Risky Alcohol Drinking Behavior

Pamela Henderson

The testimony often begins, "I was raised in a good Christian home..." What follows is a story of problem alcohol use that led to the destruction of dreams. The best stories end with redemption and recovery of the ability to dream again, but so many lives are never redeemed, never recovered. It is true that no one begins drinking with the wish to begin problem drinking or to become an alcoholic.

Subjective judgments such as "I am a social drinker," or "I only drink what I can handle," are often the criteria people use to evaluate their drinking behavior. Of course, the trouble with judging the effects of alcohol consumption by subjective criteria is that increasing amounts of alcohol increasingly impair judgment. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has published more objective criteria on its website

Moderate alcohol use--up to two drinks per day for men and one drink per day for women and older people--is not harmful for most adults. (A standard drink is one 12-ounce bottle or can of either beer or wine cooler, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distilled spirits.)

bwmancoveringeyesA Dependence is Developed

Alcohol dependence, commonly referred to as alcoholism, is characterized by:

Craving: A strong need, or compulsion, to drink;

Loss of control: The inability to limit one's drinking on any given occasion;

Physical dependence: Withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, sweating, shakiness, and anxiety, occur when alcohol use is stopped after a period of heavy drinking.

Tolerance: The need to drink greater amounts of alcohol in order to "get high."

In worst case scenarios, the craving to drink alcohol can become as severe as the need for a glass of water.

Risky alcohol drinking behavior lies in the middle ground between moderate alcohol use and alcohol dependence. Risky alcohol behavior is described by mental health professionals as:

High volume drinking: 14 or more standard drinks per week on average for men, or 7 or more standard drinks per week for women. High-quantity consumption: Consumption on any given day of 5 or more standard drinks for males, and 4 or more standard drinks for females. Any consumption within certain contexts: Even when small quantities of alcohol are ingested, drinking is risky if it occurs within contexts that pose a particular danger, for example, during pregnancy, when certain health conditions are present (e.g., diabetes), when certain medications are taken (e.g., anti-anxiety medication), etc. (Roberts, L.J., and McCrady, B.S. 2003. Alcohol Problems in Intimate Relationships: Identification and Intervention. Washington, DC: NIAAA).

Such alcohol drinking behavior is risky specifically because it potentially leads to medical, interpersonal, occupational, financial, and/or legal problems. Often, individuals will not correct drinking behavior until such adverse consequences develop, at which time they may well be on their way to more serious alcohol use or dependence issues.

From abstinence to occasional moderate use to risky alcohol drinking behavior to alcohol abuse and dependence, the range of alcohol consumption is as broad as the number of people on the planet. The most recent nationwide study on the prevalence of alcohol use found that 21 percent of Americans experienced at least one negative incidence of alcohol misuse in a 12-month period and approximately 14 million Americans aged 18 years and older (7.4 percent of the 1992 U.S. Census) could be diagnosed with alcohol abuse or dependence (Grant, B.F., Harford, T.C., Dawson, D.A., Chou, P., Dufour, M., and Pickering, R. 1994. Prevalence of DSM-IV alcohol abuse and dependence: United States, 1992. Alcohol Health and Research World, 18, 243-248.). Such prevalence rates make alcohol-related disorders one of the most frequently diagnosed mental health issues in the United States.

A Personal Story

The statistics are stunning, and the stories are disastrous. Pastor John Baker, founder of Celebrate Recovery, a premier Christian recovery program out of Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, California, tells his story:

The only things my hurts, hang-ups and habits cost me were my close relationship with the Lord and my family. You see, what I had considered the solution for my life's problem--alcohol--became the problem of my life! And finally my drinking cost me all purpose and reason for living. I was dying physically, emotionally, mentally, and most importantly spiritually!

Pastor John's story ends with Christ's redemption and recovery of family and hope for his future.

Christ's power freed John from addictionAlcohol abuse and dependence are among the most diagnosed and treated mental health disorders in the United States. Alcoholism represents a health hazard to individuals, a relational crisis in families, and a demand for recovery resources in communities. Too often, Christian discussions about alcohol use center around an instruction in favor of abstinence. That discussion often neglects the urgent need for Christ-centered involvement in the redemption and recovery of our neighbor. Increased sensitivity to objective criteria for alcohol consumption, based on medical and mental health data rather than subjective judgment, can educate compassionate Christians, and possibly motivate churches toward redemptive outreach.

About the Author

Dr. Henderson is a private practice clinical psychologist in San Bernardino, California. She and her husband, Terry, have been in full-time ministry since 1991. Together, they enjoy rearing two boys and pursuing an exciting, Christ-centered future together. For further information, Dr. Henderson may be contacted at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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