Alcohol intake has increased by 70 percent — here's how we can stop this trend

Alcohol intake has increased by 70 percent — here's how we can stop this trend
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A new long-term analysis from 149 countries found that alcohol intake has increased by 70 percent between 1990 and 2017. Alcohol is now the seventh-leading risk factor for disease worldwide.

It may be surprising to know that most people who struggle with alcohol have problems that are mild-to-moderate in severity. Many problem drinkers haven’t experienced major losses because of their drinking. They haven’t been fired from their jobs, incarcerated because of drunk-driving or road fatalities, or been hospitalized for alcohol-induced health problems. Most problem drinkers also don’t have a physical dependence on alcohol or experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to taper.

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But this doesn’t mean drinking isn’t a problem for them. Drinking too much alcohol has a number of other negative consequences, including — problems with family, fighting, or financial problems. Moderate drinking is typically defined as up to 1 drink per day.

Anything more than this, is above the recommended limit. It might surprise you, but more than one standard alcohol drink a day can increase a women’s risk for motor vehicle crashes, high blood pressure, stroke, violence, and suicide.

None of us has to feel powerless if we are wrestling with alcohol. There are numerous good options for reducing problem-drinking and treating alcohol use disorders. Simply knowing the negative physical, psychological or social effects of problem drinking doesn’t normally help people cut down. Telling someone about the potential damage to their heart, liver, immune system, disruption of their menstrual cycle or increase in their risk of infertility will probably not do it either.

People have the most success in reducing their problem drinking when they have specific plans and some guided instructions. As a first step towards abstaining or cutting down on your drinking, it’s important that people take an honest inventory of the quantity of alcohol they drink and any relevant dinking patterns.

When and where a person drinks and whom they drink with are also essential to know. Engaging in such a process is often referred to as self-monitoring. It’s a way for us to get a clearer picture of our drinking as well as a means for us to track our progress toward a desired goal.

Sometimes the act of self-monitoring can even become a motivator for change. A person can engage in self-monitoring with an app or online tools, a structured log, or simply with a piece of paper and a pen. No one has to see this information. This tool works best when a person is willing and honest with themselves.

Another very helpful strategy is goal setting. We need to choose a drinking reduction or abstinence goal(s) and a plan to get there. Perhaps a person wants to reduce how often they drink. Then they need to set the maximum number of standard drinks they will consume per week or day. They may also want to set the number of days they will drink and not drink. For example, maybe they will decide they are only going to drink once during the work week and on the week-ends. Or they might decide that they will limit their drinking during high-risk situations, like they won’t drink when they are angry or before driving.

They can also decide to eliminate or change their beverage type or strength. No hard liquor shots, or that after a second standard drink on a weekend, the person will change to a non-alcoholic beverage. There’s no one right or wrong path. Rather, there are numerous ways to set goals for reducing drinking — decreasing sip amount and rate, spacing drinks and alternating non-alcoholic beverages with alcoholic beverages. A key is to set the goal that fits you and the follow through and honestly document your actions.

Another effective strategy is something called a functional analysis of drinking behavior. This means a person engages in an in-depth analysis of the factors that lead to problematic drinking. What thoughts, feelings and events trigger problematic use? It’s not easy but it is more than possible to unlearn old habits and replace them with more positive new ones.

For example, if a person tends to drink right after an argument with their spouse, they may need to find alternative ways to blow off steam like exercise or working on a hobby. They might also hone up on your communication skills to improve relations and therefore avoid future fights.

It may seem an obvious thing to say, but people are different. Our alcohol drinking problems vary, our access to health care resources and support networks vary, our preferences for seeking help and our motivations vary. It therefore makes sense, that the strategies to reduce problem drinking should be tailored to each individual’s situation and temperament.

Some people have the ability to fairly easily quit on their own. Others may be able to alter their drinking after a single brief intervention delivered by a family physician. Some may need to engage in many treatment episodes over a period of years and may still struggle.

In a study of people who had resolved an alcohol problem without formal treatment, the majority explained that they took a long hard look at their lives and did an honest appraisal of the pros and cons of their drinking. Many also said that spousal support was critical in helping them maintain their resolution. 

Self-help organizations, like Alcoholics Anonymous and Moderation Management are also very popular. Not only can they help, but they’re convenient, and don’t have a waiting list or financial cost.

Though the new research finds that global alcohol intake is rising, there are ways to stop this trend from continuing. If you feel you may have problem with alcohol or are headed in that direction, you are not alone. Changing one’s drinking, especially if it’s an entrenched habit, isn’t easy; and it’s sometimes slow. But it is possible, and even probable with a strong motivation, good support system and engagement.

Joan Cook is a psychologist and associate professor at Yale University who researches traumatic stress and clinically treats combat veterans, interpersonal violence survivors and people who escaped the former World Trade Center towers on 9/11.