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An airmen bent over next to bottles of alcohol.

Alcohol Abuse

Members of the armed forces are not immune to the substance use problems that affect the rest of society. Although illicit drug use is lower among U.S. military personnel than among civilians, heavy alcohol and tobacco use, and especially prescription drug abuse, are much more prevalent and are on the rise.

The stresses of deployment during wartime and the unique culture of the military account for some of these differences. Zero-tolerance policies and stigma pose difficulties in identifying and treating substance use problems in military personnel, as does the perceived lack of confidentiality that deters some from seeking treatment.

Those with multiple deployments and combat exposure have the greatest risk of developing substance abuse problems. They are more apt to engage in new-onset heavy weekly drinking and binge drinking, to suffer alcohol- and other drug-related problems, and to have greater prescribed use of behavioral health medications. They are also more likely to start smoking or relapse to smoking.

Alcohol Abuse

If you are concerned about your alcohol consumption, small changes can make a big difference in reducing your chances of having alcohol-related problems. Whatever strategies you choose, give them a fair trial. If one approach doesn't work, try something else. But if you haven't made progress in cutting down after two to three months, consider quitting drinking altogether, seeking professional help, or both.

Here are some strategies related to alcohol use:

  1. Keep track. Keep track of how much you drink. Find a way that works for you: Carry a drinking tracker card in your wallet, make check marks on a kitchen calendar, or enter notes in a mobile phone notepad or personal digital assistant. Making note of each drink before you drink it may help you slow down when needed.
  2. Count and measure. Know the standard drink sizes so you can count your drinks accurately. Measure drinks at home. Away from home, it can be hard to keep track, especially with mixed drinks, and at times, you may be getting more alcohol than you think. With wine, you may need to ask the host or server not to "top off" a partially filled glass.
  3. Set goals. Decide how many days a week you want to drink and how many drinks you'll have on those days. It's a good idea to have some days when you don't drink. People who always stay within the low-risk limits when they drink have the lowest rates of alcohol-related problems.
  4. Pace and space. When you do drink, pace yourself. Sip slowly. Have no more than one standard drink with alcohol per hour. Have "drink spacers" —make every other drink a non-alcoholic one, such as water, soda, or juice.
  5. Include food. Don't drink on an empty stomach. Eat some food so the alcohol will be absorbed into your system more slowly.
  6. Find alternatives. If drinking has occupied a lot of your time, then fill free time by developing new, healthy activities, hobbies, and relationships, or renewing ones you've missed. If you have counted on alcohol to be more comfortable in social situations, manage moods, or cope with problems, then seek other, healthy ways to deal with those areas of your life.
  7. Avoid "triggers." What triggers your urge to drink? If certain people or places make you drink even when you don't want to, try to avoid them. If certain activities, times of day, or feelings trigger the urge, plan something else to do instead of drinking. If drinking at home is a problem, keep little or no alcohol there.
  8. Plan to handle urges. When you cannot avoid a trigger and an urge hits, consider these options: Remind yourself of your reasons for changing (it can help to carry them in writing or store them in an electronic message you can access easily). Or talk things through with someone you trust. Or get involved with a healthy, distracting activity, such as physical exercise or a hobby that doesn't involve drinking. Or, instead of fighting the feeling, accept it and ride it out without giving in, knowing that it will soon crest like a wave and pass.
  9. Know your "no." You're likely to be offered a drink at times when you don't want one. Have a polite, convincing "no, thanks" ready. The faster you can say no to these offers, the less likely you are to give in. If you hesitate, it allows you time to think of excuses to go along.

For an interactive version of these tips, including a format that allows you to enter your own personal tips and strategies, visit Rethinking Drinking - Tips to Try.

Air Force Medicine