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Don’t lose balance to binge drinking

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Seven questions for self-reflection

Whether it is celebrations, cultural gatherings or drinks after work, alcohol is viewed as the cornerstone of relaxation and enjoyment by many South Africans. However, if you regularly consume several drinks in one sitting, you may need to reconsider your relationship with alcohol. 

According to Graeme Hart, an addiction counsellor at Netcare Akeso Stepping Stones in Kommetjie, binge drinking often goes unrecognised as an addiction problem because alcohol is so entrenched in South African society and consuming it in larger quantities is often considered relatively ‘normal’.

“High levels of alcohol consumption are seen across the board in our country, from the dinner tables of the most wealthy and privileged to those who head straight to the tavern with their weekly wages. Drinking several beers, shooters or glasses of wine within a short time frame is often accepted as the norm.

“People who drink heavily on some occasions and abstain from alcohol the rest of the time may believe that they do not have a drinking problem. However, binge drinking is a form of alcoholism and can have deeply negative effects on your overall health, from heart conditions and cancer to a variety of mental health problems,” he says.

How much is too much?

Hart notes that binge drinking can be defined for women as four or more drinks and for men, five or more drinks in one day, which to many may sound like the standard alcohol consumption at any weekend braai.

“It is not unusual to steer clear of alcohol during the week but then overindulge on the weekend and to do this regularly, but it is a dangerous practice. Binge drinking can be worse for your health than regular moderate consumption as it is a shock to your system. No amount of alcohol is healthy – it is an addictive substance and one of the hardest substances to stop using.

“Alcoholism is a progressive illness, so what seems harmless at first can evolve into something more serious down the line and it is crucial to be aware of red flags that signal a problem, particularly in societies that are desensitised to binge drinking,” he cautions.

“Binge drinking includes extreme behaviour – just as you would consider it extreme to eat healthily all week and then have five slices of cake in one go, after telling yourself you would just have one. If you find that you reach your satiation point with alcohol but then you carry on drinking, that indicates a problem.

“Other red flags include seeking out social situations that involve alcohol; for example, going to the movies would only be fun for you if you go for drinks afterwards. You may also notice a pattern in your behaviours, such as spending most weekends drinking heavily and recovering from hangovers.”

Seven questions for self-reflection

Alcohol addiction can stem from common mental health issues, Hart points out, varying from low self-esteem and stress to trauma, isolation or a genetic predisposition.

“These mental health issues can be the cause of binge drinking and other forms of alcoholism, and they can also be a result of alcohol abuse. Getting yourself or a loved one out of this vicious cycle requires a holistic approach because the drinking is not the only problem – there’s a reason for it,” he asserts.

Hart suggests starting by assessing balance in your overall lifestyle and asking yourself these questions:

  1. Am I looking after my body consistently with physical exercise and healthy eating?
  2. Does my work make me happy, or is it time for a change?
  3. Do I have a hobby where I am developing skills or a passion that fulfils me?
  4. Do I avoid thinking about unresolved past issues or spend a lot of time and energy revisiting them?
  5. Am I struggling to cope with stressors in my life?
  6. Am I connecting regularly and face to face with people who bring me joy?
  7. Where am I with my life’s goals?

“Taking a step back and looking at your life in this way may help you to start having a better sense of why you are binge drinking. If you are drinking heavily on a regular basis, seeking help from a mental health professional is crucial,” he says.

Don’t pass it down

“Parents need to be hyper aware that if your kids regularly see you consuming several drinks at social events, it becomes normal to them and can easily turn into a learned behaviour that they go on to practise. If you do have an alcohol addiction problem, it is equally important for your children to see you dealing with it in a healthy way, as this forms part of how they learn to value themselves.

“Adolescents are at a particularly vulnerable age where they can be influenced by friends and want to fit in, which can lead to the start of alcohol and other substance abuse disorders, such as binge drinking. While experimentation at this age is normal, they also need help to reflect on who they want to become and envisioning themselves with a sense of hope and positivity for the future. Parents who notice sudden changes of behaviour in their children should consider seeking professional help to address potential issues early on,” he concludes. 

Netcare Akeso Stepping Stones is a specialised mental health and addiction facility offering care and treatment for alcohol, drug, and behavioural addictions. In any mental health emergency, or for advice in accessing mental health care for yourself or a loved one, please reach for support. Netcare Akeso offers a 24-hour crisis line on 0861 435 787. Trained counsellors are available to talk to you without judgment and can guide you through the various options for assistance.

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