If drinking alone is bad, why do people do it anyway?
Drinking alone isn’t always a red flag. In our current culture, it’s common for many people to “unwind with a glass of wine” or “relax over a beer.” For most adults who drink in moderation, it’s not a problem to have a drink on their own. But there’s a reason drinking alone shows up on so many of those “Am I an alcoholic?” quizzes—it can be one of the warning signs for alcohol use disorder.
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is what many people call alcohol abuse, alcohol addiction, or alcoholism. The National Institutes of Health describe it as “a medical condition characterized by an impaired ability to stop or control alcohol use despite adverse social, occupational, or health consequences.” Because AUD can lead to health problems, social repercussions, and even impact your brain function, it’s something to take seriously. So let’s talk about why people choose to drink alone, and when that might signal that something’s wrong.
Reasons why people drink alone, and when it may be a sign of a problem.
Reason 1. The goal of their drinking is something they don’t want to share. When someone gets a drink with friends, the goal is often to share something—a celebration, a chance to connect, sympathy, the joy of one another’s company. But sometimes a person doesn’t want to share. Sometimes their goal in drinking is not to connect with others or to relax, but to “drink away” their problems. (Please note that for many of us, drinking has never made a single problem disappear, but has created a lot of new ones.)
In this mindset, being alone can feel like protection, shielding the person from having to discuss their emotions or from fielding suggestions on how to fix their problems. The goal may be to wallow privately in difficult emotions or to self-medicate their pain. Either way, they don’t want to include others in the process.
This can be dangerous for many reasons. First, drinking can feed depression and anxiety. Depression and anxiety also fuel alcohol use. It’s a vicious cycle. While this is true for alcohol use in all contexts, negative thoughts and suicidal ideation are often exacerbated by loneliness. Those who attempt to self-medicate through alcohol are likely to do so alone and are often unaware that they’re actually damaging their brain chemistry more. And if they also take prescription antidepressants or mood stabilizers, alcohol can make those less effective. Finally, because difficult emotions often linger, drinking to try to deal with them can easily become habitual and can lead to AUD.
Reason 2. The group norms don’t match with how much they want to drink. When a group of people tends to grab a just drink or two, there can be subtle pressure on the people in that group to abide by that unspoken limit. If everyone generally sticks to two glasses of beer, the one person who has four martinis and a couple of shots really stand out. This can make heavier drinkers feel guilty or shameful about their drinking.
A person who wants to drink more heavily than their cohort may begin to hide their drinking—drinking lightly with the group to fit in, and then having more when they’re alone. Away from the watchful eye of others, drinkers may be less aware of how much alcohol they’re consuming. This makes it easier to go overboard without meaning to. And for the people who do mean to, who purposely drink alone so that they can have as much as they want without feeling judged … That impulse is already a red flag that drinking may have become a problem.
There are also safety issues with drinking alone. When one drinks alone in public (for example, by themselves at a bar), they are at greater risk from predators. The nightly news or your favorite crime drama can show you hundreds of ways people with bad intentions prey on those who are by themselves and incapacitated. But even with no bad guys around, drinking alone can lead to other dangers. Some folks are more likely to drive under the influence when they drink alone because they don’t have a designated driver. Or they might go home with someone they wouldn’t otherwise trust or pick a fight they didn’t mean to pick because their judgment is impaired.
Reason 3. It’s cheaper to drink at home than to go out. Drinking in bars can be wildly expensive. Even ordering well drinks and what’s on tap, having multiple drinks at a bar or restaurant adds up fast. For those who prefer cocktails or more expensive brands, a night of several drinks at the bar can lead to a wallet-busting tab. This isn’t a big issue for those who have an occasional drink, but it can quickly become a problem for a person who is regularly having several drinks per sitting. These people often decide to drink at home, where they can have an entire bottle of alcohol for what they’d spend on a single drink from the bartender.
This becomes a problem if the cost of alcohol was an important limiting factor in a person’s drinking. Shifting the venue to home removes that obstacle, and consumption can increase dramatically. Pouring the drinks themselves (usually without measuring) can also make it harder for a person to keep track of how much they’re drinking, which makes it more difficult to spot a burgeoning drinking habit.
Drinking alone isn’t necessarily a sign that a person has AUD. Many people are willing and able to drink moderately and safely by themselves. But if any of the reasons or dangers listed above sound familiar to you, it may be worth it to take a closer look at your drinking.