Binge Drinking: Is It Just a Phase?

While The American Psychiatric Association does not recognize binge drinking as a formal disorder, it is a phrase that many of us have come to associate with a heavy night of drinking, perhaps in the context of a social gathering or holiday party. You may be surprised to know that binge drinking is formally defined by the consumption of five or more alcoholic beverages in men and four or more alcoholic beverages in women, within a two-hour period. At this time, binge drinking refers to a general behavior that places an individual at an increased risk of developing an alcohol use disorder, but does not directly correlate with a substance abuse disorder. In contrast, an alcohol abuse disorder is not defined by a particular amount of alcohol consumption within any given time frame.  Rather, alcohol abuse disorder is defined as a chronic and progressive disease that is characterized by an increased tolerance and continued drinking in spite of negative consequences. Thus, an individual with an alcohol abuse disorder may binge drink, but a binge drinker may not necessarily meet qualifications for alcohol abuse.

Recognizing Behaviors

Generally speaking, those individuals whom engage in alcohol use have likely met criteria for binge drinking at one time or another. Thus, it may be important to consider the context in which this behavior is occurring when determining whether or not a concern exists and/or how best to address the concerns. Justification and rationalization of alcohol use on a consistent basis may be grounds for concern, as those without problematic patterns of drinking are unlikely to see a need to justify the behavior. When attempting to determine if one is exhibiting a concerning amount of alcohol consumption, it is important to be objective. This can be difficult to do on ones own, with many individuals with an alcohol abuse disorder noting that their family and friends were aware of the issue long before they were themselves.

While it is important to recognize that binge drinking, or even heavy drinking, does not equate to an alcohol use disorder, recognizing the signs of a growing concern can be crucial in preventing the development of a disorder. Behaviors to be cognizant of may include regularly drinking more than intended, difficulty following through on commitments, such as caring for children or fulfilling employment obligations, and engaging in risky behavior while under the influence. Overall, ones ability to make informed decisions lowers when legally intoxicated, although regular engagement in risky behaviors may be an indication of a more significant concern. Binge drinking often begins in the teenage years or young adulthood, having been said to progress to heavy drinking when one meets criteria for binge drinking five or more times a months. Addressing problematic drinking early on can prevent this behavior from spanning into adulthood.

The Danger of Dismissing the Behaviors

Alcohol consumption in today’s society is growing in regards to acceptance, with it becoming increasingly common to see behaviors of binge drinking in younger individuals. Thus, how do we differentiate between “normal” socialization and teetering on the edge of a potential disorder? There is no clear answer, but to call it a phase is to dismiss the dangers of increased alcohol consumption to both the body and the mind. For those who utilize alcohol, average use will differ between individuals, but if you find yourself questioning your drinking patterns, it may be worth examining more closely. There is strength in recognizing the need for help and individuals waiting to offer this help and support without judgment.