Alcohol Misuse & Drinking Behaviors

Drinking behaviors occur with a variety of drinking patterns ranging from binge drinking to heavy social drinking to alcohol abuse to alcoholism. To get a baseline comparison, “normal” or “low-risk” drinking is defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as:

  • For women: No more than 7 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 3 of the 7 in any one day.
  • For men: No more than 14 standard drinks in a week, with no more than 4 of the 14 in any one day.

What are Drinking Behaviors

Drinking behaviors are the behaviors a person engages in as a result of alcohol changing brain function. They are not intentional. Rather they are what happen when alcohol changes the way a person’s brain works. They include:

    • verbal, physical or emotional abuse, neglect, bullying, physical assaults
    • illogical, circular arguments; saying mean, hurtful things; blackouts, not remembering what was said or done the night before
    • driving while impaired, riding in a car with drunk driver, getting a DUI
    • unprotected, unwanted, unplanned sex, sexual assault
    • causing safety risks and decreased productivity at work and causing classroom disruptions at school
    • domestic violence (75% of domestic abuse is committed while one or both members are intoxicated [NCADD])
    • committing a crime (up to 75% of the crimes are committed by people under the influence of alcohol [NCADD])
    • alcohol-induced suicide
    • generating economic costs to others (estimated by the CDC to be $223.5 billion – $746 per person. Researchers found the costs largely resulted from losses in workplace productivity (72%), health care expenses for problems caused by excessive drinking (11%), law enforcement and other criminal justice expenses related to excessive alcohol consumption (9%), and motor vehicle crash costs from impaired driving (6%).[NCADD])

What Causes Drinking Behaviors

Obviously, it’s drinking. But this is where things usually go sideways because people offer all sorts of excuses for the drinking behaviors because “s/he’s not an alcoholic” or “he hadn’t eaten all day” or “she’s such a nag, she provoked him.”

The fact of the matter, however, is that drinking behaviors occur when a person drinks more than their liver can metabolize (get rid of). Contrary to popular belief, a person cannot vomit, urinate or sweat out the alcohol – it only leaves the body through the liver. And ON AVERAGE, it takes the liver about one hour to metabolize the alcohol in one standard drink. [Notice I said, standard drink. 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of regular beer and 1.5 ounce shot of 80-proof hard liquor are all equal to one standard drink.]

This average of one hour to metabolize one standard drink can vary widely depending on gender, stage of brain development (meaning teen brains don’t handle alcohol the way adult brains do), whether taking medications, genetic differences, mental illness, stress – there are a host of reasons to explain why one person drinking 2 drinks results in drinking behaviors and another person drinking the same two drinks does not.

Not only all of this, but because of the way the body processes alcohol (through the liver and not the digestive system), it means drinking water, eating a big meal or taking a walk around the block will not sober a person up. The only thing that does is time – time enough for the liver to rid the body of the alcohol in each standard drink. Six drinks will take six hours.

And while the body waits for the liver to metabolize each standard drink, the chemical in alcohol – ethyl alcohol – is traveling though the bloodstream to body organs that are highly vascularized (lots of blood vessels), like the brain. It “sits” in these organs waiting to be metabolized by the liver. While waiting to be metabolized by the liver, the alcohol chemically changes brain function that in turn changes a person’s behaviors. Too much alcohol for their brain and a person slurs their words, can’t think straight (as in thinks they’re good to drive or insists on arguing some random, stupid point), stumbles, looses coordination, says those mean, nasty things, experiences memory lapses, starts a fight – all because the ethyl alcohol has chemically changed the way their brain works. It is these brain changes that cause drinking behaviors, the direct cause of Secondhand Drinking. But as you will read in the examples on the page just linked, there are indirect causes of SHD, as well.

Drinking Patterns Causing Drinking Behaviors

There are three general drinking patterns that can cause drinking behaviors:

  • Occasional binge drinkers – defined as having 4 or more standard drinks on an occasion for women and 5 or more for men.
  • Heavy social drinkers – defined as routinely having more than 1 standard drink a day for women or 2 standard drinks a day for men.
  • Alcohol abusers – defined as regular binge drinkers and/or heavy social drinkers.

Even a “normal” drinkers can cause drinking behaviors – for example, if taking certain medications while drinking.

It is important to understand that a binge drinker, heavy social drinker or alcohol abuser can possibly change their drinking patterns to fall within “low-risk” limits. In so doing, they will likely be able to stop causing drinking behaviors butsee disclaimer below. A person with the brain disease of alcoholism, however, can never drink any amount of alcohol.

DISCLAIMER: this is not to say that just stopping drinking or changing drinking patterns will “fix” a person’s behaviors. It may and it may not, meaning a person may also have other things going on, as well. They may need help around childhood trauma or mental illness (PTSD or depression, for example). They may need help around relationship issues, general feelings of dissatisfaction or irritability or other kinds of stressors.  Help suggestions are shared elsewhere on this website.

Resources and How to Assess Drinking Patterns

  • For more on drinking patterns or tips for cutting down, check out NIAAA’s website, “Rethinking Drinking.”
  • For information on the brain disease of alcoholism (one of the brain diseases of addiction), visit “The Addiction Project.”

Related Articles

Secondhand Drugging | Drugging Behaviors are Similar in Concept to That of Secondhand Drinking | Drinking Behaviors

Secondhand Drugging is the impacts of a person’s drugging behaviors on others. Drugging behaviors occur as a result of brain changes caused by misusing prescription medications, such as opioid pain medications, antidepressants or simulates for ADHD, or illicit drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, meth or Spice.