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Is “casual drinking” really that casual?

Doctor Solomon and other experts weigh in on the gray are of indulging in “just a few drinks.”

By Christa Lee

It’s five o’clock somewhere. It’s a familiar expression — sometimes used to justify drinking at any time of day — popularized by an early-aughts song of the same name, where the end of the work day means it’s time for alcohol. Whether that means logging onto a virtual happy hour with a glass of wine or making an Old Fashioned at home, having a drink or two is one of the most common ways to unwind. And many people (those of legal age, of course) find plenty of ways to enjoyably drink in moderation.

But experts say the gray area of casual drinking can become a slippery slope. The data shows that adults across the U.S. are using alcohol more and more to deal with stress, anxiety, and isolation, but there’s no single definition of when alcohol consumption becomes problematic. In partnership with vorvida® — a therapy-inspired platform to help monitor alcohol use* — we’re taking a look at the impact (and increase) of casual drinking, how to be more conscious of personal choices, and ways to help clear up the gray area around alcohol.

An empty martini glass, toppled to the side with a small amount of alcohol spilled on a dark table.OleksandrLysenko/Pond5

A “normal” amount of drinking is tricky to define

Many adults might think of themselves as casual drinkers. It’s common knowledge that “too much” booze is bad for health, but there are multiple interpretations of what’s considered “safe” or “moderate” drinking. The CDC limits moderate alcohol consumption to one drink a day for women, and two a day for men. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) bases drinking limits upon patterns that increase a person’s risk of an alcohol-use disorder. That comes out to three drinks a day for women, and four a day for men. One drink versus three can put a person in an entirely different state, depending on how quickly drinks are consumed. Then throw in body weight, tolerance, stomach content, ethnicity, and a bunch of other unique factors, and it’s no wonder it’s hard to pinpoint what’s “casual” and what’s not.

Dr. Renee Solomon, an LA-based clinical psychologist and the CEO/clinical director of the drug and alcohol treatment center Forward Recovery, says it’s important to analyze intent. “Casual drinkers are people that can stop at one drink,” Solomon says. Clearly, people are free to have more than one drink, she notes, but red flags might go up if someone finds it hard to stop or is drinking to escape feelings.

Monitoring behavior is especially difficult for those who live alone and don’t regularly have someone who sees their habits over time. In those cases, says Professor David Nutt, director of Imperial College London’s neuropsychopharmacology unit and author of Drink?: The New Science of Alcohol and Your Health, self-awareness is critical. “Ask yourself: ‘Have I ever missed work because of drinking? Have I been spending more time and money on drinking than I used to? Have I been annoyed at others for criticizing my drinking?’” he says. “That one is really important because that’s the beginning of, perhaps, denying the problem.”

Seven beer bottles, some empty and some full, sit on a table with bottle caps and a bottle opener.OlesyaSH/Pond5

Drinking through stressful times

Solomon says her clinic has seen a rise in returning patients who’ve resumed drinking during the pandemic, as well as new patients. Last year, research showed the correlation of the stressors of the pandemic to alcohol usage. According to the JAMA Network Open, U.S. alcohol sales increased by 54 percent during the week ending March 21, 2020 (when many stay-at-home orders were in full effect), compared to the year before. People over age 30 have increased their alcohol consumption by 14 percent, and in particular, more women have been struggling with potentially unhealthy alcohol use to combat the pressure of new domestic responsibilities. Additionally, the study found men didn’t show much of a change year-over-year, but that they were already drinking more than women to start.

Solomon acknowledges that, during any particularly stressful time, alcohol can become a coping mechanism. “A big piece of that is isolation, fear of the unknown, and just feeling overwhelmed,” she says. “So all of those factors contribute to an increase in using alcohol and people wanting to escape.” Perhaps ironically, drinking too much — even just once — can have a negative impact on the mind and body. (Think: lethargy, moodiness, and nausea.) Alcohol is still a drug, and according to the NIAAA, it weakens the immune system and the body’s ability to ward off infections, even 24 hours after getting drunk. Although an increase in drinking habits to cope with distress doesn’t automatically mean a person has a disorder, it can become a risky, cyclical pattern when someone’s consuming alcohol to ease pain, and then feeling even worse when the alcohol wears off.

Is alcohol “all or nothing”?

Even for adults consciously monitoring their alcohol intake, there’s pressure on two fronts. There’s an obvious stigma surrounding alcohol abuse, but there’s also often judgment around drinking very little or not at all. “Abstinence in most Western societies, particularly in people under the age of, say, 30, is seen as a very aberrant behavior,” Nutt says. “There’s enormous pressure for young people in particular to conform with the drinking culture…and then, of course, drinking less than your peers is also seen as being a sign of weakness, or it can be seen as a criticism.”

The stigmas go a step further for women, Solomon notes. “People think: ‘Are you an alcoholic? Or are you pregnant and not telling us?’” she says. “Also, the stigma of not drinking is that you aren’t ‘fun,’ and nobody wants to be labeled that.” And while all this might sound like the messages of an after-school special, it’s a very real consideration for people looking to change their relationship with alcohol, who might think the only choices are “keeping up” and occasionally over-consuming, or refraining from drinks entirely. “The biggest piece with drinking is understanding what’s causing the drinking: If you can identify the feelings behind the situation, only then are you able to change that behavior,” Solomon says.

vorvida® study conducted in Germany found that in as little as six months, the platform could help support people as they worked through potentially unhealthy drinking habits. People can make the platform work on their own terms by setting goals of how much and how often they want to drink, ultimately to encourage more agency and control.

Of course, says Nutt, there are many ways for adults to be more mindful about their drinking behavior. That might mean drinking a big glass of water before consuming an alcoholic beverage, and in between drinks, he says. People might also choose to replace their typical happy hours with alcohol-free activities (video games, anyone?), or they might cut back a little each day — to see that every additional day is a small win.

As with many other things in life, “alcohol is about moderation,” says Solomon. “And it’s about looking at satisfaction in your life and what you want your life to look like,” she adds. So many resources are available, especially with the aid of technology, to help people find manageable steps that work for them. And making the gray area of casual drinking less gray: that’s a win.

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