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Should you cut down or quit?

One in five of us - around 3.5 million Australians - will have problems with alcohol abuse and dependence at some point in our lives, according to new research from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre.

It’s not easy to open up about an alcohol problem - but as these figures show, it’s something that many Australians struggle with. Confidential help is available. Along with drug and alcohol services in your local area, there are also programs offering the extra anonymity of being online.

But if you’re concerned about your alcohol consumption, how can you tell if you should just cut down on your drinking - or if you should avoid alcohol altogether?

Warning signs that you’re drinking too much

If your alcohol use is beginning to interfere with your life it’s a sign that you’re drinking too much, says drug and alcohol counsellor Josette Freeman, co-ordinator of SMART Recovery. SMART (short for Self Management and Recovery Training) is a free program available online and in group meetings nationally, that teaches practical skills to help people overcome problems with alcohol and other drugs.

Common signs of problem drinking include:

  • becoming angry and argumentative
  • frequent hangovers
  • missing days at work due to hangovers
  • not performing as well at work
  • health problems related to alcohol
  • problems with relationships as a result of alcohol use.

Is reducing alcohol intake enough — or should you avoid alcohol altogether?

“People often cut back their alcohol intake when they realise they’ve been drinking too much, but some people still continue to drink even though they know they’re spending too much money or that alcohol is affecting their performance at work,” says Josette Freeman. “This may be a sign that you need to avoid alcohol altogether.”

A good first step is to get professional advice either through your doctor, your local drug and alcohol service or a self-help program (some are listed below in the Further information section).

If you want to cut down

Some useful tips for cutting down and dealing with cravings for alcohol (and other drugs) include:

  • plan your use by setting limits on when and how much you will use alcohol
  • brainstorm ways to deal with moments that might make it difficult for you to stick to your plans. You may need to avoid some situations at first
  • keep a list of the good things about cutting down your alcohol use — whether it’s improving your relationships with your friends and family, health benefits or a lift to your self-esteem — and look at this list regularly to encourage you to keep to your plan
  • aim to have at least two days a week when you will not use alcohol at all
  • try to delay your first drink of the day and hold off the next drink after that for as long as you can
  • don’t try to keep up with others around you — drink at a safe pace that’s comfortable for you
  • don’t be afraid to ask a friend to support you
  • find friends who you’re comfortable with who can support your efforts to change your drinking habits — this may mean you spend less time with friends who drink
  • come up with some responses to help you turn down a drink — such as "not tonight", "no, but you go ahead", "no, doctor’s orders" or simply "no thanks"
  • keep yourself occupied to take your mind off drinking — for example you could take up a new hobby
  • don’t be afraid to ask for help — seek some counselling or join a support group.

If you think you need to quit drinking completely

Heavy drinkers who are very dependent on alcohol can have potentially dangerous withdrawal symptoms such as seizures when they cut down or stop drinking. They may need medical help rather than go it alone. For this reason it’s important to talk to your doctor or a drug and alcohol service first.

Other withdrawal symptoms can include:

  • shaking (tremors)
  • nausea and vomiting
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • sweating
  • headache
  • difficulty sleeping (this may last a few weeks).

There are also some medicines available to help people who are dependent on alcohol. These are prescription medicines that your doctor may consider to help you manage withdrawal and stop drinking.

What help is available for drinking problems?

If you think you may have a drinking problem, there are drug and alcohol services in your area that can help. Information on how to contact some of these services is listed below in the Further information section.

Further information

DrugInfo Clearing House: to help you find a range of free, anonymous drug and alcohol services that may be available in your local area.

SMART Recovery: free self-help program offering face-to-face or online group support

Alcoholics Anonymous

The Australian Centre for Addiction Research: offers free controlled drinking programs by correspondence or online

The Australian Drug Foundation


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW). 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey. Canberra, ACT: AIHW. 2008 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from:

Australian Psychological Society. Alcohol and other drugs. Melbourne, VIC: The Australian Psychological Society. c2010 [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from:

Drug and Alcohol Services South Australia. Drug treatment for alcohol dependence. Adelaide, SA: Government of South Australia. [last updated 1 Oct 2009, accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from:

DrugInfo Clearinghouse. Alcohol. [online] Melbourne, VIC: Australian Drug Foundation. 2006. [accessed 20 Aug 2010] Available from:

National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. The Harmful Effects of Alcohol. [online] Kensington, NSW: University of NSW Faculty of Medicine. c2005 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from:

National Health and Medical Research Council. Australian Guidelines: To Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol. Canberra, ACT: Commonwealth of Australia. 2009 [accessed 19 Aug 2010] Available from: (PDF, 2.3Mb) Teesson M. What does self-change mean for how we deliver treatment? Addiction. 2010. 105: 1522–1523.

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This information has been developed and reviewed for Bupa by health professionals. To the best of their knowledge it is current and based on reputable sources of medical research. It should be used as a guide only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for professional medical or other health professional advice.

Bupa Australia Pty Ltd makes no warranties or representations regarding the completeness or accuracy of the information. Bupa Australia is not liable for any loss or damage you suffer arising out of the use of or reliance on the information. Except that which cannot be excluded by law. We recommend that you consult your doctor or other qualified health professional if you have questions or concerns about your health. For more details on how we produce our health content, visit the About our health information page.

Last published 31 October 2010