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Binge Drinking: What’s Normal and What’s Problematic

Photo credit: Alex Ivashenko via Unsplash

Spotting the difference between a few wild nights of heavy drinking and a deeper, more serious issue with alcohol consumption can be tricky.

Drinking culture suggests that alcohol misuse is an easy way to cut loose here and there. In many cases, drinking heavily is expected and even encouraged as a right of passage. But is binge drinking normal? And how do you navigate what’s safe versus what’s problematic? 

Philadelphia-based LPC therapist and author of “Not Drinking Tonight,” Amanda E. White explains, “Human beings are social creatures. We are evolutionarily adapted to fit in and thus we tend to compare ourselves to others. If everyone around us drinks the same amount we do, even if it is binge drinking, we will tend to think that it’s not an issue. There is also so much stigma still about people being an alcoholic and we can use others’ drinking habits as a way to justify our own.”

Surrounding yourself with people who regularly misuse or overuse alcohol makes it easy to ignore the signs of binge drinking that indicate a problem.

“We need to move away from normalizing binge drinking altogether and acknowledge the negative health consequences. Binge drinking can harm one’s health, even when done in moderation,” says Erica Lubetkin, LMHC licensed therapist and Certified CRAFT Therapist. 

The “normal” drinker and the “problematic” drinker both suffer from binge episodes. But the gray area, of course, is that some feel binge drinking makes their lives unmanageable in an obvious way. Meanwhile, others seem to step away without any (noticeable) attachment. 

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It’s important to acknowledge the nuances of drinking culture when you want to learn more about your relationship to alcohol. There’s more to unpack than labels like “normal” and “problematic”. Finding out where you fall on the spectrum and what actions to take when it comes to binge drinking can be confusing, especially when you’re enmeshed in social circles that support heavy drinking. But if you’re here reading this, and you’re questioning your relationship to alcohol and heavy drinking, chances are there’s more to discover. Keep reading to learn more. 

What is Binge Drinking? 

Social drinking can appear subjective, but there are scientific, objective levels of what is considered “safe” alcohol consumption. The CDC says moderate or “safe” alcohol consumption (even though no amount is truly safe) is considered two or fewer drinks a day for those assigned male at birth and one or less a day for those assigned female at birth. 

Crossing the line into what is considered binge drinking can also be objectively calculated. The NIAAA defines binge drinking as “A pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 percent—or 0.08 grams of alcohol per deciliter—or higher.”

For most adults, this means consuming four or more drinks in about two hours for those assigned female at birth, or five or more drinks for those assigned male at birth. 

Is Binge Drinking Normal?

Societal norms will have most people believing that yes, binge drinking is normal, but the truth is that it’s not, and luckily, perspectives on alcohol use are starting to change.

“As a society, we tend to normalize drinking and heavy drinking, but the narrative around that is changing a lot. It’s important to acknowledge there is no “normal” binge drinking or heavy drinking,” explains Lubetkin. 

It’s easy to downplay or even poke fun at the signs of binge drinking because you’re “in college” or you’re “that friend”, but forgetting entire sections of a night out or waking up with an intense hangover are indicators that your mind and body are struggling.

For Atlanta-based therapist, Brook Hudgins (LPC), the question, “Is binge drinking is normal?” isn’t as pressing as, “Is binge drinking healthy?”

She explains, “It’s not uncommon for someone to go to an event and have several drinks at a time, or for people to drink in excess on the weekends. The more important question may be whether binge drinking is healthy or not.”

Given the many health risks involved, Hudgins says binge drinking isn’t healthy, emotionally or physically. She elaborates, “Acute risks of excessive alcohol consumption include blackouts, overdoses, and engagement in risky or potentially dangerous behaviors. Long-term risks include chronic diseases such as cancer and cirrhosis of the liver.”

According to Healthline, “The liver can only break down about one standard drink per hour. If you drink more alcohol than what your liver can process, your blood alcohol content (BAC) will increase. So will the effects on your body.” Alcohol impairment leads to poor coordination and poor judgment. The decisions made during a binge-drinking episode can be long-lasting even after one incident (think: injuries, STI’s, violence, etc.).

It’s clear that binge drinking is socially acceptable and seems “normal”, but it’s really not normal or healthy for your physical or emotional wellbeing. For this reason, it’s important to look out for binge drinking signs.

Is Binge Drinking More Problematic for Some Than Others? 

Each person who chooses to binge drink is susceptible to high-risk situations and health complications, but some folks seem to face more severe consequences than others.

“When people binge drink it’s just that and in some cases, this doesn’t lead to negative consequences but in a lot of cases it does,” explains Lubetkin. 

As previously mentioned, one isolated binge drinking event exposes you to high-risk situations that could be very problematic with potentially lifelong consequences. Even scattered binge drinking episodes that seem harmless can result in negative health complications over time. 

So why do some folks have an issue with binge drinking and others seem fine? In a lot of cases, people “save” binge drinking for special occasions and celebrations. They understand the risks but feel it’s worth it because they don’t engage in heavy drinking all the time. And then there are others who have trouble turning off the urge to binge drink. This might be what we mean when we ask ourselves, “is my drinking problematic?”. 

Hudgins admits that “if you’re questioning whether you may have a problematic relationship with alcohol, you probably do.”

Kansas City-based therapist, Lisa Silverman (LCSW, LSCSW) says, “Problematic binge drinking is likely crossing the line from abuse to dependency, and to my mind, should be addressed clinically as a dependency—as the name indicates problems are occurring and the person continues to abuse alcohol.”

Social norms can make it hard to pinpoint where you fall on the alcohol use spectrum. It’s easy to get distracted when you compare your drinking to everyone else’s drinking. White says you’ll always find someone who drinks more than you. “Instead, pay attention to how your drinking habits are negatively impacting you and what you may benefit from cutting back or becoming sober,” she recommends. 

Our peers have a major influence on our perception of “normal”. Silverman explains, “The company we keep helps define how we perceive our drinking,” so changing peer groups to reflect our own use back to us in a more positive way may be helpful. 

Getting educated and learning the signs of binge drinking can help you identify whether or not your behavior is indicative of a bigger issue and potential alcohol use disorder. At this point, you may want to reach out for help and consider an alcohol treatment program.

Confronting a Possible Issue With Binge Drinking

There’s often a lot of shame surrounding problematic drinking. One may question why they can’t “keep it together” while others seemingly binge and let go with ease. But remember, confronting anything that stands in the way of living your fullest life is a powerful endeavor. It’s a good thing to get uncomfortable in this way and question your drinking

According to Lubetkin, you should first try limiting or reducing alcohol consumption. A good way to start is by spreading out drinking more evenly throughout the week rather than drinking heavily one or two days a week. If you’re unable to cut back or manage reducing alcohol intake, the NYC-based therapist urges you to, “Look at the DSM-5 criteria for alcohol use disorder and if you relate to the criteria it may be time to get professional help.” 

An alcohol treatment program may be the best option for you since detoxing can be dangerous when trying to quit cold turkey.

White says, “If you drink every day and cannot go a day without it, it’s critically important to go to a detox program. Many people don’t understand that detoxing from alcohol is very dangerous (more than any other drug), and it’s important to do it with the support of a medical team,” she explains. 

Creating a “New Normal” Around Binge Drinking

Since society normalizes binge drinking, but the activity itself is unhealthy for everyone involved, it’s helpful to reframe how heavy drinking shows up in our culture. And that starts on an individual level. 

In her book, Quit Like a Woman: the Radical Choice to Not Drink in a Culture Obsessed with Alcohol, Tempest Founder Holly Whitaker shares how changing the conversation around alcohol can be a form of empowerment: 

Spending a night out drinking is akin to dismantling every piece of protection we have—our cognition, our decision making, our reaction time, our memory, our standards, our voice. If we thought about alcohol in this way—as something that undermines our collective momentum and personal agency and vitality and self-worth—what would that mean for us? What if we all rejected the poison—then what? I’ll tell you what: world domination, bitches.

* * *

If binge drinking feels “off” to you, but the majority of your friends continue to drink heavily, it might be time to grow in a different direction. It’s important to weigh the many nuances of binge drinking culture when asking yourself “is it that bad?”. If everyone you surround yourself with drinks heavily, it may not seem that bad, but any amount of binge drinking—or alcohol consumption—is unhealthy. So, if you do notice a problem, it’s most likely something worth investigating. 

If binge drinking is normal for you right now, it doesn’t have to be. Changing the bigger picture on what is considered normal can start with you and your interpersonal relationships. It can start by carving out a newer healthier way to live with people who love and support you. 

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