict the stereotypical images of alcoholics. When people think about someone with an alcohol use disorder, they may think of someone who is extremely drunk, unable to speak clearly, stumbling over themselves, and possibly being aggressive. This behavior is often associated with the idea that the lives of alcoholics are falling apart. The signs of an Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) are not always so obvious to others. High-functioning alcoholics appear to have control of their lives and are able to work, maintain a family life, have hobbies, and appear sober.
High-functioning alcoholism not only impacts the individual drinking; it also impacts their families. High-functioning alcoholics struggle with the same inability to control drinking and increased risk for health-related problems. A high-functioning alcoholic can maintain what appears to be a normal life while still being dependent on alcohol. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) noted that 20% of alcoholics are “well educated, held down stable jobs and had families.”
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Signs And Symptoms Of High-Functioning Alcoholism
Because of a high-functioning alcoholics ability to blend in with those who don’t drink, signs of their drinking habits may go undetected. True to the definition of alcoholism, high-functioning alcoholics can spend large amounts of money on alcohol, endanger their relationships, have alcohol withdrawal symptoms, and endure life-threatening health problems. Despite their image and behavior, there are specific signs to look out for when determining if someone you know or love is a high-functioning alcohol, including:
- Making jokes about having a drinking problem or alcoholism.
- Not keeping up with home, work, or school responsibilities.
- Empty bottles of alcohol in their home, car, or office.
- Talking excessively about drinking.
- Getting drunk when not intending to.
- Unable to control drinking amounts.
- Drinking in isolation.
- Admitting concern about an alcohol-related problem.
- Needing to drink to feel confident.
- Denying drinking.
- DUIs or other legal issues due to drinking.
- Loved ones showing concern or asking about drinking habits.
A person’s denial can make it hard for others to identify their unhealthy drinking habits. This denial can also stop high-functioning alcoholics from getting the help needed for recovery as their lives appear to be “normal.”
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Risk Factors Of High-Functioning Alcoholism
Because high-functioning alcoholics often drink subtly, people may overlook key signs that indicate their drinking problem. Nonetheless, there are risk factors of high-functioning alcoholism to be aware of. These risk factors include, but are not limited to:
- Low self-esteem.
- Irritability if they stop drinking.
- Peer pressure with drinking.
- A history of mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or schizophrenia.
- High stress levels.
- A family history of alcoholism.
- Binge drinking (4 or more drinks in 2 hours for women; 5 or more drinks in 2 hours for men).
- Drinking to ease stress.
- Heavy drinking.
- Drinking to celebrate.
- Craving alcohol.
Some of these risk factors can contribute to long term drinking disorders. For example, someone indulging in heavy drinking can result in a high tolerance to alcohol that can encourage withdrawal symptoms. Justifying drinking habits can also indicate a strong level of denial in developing a drinking habit. The individual cannot control their actions, so finding justifications to drink can enable them to continue drinking instead of getting help.
High-Functioning Alcoholics And Alcohol Tolerance
High-functioning alcoholics, like all alcoholics, are at risk for developing a tolerance to alcohol. Because they drink regularly and become used to the effects of alcohol, a tolerance occurs when they feel they are used to the side effects and the buzz is not as strong as it once was. As a result, more alcohol is needed to feel intoxicated; however, it may not be obvious they are struggling with alcoholism. This is better known as a functional tolerance. Furthermore, high-functioning alcoholics can portray a variety of other types of tolerance styles, such as:
- Acute tolerance (Feeling drunk after a single session, then tapering down intoxication)
- Environment-dependent tolerance (Showing signs of intoxication faster if drinking in the same environment)
- Learned tolerance (Acceleration of a tolerance while practicing a task)
- Environment-independent tolerance (Developing a tolerance regardless of location or environment)
Tolerance encourages an alcohol use disorder (AUD) as it pushes your limits and causes health issues including damage to vital organs. Some may become comfortable with using alcohol as a coping mechanism as they expect it to reliably relieve stress. Alcohol tolerances can create disturbances in daily life. Some can become more open to trying other drugs. Others could risk poor health if they combine alcohol with medications. When a high-functioning alcoholic has a tolerance, these signs may still go unnoticed despite hidden alcoholism. In the end, a dependence can occur, which means he or she uses alcohol to cope and may need professional help to be healthy.
High-Functioning Alcoholics And Withdrawal
Another side effect of an alcohol tolerance is alcohol withdrawal. Long-term alcohol use alters the chemicals in the brain and can cause intense withdrawals and cravings. Once the body and brain get used to the effect of alcohol, going cold turkey would result in difficult, uncomfortable, or even dangerous side effects. Withdrawal symptoms can overlap for high-functioning alcoholics and alcoholics. Such examples include, but are not limited to:
- Mood Swings
High-functioning alcoholism can be hard to spot, but not hard to treat. There are many medications available that reduce alcohol-related cravings, withdrawal symptoms, depression, and post-drinking anxiety. Fortunately, treatment centers offer various hospitalization options such as partial hospitalization for intensive treatment, or other options for those who want to balance work and treatment. You don’t have to stop achieving your dreams while you recover. Contact a treatment provider today to discuss rehab options.
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