Americans drink alcohol to celebrate, socialize, and unwind. According to a 2015 survey, 70% of Americans said they had consumed at least some alcohol in the preceding year. While the effects of alcohol can be quite powerful, most people can drink moderately and responsibly. When people exceed the prescribed limit of one daily drink for women and two for men, however, alcohol can cause serious problems. Car crashes, violence, health issues, and relationship problems can all occur with overindulgence in alcohol. About 17 million Americans have an alcohol use disorder (AUD), a drinking problem that threatens their own health and safety and that of others.
The good news is that when those with an alcohol problem seek help, most are able to successfully quit drinking or at least reduce the amount they drink. If you have a friend or loved one who is courageously seeking help with a drinking problem, you can be part of their success story. Here are eight ways you can help:
- Take Care of Yourself. While this may seem like a surprising first suggestion, it’s a prudent one. Dealing with a person who is abusing alcohol can be stressful and sometimes depressing. In order to “be there” for that person, you need a support system of your own. Community support groups, such as Al-Anon, a professional counselor, your family, friends, and faith community can all help supply the support you need.
- Understand the Problem. AUD can range from mild to severe. When a person is truly dependent upon alcohol, the problem is brain-based. In some people, alcohol actually changes the way the brain reacts to alcohol. This makes it very hard for a person to stop drinking once they start, due to a craving for alcohol that is as compelling as the hunger for food. This is what is meant when people say alcoholism is a disease.
- Be Patient. Once you understand the seriousness of AUD, it’s easy to see why overcoming an alcohol problem is so difficult. Don’t expect a quick resolution. It’s more realistic to expect your friend or loved one to make mistakes, learn from them, and slowly make progress.
- Don’t be shocked by relapse. Relapse is an expected part of the recovery process. Rarely does a person with an alcohol problem enter treatment and never relapse. When relapse occurs, don’t express disappointment, judgment, or criticism. Instead, offer kind words, encouragement, and support. It is worth noting that relapse often occurs in times of stress. If possible, don’t ask the recovering person to take on additional responsibilities until they have made progress.
- Be Compassionate but Vigilant. It is common for people with alcohol problems to struggle with anxiety or depression. As drinking occurs less and less often, anxiety and depression may be reduced as well. While you want to be compassionate and supportive, be vigilant, too, because severe anxiety or depression may escalate to suicidal thinking. If you sense that this is happening, support the person in seeking professional help from a counselor or, if necessary, accompany them to a hospital emergency room.
- Help Them Avoid Alcohol Triggers. When a friend or family member is trying to stop drinking, be sensitive to the potential impact of encountering alcohol in a social situation. Though you may feel rude or impolite, do not offer the person a drink under any circumstances. It’s also important not use alcohol yourself when you are with him or her. Better yet, look for activities you can do with the person in alcohol-free environments.
- Encourage Them to Attend a Support Group. Those who attend support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous do better than those who don’t participate in such groups. Not all groups are the same so encourage the person to persevere until they find a group that is a comfortable fit.
- When They’re Doing Well, Say So! When the person is making good choices, making an effort, or making progress, don’t take it for granted. Instead, make a point of acknowledging it. A few words of encouragement or appreciation can help your friend or loved one continue on a positive path to recovery.