What is a High-Functioning Alcoholic?

When most people think of an alcoholic, they think of a person who is unable to function due to their drinking. They may imagine an individual with a disheveled appearance who is constantly slurring their words, not showing up for work, and blacking out every time they drink. However, this is not always the case. In fact, many individuals who suffer from alcoholism are considered “high-functioning alcoholics.”

A high-functioning alcoholic is someone with a dependency on alcohol who continues to function in society as usual. This type of alcoholic still manages to show up for work, remain successful, and uphold outward appearances. While high-functioning alcoholics appear physically and mentally healthy on the outside, they are suffering silently on the inside. This means that they still experience intense cravings, obsessive thoughts about their next drink, struggle to get sober, and experience symptoms of withdrawal when they do not drink.

Risk Factors for Functional Alcoholics

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), 19% of alcoholics in the U.S. are considered to be functional alcoholics. Additionally, NIH describes high-functioning alcoholics as “Typically middle-aged, well-educated, with stable jobs and families.”[1]

The risk factors for alcoholism and high-functioning alcohol use disorder include:

  • Frequently binge drinking
  • Having high levels of stress or anxiety
  • Being in a high-stress career
  • Having a family history of alcoholism
  • Mental health conditions, like depression, anxiety disorders, and schizophrenia
  • Experiencing low self-esteem

Functional alcoholics typically continue to abuse alcohol undetected. This can lead to increased depression, stress, and feelings of isolation. Oftentimes, alcoholism progresses over time, eventually transitioning from functional alcoholism to the chronic and severe type.

Signs of a High-Functioning Alcoholic

Early intervention is always best when it comes to treating alcoholism, but this can be difficult for someone who is high-functioning. Because it is harder to notice the signs of alcoholism, these individuals tend to suffer from the long-term consequences of alcohol use disorder. To prevent this, individuals need to be aware of the signs of functional alcoholism.

The signs of a high-functioning alcoholic include:

  • Always going to the bar after work or drinking immediately upon getting home.
  • Getting agitated, angry, or anxious when work or familial responsibilities get in the way of drinking.
  • Drinking more than the individual intended, in terms of frequency and amount.
  • Making jokes about alcoholism or bringing up alcoholism frequently.
  • Engaging in high-risk behaviors while under the influence of alcohol
  • Making excuses for alcohol consumption
  • Drinking large amounts of alcohol and not appearing intoxicated
  • Drinking alcohol on breaks during work
  • Lying about or hiding alcohol consumption
  • Being well-known for drinking a lot but being able to continue showing up and performing at work

What is Functional Tolerance?

Individuals suffering from alcoholism develop a tolerance to the substance. As an individual continually abuses alcohol, they will need to frequently increase the amount of alcohol they consume to feel drunk. High-functioning alcoholics typically have a high tolerance level to alcohol. This means that a functional alcoholic can drink large amounts of alcohol and not appear as intoxicated as they should.

These high levels of tolerance to alcohol can be extremely dangerous. While it seems like the alcohol is barely affecting the functional alcoholic, it is wreaking havoc on their body. For example, functional tolerance can lead to alcohol-related organ damage, alcohol poisoning, and even alcoholic seizures. Because of this, even high-functioning alcoholics require professional detox and treatment for their alcoholism.

How to Help a High-Functioning Alcoholic

High-functioning alcoholics are usually in denial about their issues with alcoholism. This is because the stigma associated with alcoholism tells them that because they can hold a job, pay their bills, and keep up with personal hygiene, they do not have a problem with alcohol. However, this is far from the truth.

Individuals suffering from any kind of alcoholism should always attend a medication-assisted detox program and an inpatient or outpatient treatment program. Because of the unique challenges high-functioning alcoholics face, they should attend a program that emphasizes the importance of therapy. Additionally, many functional alcoholics suffer from co-occurring conditions like major depressive disorder. In this case, attending a dual diagnosis program is vital.

High-functioning alcoholics who are in denial about their substance abuse issues may benefit from an intervention with a professional. Typically, functional alcoholics are intelligent individuals. While they may get defensive when their loved ones express concern about their alcohol use, hearing it from a professional could help them realize the severity of their problem. Additionally, professional interventionists are great at facilitating conversations to avoid feelings of defensiveness and anger. This helps keep the intervention helpful rather than allowing it to become derailed.

Find Help for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

If you or a loved one suffer from high-functioning alcoholism, professional alcohol use disorder treatment is a must. While functional alcoholics appear healthy on the outside, they are suffering silently on the inside. This causes extreme feelings of depression and isolation, only furthering their need for professional treatment.

Whether you need help staging an intervention, finding family support services, or locating a rehab center near you, our dedicated addiction specialists are standing by to take your call. Reach out to us today to find the support you need.


  1. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/researchers-identify-alcoholism-subtypes

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