What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic? - ARISE Treatment Center

People often have an image of what a person with alcoholism looks or acts like. They may imagine someone who is unable to work, maintain housing, or function at a basic level. However, many people who meet alcohol use disorder (AUD) criteria continue caring for themselves, working, caring for family members, and socializing normally.

About one in five people living with an AUD could be classified as high-functioning alcoholics. Living with alcoholism can severely impact your emotional and mental health, even if you can complete work-related tasks or meet your basic needs.

Understanding the signs and risks of being a high-functioning alcoholic can help you identify this condition in yourself or others and seek the necessary treatment. If you or someone you love require addiction treatment or support in recovery, reach out to the Arise Treatment Center specialists today.

How Much Alcohol is Too Much?

Alcohol is an ever-present part of American culture. Happy hours, cocktail parties, tailgating, drinking during sporting events, beers at a backyard BBQ, wine with dinner, and shots and mixed drinks on a night out with friends–-alcohol is readily available in our daily lives.

While there are many opportunities to consume alcohol nearly every day, moderation can keep people from developing alcohol-related health conditions and addiction. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) defines moderate drinking as one alcoholic drink per day for women and two for men. A drink is defined as:

  • 1.5 ounces of distilled spirits, such as vodka, rum, gin, or whiskey
  • 12 ounces of beer (about 5% ABV)
  • 5 ounces of wine

Binge drinking is considered four or more drinks in a short period (about 2-3 hours) for women and five for men. Approximately 38 million Americans engage in binge drinking—and those who do binge drink four times a month on average.

Drinking too much or too often can lead to changes in your body and brain. These changes can result in chronic health conditions, including addiction. Without alcohol rehab, addiction is likely to get worse and lead to more severe harm to your mental and physical well-being.

What is Functional Tolerance?

When a person drinks heavily for a prolonged period, their body begins to adapt to the presence of alcohol in their system. Over time, a person must drink more to get the desired effects of alcohol. This is called developing tolerance.

Functional tolerance describes a person whose alcohol tolerance is so high that they can consume significant amounts of alcohol without appearing intoxicated. Some people who have developed functional tolerance may continue to work, meet their own needs, socialize, and otherwise function normally in their daily lives–all while intoxicated. They may never appear drunk, miss work, or fall behind in their responsibilities.

Although people with functional tolerance may be able to keep up with their daily responsibilities, they are still more likely to face serious consequences to their health, safety, and emotional wellbeing. Despite functioning normally on the outside, they still require treatment to overcome their alcohol abuse and addiction.

What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

In simplest terms, a high-functioning alcoholic is someone who suffers from the disease of alcoholism, but is able to continue functioning in certain areas of their life, such as at work, school, or with family. However, many high-functioning drinkers eventually progress into heavier, more compulsive drinkers. Seeking treatment sooner rather than later can prevent many of the long-term consequences of alcohol abuse.

How to Recognize a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Because a high-functioning alcoholic may not always exhibit the symptoms of alcoholism, it may be more challenging to recognize that someone in your life is living with alcohol abuse. However, their behavior may sometimes suggest an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. Some of the behaviors a high-functioning alcoholic might exhibit include:

  • Looking forward to drinking
  • Drinking more when under stress
  • Being in denial about their drinking–making jokes, downplaying their drinking, or changing the subject
  • Drinking regularly
  • Finishing others’ drinks
  • Engaging in risky behaviors
  • Being hungover frequently

You may sometimes find evidence of a person’s excessive drinking, such as a stockpile of liquor bottles or alcohol disguised in other drink containers.

A high-functioning alcoholic may be in denial about their drinking and use the fact that they can function normally to downplay the severity of their problem. Some people will continue to drink until they experience a significant negative consequence, such as losing a job or relationship, severe health issues, or legal trouble.  Sometimes, families and friends may need to stage an intervention to help the person break through their denial.

Treatment for a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Alcoholism treatment is offered in several types of programs and levels of care. In most cases, treatment begins with a doctor or addiction specialist performing an evaluation. The information from this assessment will help the person’s treatment team create an effective treatment program.

Many people with alcoholism require medically-supervised detox before beginning a program that combines evidence-based and holistic therapies. These include:

  • Individual therapy
  • Education
  • Group counseling
  • Medications
  • Mental health treatment
  • Holistic therapies like nutrition counseling, acupuncture, mindfulness practice, exercise, art, and music therapy

After completing treatment, a person must create an aftercare plan to help them stay engaged and active in their recovery. Addiction is never cured. People must use the skills they learn in treatment and recovery to manage the condition for the rest of their lives.

Get Help Now

If you or someone you love requires addiction treatment or support during recovery, reach out today to our team of qualified admissions specialists Arise Treatment Center.


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