High Functioning Alcoholics

According to a 2019 National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism survey, nearly 15 million Americans age 12 and older have an alcohol-related disorder (AUD). While many assume it is easy to spot someone struggling with an alcohol problem, that is not always the case.

Some people who suffer from alcoholism are what are known as high-functioning alcoholics. This means that while they have an AUD, they can usually go about their lives without their alcohol consumption having a noticeable negative impact.

What is a High Functioning Alcoholic?

High-functioning alcoholism is not a medical diagnosis. “High-functioning alcoholic” is a term used to describe someone suffering from alcohol dependency or addiction but still able to function relatively normally.

A high-functioning alcoholic can go about daily life and take care of their obligations (like work or school) primarily undetected. These individuals may regularly participate in heavy drinking or similar behavior but manage to maintain their responsibilities without friends or loved ones realizing how problematic their drinking habits have become.

To the outside world, someone who is a high-functioning alcoholic often does not show many signs and symptoms of someone with AUD. They will often appear both physically and mentally healthy. Below the surface, they face many of the same struggles of having an AUD, including cravings and unsuccessful attempts at quitting.

Difference Between High Functioning Alcoholism and AUD

High-functioning alcoholism is a term to describe someone suffering from an alcohol use disorder that manages to maintain a certain appearance, making it seem like they have control over the amount of alcohol they regularly consume. However, these individuals still have to deal with the effects of alcohol abuse, including mental and physical health problems.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) now use alcohol use disorder (AUD) as an umbrella term to describe all alcohol-related issues, including high-functioning alcoholism.

According to the DSM-5, to have an alcohol use disorder, you must have at least two of the following characteristics:

  • Try to cut back or stop drinking but can’t
  • Continue to drink even though you know you shouldn’t
  • Spend a significant amount of time either drinking or thinking about drinking
  • Get cravings to drink
  • Engage in dangerous activities as a result of drinking
  • Experience withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • Needing increasing amounts of alcohol to reach your desired effect
  • Continuing to drink despite it causing problems

What Are the Signs of High Functioning Alcoholism?

High-functioning alcoholics don’t tend to show signs of an AUD on the surface, making it difficult for loved ones to see that they have a problem and offer help.

If you think you might be suffering from high-functioning alcoholism, there are signs to look for:

  • Drinking more than two alcoholic drinks per day
  • Losing control while drinking
  • Trying to cut back or quit unsuccessfully
  • Hiding your drinking from others
  • Lying about your drinking
  • Getting into arguments or fights with friends or family members over your drinking
  • Getting into financial or legal trouble as a result of drinking
  • Developing physical or mental health issues due to drinking, even if they are not noticeable to others
  • Drinking a lot without appearing intoxicated
  • Drinking during inappropriate times
  • Finishing other people’s drinks
  • Making jokes about having a drinking problem

High Functioning vs Non-High Functioning Alcoholics

While someone who is a high functioning alcoholic might be good at hiding their AUD to the point where people around them don’t know, non-high-functioning alcoholics tend to show more of the traditional signs associated with an alcohol use disorder.

Someone that is a non-high-functioning alcoholic may be more likely to:

  • Show physical and mental signs of alcohol addiction
  • Drink in a way that prevents them from being able to complete daily tasks
  • Become isolated from others
  • Have noticeable changes in their physical appearance
  • Exhibit risky behaviors while drinking
  • Has more severe withdrawal symptoms when not drinking

Causes and Risk Factors of High-Functioning Alcoholism

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the typical high-functioning alcoholic is a middle-aged, well-educated person with a stable job and a family.

While there is no known cause of any type of alcohol use disorder, including high-functioning alcoholism, some mitigating factors can play a role in developing an alcohol-related issue.

Some risk factors include:

  • Binge drinking (having five or more drinks in a day)
  • Exposure to peer pressure to drink, especially at a young age
  • Having a family member that suffers from an AUD
  • Struggling with mental health issues
  • Having low self-esteem
  • Having more than seven drinks in a week for women or 14 drinks for men

The NIH has also found that nearly half of all high-functioning alcoholics are smokers.

Negative Consequences of Alcoholism

Even if you don’t struggle with AUD, drinking alcohol has physical and mental health risks. The more you drink, the greater your chances of developing a physical or mental health problem.

Physical and mental health issues that can arise as a result of excessive drinking include:

  • Alcohol poisoning
  • Weakened immune system
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Developing mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety
  • Short-term memory loss (blackouts)
  • Long-term memory loss
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Fibrosis
  • Cirrhosis
  • Pancreatitis
  • Certain cancers
  • Cardiomyopathy

In addition, heavy drinking comes with the risk of financial, legal, and family problems.

Treatment For High Functioning Alcoholism

All types of alcohol use disorder, including high-functioning alcoholism, are treatable. Treatment can be done through medications, therapy, support groups, or a combination. Additionally, individuals can opt into treatment programs that offer varying levels of care depending on the person’s unique needs.

Treatment Programs for High Functioning Alcoholics

In some cases, high-functioning alcoholics will experience alcohol withdrawals once they quit drinking. However, alcohol withdrawal is potentially life-threatening, so your doctor or healthcare provider may recommend a medical detox program.

Medical detox just means that you will go through the withdrawal process under medical supervision, but it doesn’t necessarily require you to check in to a treatment facility. In fact, many individuals experience medical detox at an outpatient level, while individuals with more serious addictions may opt for an inpatient medical detox situation.

After completing detox, you may participate in a treatment program at a substance abuse treatment center. Like medical detox, inpatient and outpatient options are available based on your specific needs.

Medications for Alcoholism

Medication-assisted treatment has been proven to be effective in treating certain types of addictions, such as alcohol. Certain FDA-approved medications can be prescribed to help reduce cravings, discourage relapse, and ease some of the symptoms associated with withdrawal.

Medications that have been proven to be effective in treating AUD include:

Therapy for Alcoholism

Psychotherapy, or “talk therapy,” is a popular treatment method for alcohol addiction.

For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is used to help address the mental component of addiction. CBT helps patients peel back the metaphorical layers, allowing them to understand the factors contributing to their alcohol use disorder. Through CBT, those in recovery can also learn healthier ways to deal with possible triggers and cravings moving forward.

Support Groups for Alcoholism

Support groups can help those in recovery by providing them with a much-needed support system. Support group meetings are not just a vital part of the treatment process but are regularly used even after completing formal treatment.

Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and SMART Recovery are support groups specifically designed for people in recovery from an alcohol-related condition.

FAQs

Get Help For Your High-Functioning Alcoholism

While being a high-functioning alcoholic might not seem like a big issue because it doesn’t yet impact your daily life, when left untreated, it can eventually catch up with you.

Call the SAMHSA helpline at 1-800-662-4357 or visit their online program locator to find alcohol addiction treatment options in your area.

FAQs About High Functioning Alcoholics

What are the main signs of high-functioning alcoholism?

Someone with high-functioning alcoholism might do the following:

  • Have more than two drinks in a day
  • Lose control while drinking
  • Being unsuccessful in trying to cut back or quit
  • Hide their drinking from others
  • Make jokes about having a drinking problem
  • Drink during inappropriate times
  • Get into arguments over their drinking
  • Drink without appearing intoxicated
  • Finish other people’s drinks

What are my treatment options for high-functioning alcoholism?

If you are suffering from any type of AUD, it is important to get treatment right away. Treatment options for high-functioning alcoholism include:

  • Therapy
  • Medications
  • Support Groups

What is the difference between high-functioning alcoholism and alcohol use disorder?

Alcohol Use Disorder is the medical umbrella term used to describe all alcohol-related conditions, including high-functioning alcoholism.

 

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. is a founder of Addiction GuideReviewed by:Kent S. Hoffman, D.O.

Chief Medical Officer & Co-Founder

  • Fact-Checked
  • Editor

Kent S. Hoffman, D.O. has been an expert in addiction medicine for more than 15 years. In addition to managing a successful family medical practice, Dr. Hoffman is board certified in addiction medicine by the American Osteopathic Academy of Addiction Medicine (AOAAM). Dr. Hoffman has successfully treated hundreds of patients battling addiction. Dr. Hoffman is the Co-Founder and Chief Medical Officer of AddictionHelp.com and ensures the website’s medical content and messaging quality.

Jessica Miller is the Content Manager of Addiction GuideWritten by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

9 references
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  2. GoodRx. (2021, September 9). What is a functioning alcoholic? what’s the difference? GoodRx. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://www.goodrx.com/conditions/substance-use-disorder/whats-a-functioning-alcoholic

  3. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2022, March). Alcohol Facts and Statistics. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics

  4. MediLexicon International. (2022, April 27). High functioning alcoholic: Signs, risks, and more. Medical News Today. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/high-functioning-alcoholic

  5. Bienvenu, M. (2021, May 3). Am I a high-functioning alcoholic? know the signs. WebMD. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/high-functioning-alcoholic#1

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, July 30). Director’s blog: Want to reduce stigma? choose your words wisely. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/directors-blog-want-reduce-stigma-choose-your-words-wisely

  7. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (2021, April). Understanding alcohol use disorder. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/understanding-alcohol-use-disorder

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