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Signs and patterns of alcohol dependence

Everyone’s situation is different. It's not possible to predict if and when someone will become dependent on alcohol.

Signs of alcohol dependence

Signs of alcohol dependence include:

  • not being able to function without alcohol
  • drinking has become an important, or most important, thing in life
  • continuing to drink despite negative consequences for you or your loved ones
  • finding it difficult to control the amount or the times when you drink
  • finding it difficult to stop drinking when you want to
  • not always being able to plan with certainty how much you are going to drink on an occasion
  • drinking more alcohol
  • craving alcohol or having withdrawal symptoms
  • not seeming to be drunk after drinking large amounts

Patterns of drinking if you are dependent on alcohol

Alcohol dependence affects different people in different ways.

If you are dependent on alcohol, you may drink:

  • a lot of the time
  • first thing in the morning
  • every evening
  • every day

You may stop drinking for many weeks or months. But when you start drinking again, you may lose control.

You may binge drink only at weekends or have periods of not drinking.

Talk to your GP or another healthcare provider if you are worried that you are becoming dependent on alcohol.

Feelings and behaviours

You may spend a lot of time thinking and planning what and when you will be able to drink.

You may feel anxious, unhappy or tense until you have a drink.

You may also feel unwell.

While you are drinking

Alcohol acts quickly on the brain and changes feelings and behaviour for a while.

You may like the effects of alcohol and want to keep drinking to keep getting that effect.

They may also do embarrassing things, get aggressive or take risks.

If you don’t drink

If you are dependent on alcohol and you can’t get any alcohol you will:

  • feel anxious and upset
  • feel irritable or angry
  • not be able to sleep
  • have physical withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking, seizures, sweating and sickness

How alcohol dependence develops 

Alcohol dependence can happen quite quickly. But it often happens after many years of heavy drinking.

Sometimes social drinking gradually becomes more frequent. Drinking more, until you can no longer control your drinking.

You might use alcohol to cope with problems or difficult times, until you can't manage without it.

Not everyone who abuses alcohol is dependent on alcohol. Abusing alcohol can also affect your health and relationships.

Why it is hard to stop

It is possible to stop drinking when you are dependent on alcohol. It can be difficult, but lots of people have done it.

Alcohol dependence can make it hard to change in 2 main ways:

  • psychological dependence
  • physical dependence

Physical dependence

Physical dependence is when your body needs and craves alcohol. It can mean feeling very ill and upset without alcohol.

Symptoms of physical dependence include:

  • shaking hands
  • feeling sick
  • sweating
  • seizures (fits)

You may need medication to help you stop drinking alcohol.

Psychological dependence

You may have a psychological dependence on alcohol. This is when you find it hard to stop your drinking habits.

It can feel difficult to face the world without alcohol if it has become a big part of your life. For example, if you use alcohol as a way to try and cope with things.

If you are worried about your alcohol use, take our alcohol test to find out what type of drinker you are.

page last reviewed: 08/11/2019
next review due: 08/11/2022