Drug and Alcohol - Addiction Recovery

High-Functioning Alcoholic: Learn About This Subtle Form of Alcoholism

High-Functioning Alcoholic: Learn About This Subtle Form of Alcoholism

What is a high-functioning alcoholic? Sometimes, alcoholism isn't easy to see. Our blog talks about high-functioning alcoholics, and how to help them.

Written by

brian-mooreBrian Moore

Content Writer

Reviewed by

jeremy-arztJeremy Arzt

Chief Clinical Officer

Drug and Alcohol

Addiction Recovery

August 8, 2023

Excessive drinking is not a new or unseen problem faced by modern society. It is something that humanity has been indulging in and dealing with for thousands of years. Alcohol abuse and addiction rates have greatly increased since COVID-19 lockdowns.

There are different varieties of alcohol, and today's focus is on high-functioning alcoholics. 

Alcoholism By the Numbers:

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) published the 2021 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). As per that, 29.5 million people in the United States of America have Alcohol Use Disorder. The National Center for Drug Abuse Statistics (NCDAS) also indicated that AUD accounts for the death of over 3 million people annually and about 6 percent of the total population globally. They also state that 385 Americans die daily due to the excessive consumption of alcohol.

What Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

Before jumping to the high-functioning alcoholic definition, let's first discuss this term. The term high-functioning alcohol is informal terminology for a person who leads a successful personal and professional life while also being an alcoholic. Generally, alcoholics find it hard to balance their personal and professional life while indulging in excessive amounts of alcohol as it impacts and deteriorates the drinker's life. But not in this case.

Most high-functioning alcoholics deny drinking. They are either secretive about their situation or drink covertly. For many years, the medical community has abandoned using this terminology since it stigmatizes such people. This can prevent their prospect of receiving proper treatment and leading an alcohol-free life.

How Are High-Functioning Alcoholics Defined?

High-functioning alcoholism is a condition where a person can maintain a normal functioning life while consuming excessive alcohol. So, this would include anyone who lives an everyday family life while maintaining a career, physical health, and dodging any criminal or legal problems even after drinking excessive alcohol.

Government surveys show that around 20% of alcoholics in our country are high functioning. Their family and friends don't know they have this problem. Most of them deny or deny having any addiction issues and continue to live their life. Besides that, many don't realize how their behavior impacts their family members and friends. 

In fact, some people even think that their alcoholism makes them a better person in terms of being charming or socially apt. They think that alcohol is the reason behind this success and that it is hazardous. This is why they need to understand that their success and achievements are not because of alcohol but despite it.

Frequent and regular use of alcohol is always detrimental whether you succeed in your life or not. Many non-functional alcoholics end up binge drinking and developing cirrhosis or getting involved in drunk driving incidents. Sometimes they do not receive treatment due to denial or lack of family and friends support. Let's now discuss some common risk factors of this AUD. 

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Risk Factors of High-Functioning Alcoholism

Even though there is no single cause of AUD, certain risk factors can lead to its development. These risk factors that increase the chances of developing alcohol addiction are mentioned below. 

  • Starting to drink alcoholic drinks and beverages at an early age.

  • Having a family history or a close family member with drinking problems.

  • Dealing with mental health problems like trauma, depression, or anxiety.

Apart from the above factors, people also have AUD due to easy accessibility to alcohol or peer pressure from friends and colleagues. Particularly grief, abuse, or trauma-related histories put a person at a higher risk. Recent research claimed that depression and non-social attitudes because of the pandemic can cause a person to cope with drinking alone.

Functional Tolerance: What Is It?

Functional tolerance is a subtle form of alcoholism in which the person is able to maintain their daily activities while consuming excessive amounts of alcohol. Those who have functional tolerance may be unaware that their drinking habits are an issue, as they have managed to compartmentalize it and keep it from interfering with their life beyond the occasional hangover.

The primary symptom of functional tolerance is not having any hangovers or feeling ill the day after drinking. This allows them to follow their daily routine while consuming higher-than-usual amounts of alcohol and not suffer any physical consequences. This form of alcoholism can be hard to spot as people may think that they are just social drinkers, only drinking occasionally on special occasions or with friends when in reality they are consuming more than their bodies can handle and relying on alcohol to help them get through the day.

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Signs You May Be a High-Functioning Alcoholic

It can be hard to recognize that you have a drinking problem if you’re functionally tolerant, but there are certain signs that may indicate an issue.

  • Feeling a need to drink in order to feel confident in social situations or cope with stress. This could include drinking before going out or constantly wanting a drink when feeling anxious.

  • Making excuses for why you might need to drink, such as it is the weekend, not having had time for lunch, or feeling tired after work.

  • Feeling guilty or embarrassed about your drinking habits.

  • Drinking more than usual when out with friends or in social situations.

  • Having to increase the amount of alcohol you consume in order to reach the same level of drunkenness as before.

  • Experiencing financial problems due to excessive spending on alcohol.

If you think you may have an issue with alcohol, it is important to seek help. A mental health professional can help you understand why you may be drinking more than usual and develop strategies for cutting back or quitting altogether.

What Are Some Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

There are several signs and high-functioning alcoholic symptoms that need to be recognized for early intervention. However, identifying them is difficult since high-functioning alcoholics generally appear normal from the outside. Below are some early signs that can be recognized by family and friends.

  • Drinking alcohol to feel relaxed or confident.

  • Drinking alone or partaking in the early morning.

  • Hiding, being secretive, or denying drinking heavily. 

  • Being defensive or argumentative when asked about the problem.

  • Missing your work or school obligations.  

  • Not mixing up with old friends or bailing out on social meetings due to alcohol.

  • Making fun or jokes about drinking or having this condition.

  • Having memory-related troubles while drinking.

  • Partaking alcohol even when you don't want to.

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Signs of Non-Functioning Alcoholic

Now we know the typical signs and symptoms of a high-functioning alcoholic. There are some differences between those people and individuals with aren’t high-functioning alcoholics. Some signs of people who do not get categorized as high-functional may exhibit the following signs:

  • Continue to partake in alcohol despite knowing the negative consequences. 

  • Becoming emotionally distant and cutting off relations with family and friends. 

  • Physical alcohol dependence.

  • To favor drinking activities, many give up on their other interests and hobbies.

  • There is a physical difference in appearance because of excessive drinking.

  • Confessing and admitting to having a drinking problem.

  • Showcasing risky and unreliable behavior while drinking.

  • Such people experience withdrawal symptoms when they try to quit drinking.

  • Have issues with the law and legal problems. 

Early Intervention: Can It Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

Early intervention can be an effective way to help someone who may be a high-functioning alcoholic. A mental health professional can provide resources and strategies for cutting back or stopping altogether, while family and friends can offer support in the form of words of encouragement and help with difficult tasks that require sobriety. It is important to remember that alcoholism is a serious issue and that it is not something to be taken lightly.

High-functioning alcoholics may feel like their drinking habits are not an issue because they do not suffer the common consequences of alcohol consumption such as hangovers or accidents. However, this type of alcoholism can still have devastating effects on one’s mental and physical health if left untreated.

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How to Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic

It is not easy to talk about alcoholism with your close friends or family members. We do not know how they will react to anyone knowing and confronting it. Since many high-functioning alcoholics live secretively or are in denial, they can react harshly.

So, there are a few things that you can take care of before broaching the treatment subject. These things are not only beneficial to them but to you too. Some of these are mentioned below.

Helpful tips to consider before tackling high-functioning alcoholics for treatment: 

Understanding Alcoholism

It is essential to have an educated opinion and grasp of alcoholism and addiction. Please spend some time reading about alcohol addiction and reviewing website articles on its criteria. You can go through the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) to understand how alcohol is a disease and not easy to quit once a person becomes dependent.

Researching Alcohol Addiction Centers

The next step is to check out all the nearest alcohol rehabilitation centers. You can inquire about their functioning, approach towards addiction, treatment facilities, and other needful amenities that your loved one may require. You have to share this information with the person as it eases the burden of finding a treatment center for their problem. 


This is a vital point as it can set a tone for things about coming. First, you must choose a time to have this conversation when they are sober. High-functioning alcoholics are likely not very receptive since they do not show any signs of addiction. It may take some time for them to open up or even be willing to listen to your opinion.

So, it is essential to be patient and open with them.

Support During and After Treatment

Support is something that is needed both during and after the completion of treatment. Recovery and overcoming addiction is not a matter of weeks. An individual requires constant love and support from their family members and friends. So you can support them by joining support groups like Al-anon. This recovery program is specially made for the family members of an alcoholic person.

Post-treatment, you can distract them by exploring new hobbies and interests so they do not return to their old life. 

Risks Associated with Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD)

A person carries several side effects and risks when they consume a large amount of alcohol. Since so many people lose their lives daily because of drinking, it becomes imperative to know the risks associated with alcohol addiction. 

Short-Term Risks of Alcohol Use Disorder

Some short-term risks are alcohol poisoning, accidents & injuries because of being intoxicated, display of aggression & legal issues, risky sexual behavior, pregnancy issues like fetal alcohol syndrome, and miscarriage.

Long-Term Risks of Alcohol Use Disorder

Some long–term risks are the development of mental health conditions like depression & anxiety, physical dependence, high blood pressure, weakened immune system, memory lapse, learning difficulties, digestive issues, risk of infection, and cardiovascular conditions. 

Can a High Functioning Alcoholic Be Treated?

People who are high-functioning alcoholics have a milder level of AUD condition. In such cases, early intervention and treatment are possible. This early identification of the condition can prevent further complications of health issues.

Several types of treatments are available for managing and recovering from this kind of AUD. 


Addiction specialists and physicians can prescribe different medications to reduce cravings and manage withdrawal symptoms. Naltrexone is a popular medication that blocks our brain receptors resulting in lowered alcoholic cravings. Besides this, acamprosate and disulfiram are given to the patients.


Detoxing is generally the primary treatment for drug and alcohol addiction. It mostly takes place in a secured facility under strict medical supervision because the patients undergo withdrawal effects experiencing nausea, tremors, rapid heart rate, and seizure. 

Treatment Program

AUD can be treated with inpatient and outpatient recovery programs. The outpatient programs are ideal for people with responsibilities and obligations for work and family while simultaneously getting treated for the condition. Inpatient programs are recommended for people with severe addiction conditions with trigger-related issues and relapse risk.

Some recovery resources include Alcoholics Anonymous, SMART Recovery, and more

Alcohol usage affects not only the user but the people around them too. This is why alcohol addiction is called a family disease. Its negative impact is not limited to the user's behavior and health but includes friends and family. People who live or are in association with high-functioning AUD persons have to seek support too.

Al-anon and Alateen are recovery programs that cater to the families of alcoholics and emotionally support them. Other self-help organizations and church groups also strive to help them. 

Think You (or a Loved One) Is a High-Functioning Alcoholic? Reach Out to The Edge Treatment Center

If you or someone you know is struggling with functional tolerance and needs help in overcoming it, The Edge Treatment Center can provide the guidance and support needed to achieve sobriety. Our team of experienced mental health professionals has extensive experience treating alcohol addiction and can provide a tailored treatment plan that will meet your individual needs.

At The Edge Treatment Center, we understand that addiction and alcoholism are difficult issues to tackle alone. We are here to help you every step of the way, from diagnosis to treatment and recovery. Contact us today for more information about our effective, evidence-based alcohol treatment program.

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