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The psychology behind binge drinking and how to avoid it

Drinking a drink or two regularly can still be considered a benign ritual, despite disastrous reports to the contrary that periodically crop up. But when it becomes five or seven glasses in one sitting, there is cause for alarm. The behavior of drinking one drink after another is known as binge drinking. This mode of consumption has become a health problem among adults.

Even “moderate or occasional drinkers represent many cases of excessive alcohol consumption…”, showed a study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. According to the experts, “For the person who consumes excessively, there is more risk in terms of the risk of accidents (while drunk), as well as almost other types of alcohol-related issues.”

Exactly how many drinks lead to “binge drinking”

Most researchers believe that five or more drinks on one occasion constitute binge drinking or “episodic binge drinking.”

The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) has defined heavy drinkers as healthy men who drink four standard drinks a day or 14 standard drinks a week; and women drinking more than three standard drinks a day or seven standard drinks a week, noted Professor Dr Rohan Savio Sequeira, consultant cardio-metabolic physician. He said heavy drinkers are considered alcoholics, but not necessarily alcoholics.

But what makes someone turn to heavy drinking?

What is the psychology behind people going from moderate to heavy drinkers? Here are some of the factors that cause people to drink heavily in one sitting.

The feeling of satiety, that ‘enough is enough now!’

The feeling of satiety (“that’s enough now!”) is lacking in some people whenever people start drinking, said Dr Atul Ambekar, a professor of medicine at the National Drug Treatment Center and the Department of Psychiatry from AIIMS Delhi.

“In such cases, individuals wouldn’t know when to stop,” he said, calling it a neurobiological phenomenon. “The brain circuits and systems that govern the desire to drink, experience pleasure after drinking, and convey the message ‘Enough! Now Stop “are dysfunctional. This leads to episodic binge drinking (or binge drinking),” Dr. Ambekar said.

Dr. Rohan Savio Sequeira, a consultant cardio-metabolic physician, said research shows that drinking feels more enjoyable when someone is drinking with other drinkers. “Unfortunately, this perception of increased pleasure can lead to excessive drinking if your companions are also binging,” he said.

Sharing a similar view, Dr Ambekar said: “Norms of drinking in the immediate surroundings where one is drinking or drinking alone both influence the likelihood of heavy drinking”, said said Dr. Ambekar.

A belief that drinking is beneficial

Dr. Sequeira cited research on alcohol consumption and said that a significant number of social drinkers binge eat because they believe that rapid intoxication will give them certain benefits such as:

  • Reduction of personal inhibitions
  • Easier social interactions
  • A sense of social connection with peers who use alcohol
  • Acceptance among their peer group
  • Coping with emotional and mental stress levels
  • Dealing with stress

    Clinical psychologist Pallavi Sood said heavy drinking is like relying on alcohol as a coping mechanism to deal with stressors related to work or personal life. “It gradually turns into addiction because now the body wants more because it develops a tolerance for alcohol. So 120ml of alcohol might be a limit for three months, but as one develops a tolerance , they would like to increase it to 240 ml or even Suite.”

    Dr Ambekar noted that certain personality traits were associated with a higher risk of binge drinking, such as “impulsivity and sensation seeking”.

    He said people with an anxiety predisposition and those with anxiety disorders are also vulnerable to heavy drinking. “Alcohol consumption becomes a kind of “self-medication”, which is wrong, of course,” said the doctor.

    Easy availability of alcohol

    Alcohol is now readily available to everyone and students are among the country’s most likely heavy drinkers, Dr Sequeira said. He mentioned that in many cases, the ready availability of alcohol contributes to the high rate of binge drinking.

    Occasional bulimia (is also harmful)

    Drinking alcohol from time to time can also make a difference, if the number of drinks continues to increase. A person consuming three drinks a day would end up consuming 21 drinks during the week. Another person may only drink three days a week, but may drink seven drinks on each occasion.

    In both scenarios, the person consumed equal amounts during the week, “so the risks of certain long-term health consequences such as chronic liver disease, cancers and cognitive decline would be similar for both individuals,” Dr Ambekar said.

    How to avoid excessive alcohol consumption

    Dr. Sequeira said the best method to avoid excessive alcohol consumption is to have a better understanding of the amount of alcohol needed to reach a state of intoxication in a short time. However, experts say it is extremely difficult to establish a benchmark for “safe” level of alcohol consumption.

    Speaking against the provision of low-risk drinking guidelines, Dr Ambekar said: ‘(It can deliver) an inadvertent message that it is advisable to drink so much alcohol.’

    He also pointed out, “…It is prudent not to consume alcohol at all.”

    What happens when someone just has to drink alcohol?

    In this case, Dr. Sequeira said, it takes five 30ml servings of pure alcohol for men and four 30ml servings for women “to achieve an inebriated state”. He added: “Limiting your drinks to a few and diluting them can be an effective method of reducing the risk of binge drinking.”

    Meanwhile, Dr Ambekar said there was not yet a ‘low-risk drinking’ standard in India, but ‘if one must drink, follow international guidelines – no more than two glasses in any occasion”. Globally, the limit of two standard drinks for men and one for women is often cited and widely accepted as a low-risk or moderate level of drinking, the expert said.


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