How Much Is It OK to Drink When You're Stressed Out?

how much beer to drink
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

It's the holidays. The boss is making you work late. Your electricity got shut off, so you're running an extension cord from your neighbor's apartment into yours to power the refrigerator, while smoking meth out of a now-inoperative light bulb, and you need something to take the edge off. Hey, stressors are different for everyone, but one thing is universal: Nothing shuts them up like alcohol.

The question is, when does that stress-fueled boozing tip over into "hey, you definitely have a problem" territory? Well, that's a question for medical professionals, so I asked one. Dr. Kevin R. Campbell, assistant professor of medicine in the division of cardiology at the University of North Carolina, shares his thoughts on when elevating your blood alcohol content is an acceptable way to manage stress.

Is drinking ever an acceptable stress-reduction technique?

Short answer: Yes. Long answer: Hell yes. Dr. Campbell is all about the restorative power of a couple rounds shared with friends. "If you've had a stressful day at work, grabbing a beer or two with colleagues after work can be a good way to unwind and relax," he says. "It's all about moderation. If you drink in the context of having a glass of wine with friends, it's OK. But when it's multiple glasses of beer or wine, then you get into the realm of addiction."  

This is bad news for self-proclaimed introverts, or anybody else who likes to sequester themselves inside with a bottle of merlot, a laptop, and a cat. (Judging by the very existence of catnip wine, plenty of people would rather drink with their tabby than with Maureen from accounting.) But let's remember the takeaway here: Drinking when you're stressed is "a helpful thing to do." A helpful thing! That's a direct quote. FROM A CARDIOLOGIST WITH 128,000+ TWITTER FOLLOWERS.

Let's talk more about this realm of addiction, which sounds unpleasant

Dr. Campbell says one thing to watch for is a vicious cycle-type drinking situation. "You've had a stressful day, so you go home and drink," he says. "Because you drank, you feel bad the next day. Work stresses you out more, because you don't have the reserve to get you through the stressful day, because you're hungover. So it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy."

I'm interpreting the sub-context here as: Don't drink so much that you get hungover. For me, that sweet spot is one or two drinks. I can put away half a bottle of wine every night and experience no ill effects. Just ask my cats.

So are there any hard-and-fast guidelines for how many drinks are OK to consume?

"Guidelines are all over the place, but we typically think about women having two to three drinks and men having three to five drinks, and that should be about it for the week," Dr. Campbell says.

These numbers seem a little conservative, coming from Dr. Kevin "Ready to Party" Campbell, so I asked him if I was setting myself up for addiction by drinking his recommended weekly amount of alcohol every night.

"I think 14 drinks is a lot, but I hate to get too fixated on a number," he says. "How long do you drink each day? Do you binge drink? Do you drink socially? Greeks are very healthy, and they have wine every day."

In other words, there's no clear answer to how much booze is too much when you're stressed out. You have to put the guidelines in the context of your lifestyle as a whole.

So how do I do that?

Think about your background. "If you come from a family with addiction, you're more at risk for addiction yourself and you have to be cognizant of that," Dr. Campbell says. Consider, also, whether you're making healthy choices in other areas of your life. "If you're doing cocaine, you weigh 400lbs, and you drink every night, that is not good," Dr. Campbell says.

Finally, ask yourself if drinking is replacing other positive activities that could reduce stress. "Other things besides alcohol, that are more healthy, can do the same thing -- running, going to the gym," Dr. Campbell says. "You don't want it to be your only stress reliever." (Of course, you could always go to the gym and drink.)

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Missy Wilkinson is pouring herself a bourbon whiskey on the rocks in T-minus three hours. Follow her on Instagram @nowlistenmissy or Twitter @missy_wilkinson