According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 6 percent of adults in the U.S. aged 18 plus have alcohol use disorder. What’s more, according to one survey, one in five individuals aged 12 to 20 have used alcohol. Two in five adults, aged 18 to 25, were binge drinkers. Yet because it is isn’t regulated as tightly as some other drugs, many people get the impression that alcohol doesn’t have the same potential for harm. Many people don’t know what alcoholic thinking even is.
The truth is that alcohol dependence can develop over time, and that it can wreak havoc.
In this post, we’ll explore alcoholic thinking and how it can contribute to and exasperate the symptoms of alcoholism. The goal isn’t to cast judgment or to assign blame. Each of us indulge in the traits listed in the next section from time to time. But if you have noticed that your alcohol consumption has increased, and you also recognize these traits in yourself, then you may want to take a step back and consider whether you’re developing dependency.
In the final section of this post, we’ll cover more general warning signs of dependency as well. Let’s get started.
What is Alcoholic Thinking?
If you’ve ever attended an AA meeting, you’ll know that alcoholics in recovery have a long list of sayings. One of these sayings talks about the ‘insanity’ of the disease. The saying is referring to alcoholic thinking, and isn’t, of course, implying that alcoholics are actually insane. On the contrary, many alcoholics are high-functioning. The term ‘alcoholic thinking’ does, however, refer to thinking patterns that are common to people who are still drinking, who are high functioning and who have not yet hit ‘rock bottom.’
AA meetings also hammer home the idea that alcoholism, and alcoholic thinking, if left to their own devices, can result in stints in jail, institutionalization, or even death. The traits of alcoholic thinking, in general terms, are:
- All or nothing thinking
- Inability to moderate consumption
- Living in denial of self-destructive behaviors or behaviors that harm others
- Ability to rationalize or justify unacceptable behaviors
- Ability to convince oneself that a lie is the truth
This is, largely, a subconscious process. These behaviors build over time, and they can feed off of one another.
Another well-documented aspect of alcoholic thinking is the tendency to use certain verbal loopholes. For instance, the alcoholic may use the word ‘probably’ quite often. Words like this make it possible to be vague about intention. Consider the following examples:
“I’ll probably only have one drink anyway…”
“I’ll probably be there around six.”
“I would, but…”
Other loophole words and phrases include:
- I’d like to
- I wish
- I want to
- I need to
Note that such verbiage allows the speaker to say something while providing no absolutes and while not actually making a promise.
Some of this behavior can be explained by the fact that alcohol depresses the brain’s ability to rein in impulses, making it easy to half-heartedly agree to do something on the spur of the moment.
There are several other aspects of alcoholic thinking that can, over time, lead to destructive behaviors.
Ongoing Crisis Management
The struggling alcoholic may have trouble multi-tasking. In fact, a decline in the ability to multi-task is one of the first signs that an alcoholic may be starting to lose their ability to juggle the stresses of day-to-day life. An active alcoholic may have issues achieving balance, and, to compensate, they may hyper-focus on one area to the detriment of another.
This can lead to, predictably, a situation in which they find themselves putting out several small fires. There’s always another crisis to manage because there’s always an area of life they’re neglecting.
This is a downward spiral, though some alcoholics manage to maintain for a long time.
A Sense of Entitlement
The active alcoholic may feel a great deal of self-pity. They may feel out of control or as if life is conspiring to keep them in a cycle of binge drinking and temporary abstinence. As has been noted in much literature, this self-pity can, over time, lead to a sense of entitlement—the sense that the world owes them for having dealt them a bad hand.
Consequently, many active alcoholics justify poor behavior, at least internally, by referring to their ongoing struggles. If reminded that everyone has difficulties, stresses and demands on their time, their response can be defensive to the point of aggressiveness.
A common AA observation is that as alcoholics expect more and more from the world, they demand less and less of themselves.
External Locus of Control
As an active alcoholic descends into uncontrolled consumption, they tend to blame their drinking on external factors. Blaming others for their own actions is what a psychologist calls having an external locus of control. It’s no surprise, then, that one of the first steps on the path of recovery is for alcoholics to accept responsibility for their drinking.
The active alcoholic often will not do this, and indeed, a shift to a more internal locus of control is often necessary before recovery can take place. Complicating matters further is the fact that it’s easy—if not tempting—to blame alcoholism on parents, genetics and other factors.
Extreme external locus of control manifests as an insistence that whenever something is wrong, it’s ultimately someone else’s fault.
“My marriage is failing because my wife is unreasonable.”
“If I’m at risk of losing my job, it’s because my boss makes unreasonable demands.”
“My business is in trouble because investors make unreasonable demands that prevent me from accepting funding.”
Finally, an external locus of control leads one with alcoholic thinking to say things like, “I don’t want to drink, but my wife/boss/business partner drives me to it.”
Disregard for Consequences
Many active alcoholics know that one drink leads to two, and that two can lead to five. But one aspect of alcoholic thinking is what may be termed the ‘screw it’ modality. Many active alcoholics tend to periodically ‘cut loose,’ regardless of consequences. Any number of stressors, from a breakup, to the loss of a job, can trigger such as binge session. Underlying this behavior is often a thought that goes something like this, Everything is already screwed up, so what’s the point? Why not drink?
One reason that AA meetings are so effective is that they gradually lead those laboring under alcoholic thinking to realize that ‘it’ is actually ‘me.’ When they say, ‘screw it,’ they’re actually saying, ‘screw me.’ Therefore, it might be said that alcoholism is, at its core, a disease of self-loathing.
Once this connection is made, active alcoholics are often able to assume a more self-loving posture, which can lead to lessened reliance on alcohol. Indeed, cognitive behavioral therapy can go a long way in helping alcoholics recognize the cognitive distortions that trigger feelings of self-loathing. Rediscovery of passions and hobbies long abandoned can also help.
Alcohol’s Effect on the Brain & Body
The destructive elements of alcoholism and alcoholic thinking occur over the long-term. But in the short term, alcohol has a number of detrimental effects on the brain and body. Over time, these effects can lead to cumulative damage. If left unchecked, this cumulative damage can contribute to a defeatist mentality that can lead someone with alcoholic thinking to continue to overindulge. Some short-term effects of alcohol consumption are:
- Blurred vision
- Impaired memory
- Difficulty walking
- Slurred speech
Yet alcohol’s power to destroy lives comes not from the acute effects it has on the body. According to a study conducted by Loran Nordren and Eileen Chou, at the Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, the temptation alcoholics are burdened with can lead to impulsive behavior. This impulsive behavior can lead those with alcoholic thinking into a downward spiral.
The Slippery Slope
For most individuals, moderate alcohol use, say around two drinks per day for men or one drink per day for women, is more or less harmless. That’s 1.5 ounces per drink. An individual with alcoholism may adhere to that—or, rather, they’ll claim to. What they won’t tell you is that a ‘drink’ for them is, say, 16 ounces, not 1.5.
Moderate use, however, can easily slip into alcohol abuse, and then alcohol dependence.
Let’s explore each.
- Alcohol abuse. This is a drinking pattern that results in recurring adverse consequences. Alcohol abusers may find it difficult to keep work, school or family commitments. These individuals may face legal issues stemming from their alcohol use, such as DWI—driving while intoxicated—or repeated arrests. Alcohol abusers may also have trouble maintaining relationships.
- Alcoholism. Alcoholism is technically known as alcohol dependence. These will actively seek out opportunities to drink, often disregarding the negative consequences associated with this behavior. Furthermore, someone with alcohol dependence will find it difficult to stop drinking once they start. Yet, at the same time, they may insist that they’ll stop after only a few drinks. An individual with alcoholism will often exhibit tolerance—the need to drink more and more in order to get a ‘buzz.’
Finally, an alcoholic will experience withdrawal symptoms if they quit alcohol abruptly. Common withdrawal symptoms are:
The Cause of Dependency
Problematic drinking has many causes, and alcoholic thinking may be more a symptom than a cause. While CBT and other therapies can help, there are indeed other factors that can cause or contribute to alcoholism. These include:
- Other psychological factors
- Physiological factors
- Social factors
What’s more, not every individual is equally affected by all of these factors. For some, psychological traits such as low self-esteem, impulsiveness and a need for approval lead to problem drinking. For others, sexual abuse or poverty may play a role. For yet others, peer pressure and easy access to alcohol in youth led to experimentation that resulted in dependency later in life.
When to Seek Help
It can be difficult to recall the exact moment where social drinking crossed the line into abuse or addiction. It can be even harder for a person to recognize and acknowledge alcoholic thinking in themselves. Knowing the warning signs of alcohol abuse and dependency can go a long way.
If you’re aware of these warning signs, it can be easier to recognize them in yourself. But you’ll need to achieve a certain degree of objectivity to make that assessment. We discussed many aspects of alcoholic thinking earlier in this post, but these can be particularly tricky to recognize in oneself. So now, in this section, we’ll cover more general warning signs of alcohol dependency. Take a deep breath. Let’s see how you stack up.
Alcoholism manifests in a number of ways, both behaviorally and physically, and the effects often vary by person. One person may manage to hide the most grievous signs from others for years—until they can’t anymore. Another individual may not have this ability, and they may find their social circle ever-dwindling. Someone may suffer serious physical complications from heavy alcohol consumption pretty much right away, while another person may live to old age with few ill effects.
While the timeline of alcoholism and its effects on the mind and body may vary from person to person, it progresses gradually overall. The pattern goes something like this:
- Experimental drinking in youth
- Social drinking
- Frequent drinking, with or without others
- Alcohol abuse
Many people abuse alcohol long before they become dependent on it. During this process, the individual may notice increased tolerance. That is to say, when they first start drinking, a single glass of wine might give them a ‘buzz.’ But over time, they find they need two or three glasses to achieve the same effect. This is a definite warning sign that dependence is developing.
Other early warning signs include:
- Diminished performance at school or work
- Frequently being late for class, meetings or other appointments
- Increasing or frequent legal troubles
- Increased risk-taking
When casual drinking begins to morph into something more, you may also notice:
- Blackouts or gaps in memory
- Unexplained injuries or minor wounds
- Loss of sex drive
- Digestive issues
- Cravings for alcohol
- Drinking early in the day
- Inability to moderate alcohol intake
As the condition worsens, you may note:
- Loss of meaningful interpersonal relationships
- Inability to maintain performance at work
- Seeking social situations, but only as an excuse to drink
- Harming others while intoxicated
If you think you have a problem with alcohol, there are several options available. Don’t wait, take action today.
In this post, we explored alcoholic thinking and its potential impact. We also delved into the psychological impact of alcohol abuse and examined the many potential warning signs that alcohol abuse may be developing. Grappling with alcohol abuse is easier in a social setting with folks who understand what you’re going through. Your local AA meeting is a stellar place to start and so is treatment at a facility like The Hills, located in Southern California.
No matter that: Whatever you do, don’t go it alone.
If you know someone you think may benefit from reading this guide, please consider sharing.
Additionally, if you are struggling with alcoholism, know that The Hills is here for you. Reach out to find out what our facility can do for you!