Alcohol Moderation Management: Programs and Steps to Control Drinking

4 min read · 7 sections

Moderate or “controlled” drinking is a harm reduction approach tailored toward people with a drinking problem who do not exhibit the symptoms of physical dependence on alcohol.

The majority of programs are web-based and rely heavily on motivating people to take responsibility for creating change in their own lives.

American Addiction Centers (AAC) offers nationwide treatment for those suffering from alcohol use disorders and other substance misuse issues. Call

What is Alcohol Moderation Management?

Alcohol moderation management is a form of harm reduction for those struggling with the consequences of alcohol use and who do not have an alcoholism issue. Alcohol moderation is not the same as alcohol abstinence. Those who suffer from drinking problems, in general, do not respond well to a one-size-fits-all approach to treatment because every person is different and has a distinctive relationship with alcohol. For some people, a zero-tolerance policy, such as abstinence, keeps them sober and on track. Abstinence involves a person not drinking or using other mind-altering substances whatsoever. For others, moderate drinking may be helpful in preventing further harm in the form of driving drunk, risky sexual activities, violence, or other potential alcohol-related problems.1

Moderation—sometimes called controlled drinking—is a tool meant to motivate people to reduce alcohol use or give it up all together. So, instead of forcing someone into abstinence or a treatment program, or shaming them for their alcohol use, moderation programs tackle alcohol misuse from a different angle. These programs let the person reflect on their behavior and come up with their own system. Research shows that working on moderation can help a person seek help before they continue further down a harmful path. The goal is to help people create goals and personal drinking limits, and it’s meant for individuals who have not yet developed a pervasive pattern of alcohol misuse.2

Moderate drinking is designed specifically for people who do not have an alcohol use disorder, as previously mentioned.1 People with severe alcohol use disorders may find it difficult to attempt to reduce harm with drinking moderation and may have a better chance of recovery at a professional treatment center. It’s important to note that you should always consult with a medical or mental health professional about your alcohol use and not try to self diagnose.3

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Alcohol Moderation Management Steps and Process

Different people may be drawn to trying a moderation approach for a variety of reasons. For example, most college students don’t want to give up drinking altogether. But if they have a problem with alcohol, taking a harm reduction approach could be a constructive way to help them take a look at the negative consequences of their behavior and motivate them to make positive changes. Most people who seek out moderation management (MM) have already tried and been unsuccessful at stopping drinking or cutting down on their use.

Abstinence Vs. Moderation Management: Success and Outcomes

Attending meetings for recovery support.Abstinence is not the only solution for recovering from alcohol use disorders, but it is one of the most studied and successful methods for recovering from alcohol use disorders. Though programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and other well-known programs meant to aid in the recovery from alcohol use disorders and alcohol misuse require or encourage full abstinence, these are not the only solutions known to help people quit or control drinking.

Controlled drinking receives its fair share of pushback from people who believe in common programs that attract problem drinkers. For example, organizations that promote abstinence-only approaches may find moderation to be too loose in its approach. Groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or professional 12-step treatment programs may not support the idea of moderate drinking in a controlled environment.4

However, research shows that when a person has a strong belief in their ability to drink moderately and reach the goals they set for themselves, they will work harder to reach these goals. This is in line with social cognitive theory, which states that people view themselves as more capable of reaching goals if they themselves were in charge of creating them. Moderation helps people become mindful and aware of their own harmful drinking patterns, creating rules around drinking, and continuously reflecting on their progress. For many in moderation programs, they eventually chose goals of abstinence after practicing moderation first.4 According to research studies, web-based approaches of moderation management help people reduce their drinking, especially in the short-term.4

When Is My Drinking an Issue?

An alcohol use disorder can only be diagnosed by a healthcare professional, who use the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) to diagnose this condition. You can use the criteria to assess your drinking habits but should consult a healthcare professional to formally diagnose you. The criteria includes:6

  • Using alcohol in larger amounts or over a longer period than intended.
  • Making unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control alcohol use.
  • Spending a great deal of time trying to obtain, use, or recover from alcohol.
  • Experiencing cravings for alcohol.
  • Failing to fulfill responsibilities at work, home, school, or family life due to alcohol use.
  • Continuing to use alcohol despite consequences (including persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems) caused by alcohol use.
  • Giving up social, occupational, and recreational activities because of alcohol use.
  • Using alcohol in situations that could be potentially dangerous.
  • Using alcohol despite it causing or worsening physical or mental health conditions.
  • Developing a tolerance to alcohol, meaning you need increasing amounts of alcohol to achieve intoxication or the desired effect.
  • Experiencing alcohol withdrawal when use stops or is drastically reduced.

If you are struggling with some of the following signs above, be sure to contact your physician or seek help at a substance abuse treatment facility.

Alcohol Moderation Management Programs

In 1990, the Institute of Medicine noted that people who had a problem with drinking but were not dependent on alcohol were an underserved group. In response, different face-to-face and web-based interventions were created, including Moderation Management (MM). MM operates as a mutual support group that believes that drinking is a habit that can be changed in a group setting. Initially, MM was designed to be conducted in a face-to-face setting, but now online groups are popular as well. According to studies, the majority of MM members are female, white, college-educated, U.S. citizens, middle-class, and mildly dependent on alcohol. Before starting an MM group, the average number of drinks among MM members was 35 drinks per week. As more and more of the average person’s daily life shifts to online networks, MM may hold increasing appeal for those who have a preference for interacting online. For people who are curious about whether to practice moderation or abstinence, attending an MM meeting may be a good place to start.6

The goal of a moderation program is to support a person’s journey toward understanding their drinking behavior and create a safe environment for them to explore how to drink moderately.

Drinking moderately is not for everyone, but if you think that you want to try a moderation program, an online search can help you locate a meeting in your area, or you can sign up for a virtual or telephone meeting. For some, it can help them shift their heavy drinking habits to moderation. For others, attending a group meeting online or in person can lead to the realization that they need additional support at an alcohol treatment center.1

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