What is a Functional Alcoholic?

Published On: November 30, 2023

Alcoholism, also known as alcohol addiction or an alcohol use disorder (AUD), is a disorder which can affect all individuals, no matter their cultural or social background.

This is because alcohol is an extremely addictive substance and can require a long and complex detoxification session if the problem is left untreated for a long period.

Alcohol is a physically addictive substance, meaning that the drug can begin to change the way the body deals with specific processes and the production of hormones.

This is what causes the issues during detoxification; the body no longer has access to alcohol or it is available in smaller quantities, leading to sudden changes that can lead to further complications.

In England alone, it is estimated that there are over 600,000 individuals who are dependent on alcohol, though this statistic is hard to measure due to the low percentage of these individuals who have sought or entered some form of care (1).

What Is a Functional Alcoholic?

Two glasses of whisky being poured

Alcoholism can present itself differently in every individual that struggles with this disorder, including a variety of effects on their personal life.

This can lead to a variety of different behaviours, effects, and requirements for rehabilitation in the future, but generally has the greatest effect on the individual’s everyday life.

A common form of alcoholism in the modern world is high-functioning alcoholism – the presence of alcoholism within an individual who appears to lead a successful and ‘normal’ life.

In general, these individuals are of middle age, often with a good job, a family, good relationships, and a home. However, behind the scenes, these individuals are also struggling with alcoholism, and this may begin to affect other areas of their lives such as their finances, social lives, and career.

In addition, these individuals are often in denial of their disorder, citing that their seemingly successful life is proof that they are not struggling with alcohol use disorder (AUD).

This can be very dangerous, as this belief may delay care, allowing more time for the negative consequences of alcoholism to begin to affect the individual’s everyday life and well-being.

Signs of a Functional Alcoholic


As alcoholism can present itself differently in every individual, this means that the signs of functional alcoholism also differ massively, making it hard to detect this form of alcoholism within yourself or in someone you know.

There are many reasons why someone may develop alcoholism, and this can also be reflected in the common signs that they may exhibit throughout their everyday lives.

For example, an individual who has developed functional alcoholism as a result of a stressful work life may drink more before or after going to work as a form of coping mechanism – something which can be picked up on quickly by those around the individual.

In addition, an individual who developed alcoholism as a result of a lack of confidence may find themselves drinking more than others at social events in an attempt to gain more confidence or to feel better about their current confidence levels and be more comfortable in the environment.

The following subheadings follow some of the key warning signs of alcoholism in a more general sense.

1. Denial

Often in an attempt to justify their behaviour, and often while being fully aware of the true situation, an individual may be said to be ‘in denial‘ of their situation.

This may include underreporting the amount of alcohol they have consumed, passing their drinking habits off as a normal part of their behaviour, and generally acting with the offense when confronted about their behaviour.

This may sometimes escalate to anger or violence in some cases, depending on the specific individual and their temperance whenever confronted.

Denial, although often developed to discourage this, maybe one of the best signs for an individual to begin to search for rehabilitative care.

This is because any individual who is in denial about their situation may also be unaware of the risks involved with alcohol use disorder (AUD), as well as being more likely to have put it off for a long period, adding to the risks and dangers associated with rehabilitation in the future.

2. Tolerance

Any individual who is struggling with alcoholism is likely to have a higher tolerance to alcohol than other individuals of a similar age, weight, and height to them.

Tolerance refers to the quantity of alcohol that individuals can consume before they begin to feel the effects of alcohol e.g., ‘feeling drunk’ or intoxicated.

By drinking more often, an individual’s body is more equipped to deal with higher quantities of alcohol, meaning that more and more is needed to feel the same effects that they may have experienced when they first started drinking.

Tolerance is often understudied in the field of addiction, often neglecting important differences in factors such as gender and the individual’s long-term tolerance levels (2).

Keeping track of your or others’ consumption of alcohol compared to others can be a key sign of AUD, as monitoring an individual’s consumption of alcohol relative to others is one of the easiest ways to determine whether someone may be struggling with alcoholism or not.

3. Withdrawal

Although high-functioning alcoholics are often highly secretive about their behaviours, observing how they behave and/or react to a lack of alcohol may be a key sign of alcoholism.

If an individual begins to go through withdrawal i.e., experiencing withdrawal symptoms such as shaking/sweating/alcoholic seizures, then this shows that their body is dependent on alcohol, causing issues as the body harshly adapts back to coping without alcohol in their system.

Withdrawal can be very dangerous in some situations, as alcohol is a physically addictive substance.

This means that individuals should always seek assistance from medical professionals when detoxing from a long-term alcohol addiction as this is more likely to reduce the risks and issues that an individual may face during this process.

If you or someone you know begins to experience withdrawal symptoms, do not hesitate in seeking medical assistance as soon as possible to prevent long-term damage to the individual’s physical health and mental health.

Risk Factors for Functional Alcoholics

A bar with a queue of people

High-functioning alcoholism is one of the most dangerous types of alcoholism, as it is far more difficult for individuals to tell whether or not someone may be struggling with this disorder based on their externally presented life.

Because of this, it may be more likely for these individuals to go without treatment or acknowledgement of their condition for long periods, adding to the dangers and risks that are associated with long-term and untreated addiction effects.

The following subheadings outline some of the reasons why high-functioning alcoholism may be riskier than other forms of addiction, drawing particular attention to how high-functioning alcoholism can affect an individual’s everyday life and therefore general wellbeing.

1. Drinking to Cope with Stress

Often, individuals may develop binge drinking or heavy drinking habits as a form of coping mechanism. The more alcohol an individual consumes, the better they may begin to feel, though this is generally only in the short term and begins to dissipate once the individual ceases their consumption of alcohol.

This can be in response to several issues. Below are some of the most common:

  • Stressful work/school life e.g., high responsibilities, work overload, poor environment
  • Relationship struggles e.g., marriage issues, breakups
  • Financial issues e.g., as a result of work, as a result of AUD habits

By drinking to cope with these issues, an individual may temporarily feel better, but this feeling can quickly change, leading to increased drinking habits as well as a higher tolerance and therefore the beginnings of a vicious cycle of addiction.

2. Drinking During the Day

High-functioning alcoholism affects every individual differently, but due to the effects and the secretive behaviours that come along with this form of alcoholism, these individuals can often engage in binge drinking or heavy drinking during the day.

This may be at work, while at school, or home while no one else is in the house. This increases the risk of this form of alcoholism, as an individual may begin to experience adverse effects and be unable to contact assistance.

Additionally, as a result of intoxication, an individual may engage in behaviours that may result in harm to themselves.

They may not realise it at the time, causing additional long-term issues, but it may also cause instant harm, with the addition of lessening the ability to contact help or assistance in emergencies.

3. Frequently Drinking Alone

As mentioned above, individuals who engage in drinking alone, either at home when no one else is expected or in an environment in which no one else is around, can be dangerous behaviour, often severely increasing the risk of sustaining seriously dangerous injuries and long-term damage.

By engaging in this behaviour on a more regular basis, these individuals are only increasing the risks of the negative consequences of this behaviour.

This can also cause future issues such as when it comes to rehabilitation. Detoxification is generally the first stage of this process, becoming increasingly risky and complex when an individual has been struggling with high-functioning alcoholism for a long period.

4. Heavy and Frequent Drinking

Though, over a long period in history, individuals have understood that the base chemical of alcohol – ethanol – can cause addiction when consumed regularly and over a long period (3), the dangers of binge drinking and heavy drinking are still massively underestimated by many individuals.

In combination with increased tolerance and being in denial, an individual may not be aware of the increasing quantities of alcohol that they are consuming, leading to a lack of safety and an increase in risk when it comes to this individual’s drinking habits.

This can lead to a constantly increasing drinking habit, creating a vicious cycle of drinking more and more to feel the same effects as well as justifying this behaviour as normal to their drinking habits, therefore being in denial of their situation and the risks that it carries.

5. Denial or Avoidance

Although already previously mentioned, denial is something that comes hand in hand with avoidance. Not only does this apply to the individual and their lack of desire to confront their current situation, but it also applies to those around them who are trying to help.

Even if close friends and family around an individual suspect that they may be struggling with high-functioning alcoholism, without the cooperation and consent of the individual themselves, they are unlikely to be able to make beneficial and efficient rehabilitative progress.

If this continues for a long period, then the individual may be more likely to develop further issues as a result of long-term AUD. This can cause long-term issues for both the individual’s physical and mental health – both of which will require specific and appropriate rehabilitation should the individual opt for treatment in the future.

When Should You Seek Help?

A woman smiling at another, holding a smart device

When it comes to addiction, getting help as soon as possible is the best policy.

By getting suitable and appropriate help as soon as the individual begins to struggle with alcoholism, they put themselves in the best possible position for effective and efficient alcohol addiction treatment.

In general, individuals who seek help in the early stages of developing an addiction are the individuals who spend the least amount of time in rehab, as well as having the least amount of risk when it comes to processes such as detoxification and long-term counselling and therapy.

However, for individuals who are struggling with long-term addiction, the best time to seek help is as soon as possible.

Each case is different, and every individual will be recommended a specific and tailored addiction treatment programme, specific to their history of high-functioning alcoholism, their current situation, and any factors that may impact them in the future.

Recovery Treatment For High-Functioning Alcoholics

Two women hugging

Through Rehab 4 Alcoholism, individuals will be recommended to follow the three-stage course of rehabilitation.

This includes an initial detoxification, rehabilitation (therapy and treatments), and a final course of aftercare.

This is the most effective and proven approach to rehab, as it works through preparing the body for treatments, engaging in the most suitable forms of care, and monitoring and checking upon this care in the long term, allowing for additional support at any time in the future.

To see how Rehab 4 Alcoholism can help you or someone you know, contact our addiction support line on 0800 111 4108 today.


[1] Alcohol Stats: https://www.rehab4addiction.co.uk/trends/alcohol-statistics-uk

[2] Elvin, S.K., McGinn, M.A., Smith, C., Arends, M.A., Koob, G.F. and Vendruscolo, L.F., 2021. Tolerance to alcohol: A critical yet understudied factor in alcohol addiction. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 204, p.173155.

[3] Tabakoff, B. and Hoffman, P.L., 2013. The neurobiology of alcohol consumption and alcoholism: an integrative history. Pharmacology Biochemistry and Behavior, 113, pp.20-37.

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