What is a High Functioning Alcoholic? | What are the Signs? | AspenRidge
high functioning addiction

Research shows that in 2020, alcohol proved to be even more deadly than illicit drugs, including opioids. The statistics paint a grave picture of the realities of alcohol abuse. What qualifies you as an alcoholic? The stereotype of an alcoholic often draws up a picture of an unemployed, unkempt, and irrational individual that often loses control due to excessive cheap vodka shots. However, Alcohol Use Disorder often takes on many forms, and thus experts regard is based on a spectrum. Chronic severe alcoholism—a subcategory of AUD, for example—makes up around nine percent of those suffering from AUD, Psychology Today reports. Many are often surprised to learn that the majority of those battling AUD are categorized as high-functioning alcoholic (HFA).

Regardless of how severe a person’s drinking can seem on the surface, alcoholism is a serious disease that can have both short and long-term consequences in all areas of a person’s life. If you suspect someone in your life is a functioning alcoholic, professional treatment may be needed to address the extent of their drinking. Contact us today, 24/7, at 855-281-5588.

What Is A High Functioning Alcoholic?

What is a High Functioning Alcoholic (HFA)?

According to a government survey, about 20% of alcoholics in America are high-functioning alcoholics. 

As the term implies, a high-functioning alcoholic is a person who engages in habitual drinking at unhealthy levels but still manages to maintain some level of professionalism and personal success. Regardless of where they fall on the spectrum, anyone who consumes alcohol is vulnerable to alcohol’s mental and physical harms. Alcoholism is linked to liver and brain damage and various forms of cancers, and even stroke. There are often extensive side effects of alcohol abuse and addiction, even for high-functioning alcoholics.

Signs of High Functioning Alcoholism

It’s important to note that any amount of drinking can be detrimental to your health. Interestingly, it’s not uncommon for people to dismiss health concerns over alcohol consumption, though. For one, alcohol is deeply ingrained into societal norms and is a favorite pastime for most Americans. Secondly, many will overlook signs of alcoholism if the individual is able to balance life obligations with drinking.

High-functioning alcoholics tend to deny their ongoing struggles with alcohol addiction. In addition, many are prone to hiding or even downplaying their drinking habits, even if it’s causing harm to their family and friends. But what is a high functioning alcoholic, and how can you spot signs?

Signs to Look Out For:

  • Drinking to feel confident or relax
  • Hiding alcohol, denying heavy drinking, or becoming angry during confrontations
  • Drinking alone or morning drinkers
  • Losing close friends or missing work or school
  • Causing friends and family to make excuses for or worry about their drinking
  • Having lapses in memory while drinking
  • Downplaying alcoholism or joking about having a drinking problem

Unfortunately, being in denial or lack of support from family and friends often prevents high-functioning alcoholics from seeking treatment. While it’s treatable, Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) is one of the most challenging addictions to overcome and is responsible for being one of the leading causes of preventable deaths in the United States.

Seriousness of Alcoholism

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that nearly 1 million people died from alcohol-related causes between 1999 and 2017.

Binge drinking and heavy drinking in the United States account for 23% of adult population drinking behaviors. In particular, high-functioning alcoholism contributes to risky behavior among drinkers and, thus, they are more susceptible to face medical or legal risks.

Despite alcoholism being so prevalent, most individuals who drink too much are actually not alcohol dependent. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nine out of ten excessive drinkers are not alcohol dependent. However, even functional alcoholism is extremely dangerous and, in the long-term, is never sustainable. Drinking issues for high-functioning alcoholics may fly under the radar, but these individuals are still susceptible to alcohol’s damaging effects such as liver disease, mental health issues, and severe dependence.

High-Functioning People with Alcohol Use Disorder: Tolerance Levels

Are there different levels of alcoholic? Questioning what a high-functioning alcoholic is required closely examining how a drinker interacts with alcohol. Those who drink frequently may find that they need to increase the amount of alcohol consumed to achieve the same desired effects. Experts refer to this as a build-up of tolerance.

High-functioning alcoholics may already know their tolerance and may consume alcohol based on levels that allow them to behave normally. As tolerance builds, an increased risk of developing alcohol addiction becomes a very real concern. Someone with a high tolerance for alcohol, for example, may feel okay to drink at work because they can still execute everyday duties with minimal to no interference—however, continued use and higher tolerance yield physical dependence on alcohol.

Indeed, when excessive drinking is routine, the body may experience withdrawal symptoms if or when the drinking stops. Some signs of withdrawal include:

  • Anxiety
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Depression
  • Mood Swings
  • Elevated heart rate
  • Tremors
  • Seizures

Defining High Functioning Alcoholic

No Negative Consequences: Is Drinking Still a Problem?

Yes, although some individuals may experience little to no consequences from alcohol use, there are still concerning factors that are important to weigh. Even without negative consequences, short- and long-term issues that can arise:

  • Cirrhosis (Hardening of the liver)
  • Memory problems
  • Mental and Emotional Problems
  • Decreased immune system function
  • Career strain
  • Relationship problems
  • Legal Concerns
  • Death

Most research indicates consequences do and will occur over a prolonged period. Even if you haven’t experienced the harmful effects of drinking, other factors put high-functioning alcoholics more at risk for health and legal problems.

Is Functional Alcoholism Enabling?

Many people view enabling as being a problem with family and friends. However, enabling also occurs from the individual suffering from alcoholic behavior. This is often referred to as self-enabling behaviors. Self-enabling behaviors can come in the form of rationalization of alcohol use, seeking out social gathers to engage in alcohol abuse, and minimizing the existence of problems due to alcohol use. Some common examples of self-enabling behavior

  • Encouraging the use of alcohol from others
  • Choosing activities and effects with alcohol available
  • Creating excuses for alcohol use
  • Disregarding the existence of problematic drinking
  • Developing a social connection with friends centered around drinking (“Drinking Buddies”)

Not all enabling behavior leads to functional alcoholism, but it can place a person at significant risk for developing further problems with substance use in the future. AspenRidge can help provide support if you feel your current drinking patterns may approach the level of functional alcoholism. The staff is able to provide further information available in the local community.

Assessment is an important factor when seeking proper treatment. AspenRidge is dedicated to tailoring alcohol treatment to each client.

Aspenridge Colorado Alcohol Addiction Recovery

AspenRidge Can Help

What is a high functioning alcoholic? If you didn’t get the answers here, reach out to our certified Colorado alcohol treatment center to discuss similar issues, and enroll in our addiction recovery programs.

AspenRidge understands the challenges involved with diagnosing and assessing current drinking patterns and habits. That’s why we highly encourage you to engage with our self-assessment tools to understand your alcohol consumption better. The assessment takes approximately five minutes to complete. Upon completing the self-assessment, you are connected with a specialist who can discuss the assessment results and adequately guide you through the initial steps towards recovery.

Substance Use Self-Assessment Tool

Treatment specialists have developed self-evaluation forms and alcohol and drug abuse quiz resources to help families and individuals identify larger issues.

Mental Health Assessment Tool

Here is a brief, 3-minute self-assessment quiz to help direct individuals seeking professional mental health support during their recovery process.


AspenRidge: Colorado Alcohol Addiction Recovery

High-functioning alcoholism and alcohol use disorder (AUD) are treatable conditions.

AspenRidge is Colorado’s leading alcohol addiction recovery center helping thousands to overcome excessive drinking and alcohol use disorder. Our various programs aim to treat AUD using different approaches, including dual diagnosis therapy, substance misuse help, cognitive therapy, holistic approaches, group therapy, and more.

The Joint Commission also certifies our center, and our licensed counselors are trained, specifically, in substance misuse and addiction. We offer the following programs:

Each of our programs offers supportive services throughout treatment and long-term sobriety. We take a step-down approach as clients move from in-house to outpatient care. Or, if preferred, our staff can help work out arrangements for outside obligations that may prevent you or a loved one from receiving the help they deserve. In addition, we’re now offering an online treatment option that is expanding access for many Coloradans. Find out more about our two online treatment possibilities called REACH.

It’s important to note that high-functioning alcoholics tend to isolate themselves or may just flat out deny any sort of detrimental drinking habit. Staging an intervention can be difficult but, at times, necessary. It’s also critical to understand that treatment is different for everyone and, therefore, adjustments to the recovery approach should be made often. Contact us today to learn more about our alcohol addiction programs in Colorado.

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