Alcohol has a range of effects on us and this is what sets alcohol apart from many other drugs.

It can affect our judgment and make us do things we would not usually do when sober. Alcohol acts as an anaesthetic slowing down our reflexes and our co-ordination. It can put us to sleep, it can induce a coma and it can kill.

Experts talk about alcohol abuse and alcoholism in different ways. Those who abuse alcohol still have the capacity to set limits on their drinking. Alcoholism on the other hand is more severe – alcoholics suffer from all the symptoms of alcohol abuse PLUS they are physically dependent on alcohol, ie, they rely on alcohol every day to function.

In New Zealand drinking is a common social activity. As the effect of alcohol varies so much between people it is not always easy to tell if you or a loved one has a drinking problem. The key is to look at how alcohol use affects you or your loved one.

If drinking is causing problems in your life, then you have a drinking problem.

The positive news is that there are organisations that provide treatment, support and coping skills to help people overcome drinking problems. Additionally, there is good evidence to show that alcohol treatment works.

What causes it?

Alcoholism and alcohol abuse are due to many interconnected factors, including your individual make-up (genetics), childhood and life events, your social surroundings (you are likely to drink more if people in your peer group, family or whānau or social group drinks heavily) and your emotional health.

People who suffer from a mental health problem such as anxiety, depression or bipolar disorder are also particularly at risk, because alcohol may be used to alleviate mental distress. This means that some people use alcohol to “drown” their anxious depressive feelings. Though it may seem to offer temporary relief from a situation or distressing feelings, alcohol use is more likely to increase problems and interfere with your ability to manage difficulties.

Signs to look for (symptoms)

In deciding if you have a problem with alcohol there are lots of things to think about:

  • How much do you drink?
  • Do you drink regularly?
  • Do you drink in binges?
  • Do you think your drinking is out of control?
  • Do you worry about your drinking?
  • Do you wish you could cut down, or stop?
  • How difficult would you find it to cut down, or stop?

Some people may never drink above accepted safe limits and may never become hooked either psychologically or physically, but for others it isn’t so easy. Alcohol can cause a number of disruptions or problems in many areas of life. Some of these include:

  • Legal problems, eg, trouble with the police through drinking, or drink driving charges.
  • Relationship problems, eg, with your partner, friends, or other family and whanau members, or at work.
  • Family / whānau problems, such as family or whānau violence, disruptive relationships, financial difficulties through drinking.
  • Social problems, eg, social embarrassment because of drunkenness.
  • Work related problems, eg, time off work, poor work performance, job loss.
  • Physical effects. Do you need increasing amounts of alcohol to get the same effect from it? Do you start to withdraw or hang out for it if you go without alcohol? Have you ever been sweaty, shaky or confused when you have gone without alcohol for any length of time? Do you have to drink throughout the day to keep your body physically stable? Do you ever have to have a drink as soon as you wake up to stop the shakes?

How to decide if you have a problem (diagnosis)

If you think you may have a problem with alcohol it is useful to draw up a list of the good things and the less good things that you experience with your own drinking. Write down all the good things that you can think of. For example, that drinking alcohol makes you feel better, or that it means you have a good time with your friends.

For the less good things, think about any of the negative effects that might be affecting your life.Consider what your family/whānau is saying about your drinking and the effect that it might have on them. What about any effects that alcohol might be having on your health?

Look at the balance of the good things and the less good things.

Is your drinking a problem for you or for other people? Do you need to change something about it? If your drinking is causing problems in your life, are you ready to do something about it?

What you do about your drinking may depend on your answers to these questions.

Realising you have a dependence on alcohol is a very difficult first step to recovery.

People often drink to create a sense of wellbeing that they are looking to achieve in ordinary life. It can seem much easier to drown a problem with drink than to do the hard work of sorting it out.

Over the years, alcohol can become the main focus your life and you find you need more and more alcohol to get the same feeling of wellbeing. In order to maintain your habit you become dishonest and this can lead to self-hatred.

Your relationships with friends, family/whānau and employers fall apart through your irresponsible actions. You may start to feel desperate or even suicidal.

This is often the point at which people start to reach out for help. But remember you don’t have to get to this point before you look for help.


If you want to do something about your drinking, you need to get back the control that has been taken away from you by alcohol. You also need to take responsibility for your own drinking and for any problems your drinking is causing and make the changes that are needed.

Whether you are stopping drinking, cutting down or making other drinking changes, there are a number of things you can do to make it less likely that you get back into the old difficulties or problems. Different treatment options work for different people, including the following:

  • Treatment for physical dependence on alcohol, such as detoxification. This often involves taking medications that support detoxification. This on its own is not a treatment for alcohol problems and must be done under a doctor’s supervision.
  • Counselling and/or support networks to help deal with alcohol issues and with relapse prevention.
  • Day or residential programmes.
  • Relapse prevention.
  • Certain complementary therapies may enhance your life and help you to maintain a non-problematic relationship with alcohol. In general, meditation, hypnotherapy, yoga, exercise, relaxation, massage, mirimiri and aromatherapy have all been shown to have some effect in alleviating mental distress.

Useful strategies for those with alcohol dependence

You can benefit from a lot of support to maintain your recovery. Some people get their best support from others who have been through the same kind of experience. Others find a supportive health professional, or their friends, family/whānau may offer good support.

  • You can make better choices if you educate yourself about your condition and the types of treatments and supports that are available.
  • Keep in touch with friends. Discuss your worries with someone you can trust.
  • Seek support and advice from professionals such as your doctor, a counsellor or groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or other culturally appropriate services.
  • Look after your health. Make sure you are getting enough sleep and a healthy balanced diet.
  • Learn some relaxation techniques.
  • Make sure you treat yourself by doing something you really enjoy every now and then.

Useful strategies for those supporting people with alcohol dependence

It can be difficult to know how to deal with your family/whānau member or friend's drinking. Some people have found these suggestions helpful:

  • Remember that neither you nor anyone else can make someone cut down or stop drinking, but you can encourage them and help them to make changes.
  • Talk to the person about your concerns but make sure it’s at a time when they are sober and you are both calm.
  • Be clear about what behaviour you will not accept.
  • Be consistent, don’t keep changing your mind about what you are saying, and do not say one thing and do another.
  • Listen and find out how your family/whānau member, or your friend feels about their drinking.
  • Encourage the person to concentrate on the effects the drinking is having on their life rather than use a label such as alcoholic.
  • Don’t make it easier for the person to drink by buying it for them or always agreeing to go to the pub with them. It’s difficult to break these habits but he or she is likely to take you more seriously if your actions match what you are saying.
  • Remember to encourage and praise the person if they do manage to cut down or stop their drinking.
Thanks to Janet Peters, registered psychologist, and Lisa Ducat, Like Minds, Like Mine mental health promoter, for reviewing this content. Date last reviewed: September, 2014.