Sleep hasn’t always been my friend, but when I was drinking it was an especially wrought relationship. I would drink from early evening until bedtime, believing that it would help me sleep. I would instead lay awake for an hour or more, with heart racing, wondering where I had gone wrong. Once finally asleep, I would wake up a couple hours later, heart still racing like I’d been in a sprint. This was my normal night for years.
I was unable and unwilling to see the connection between my drinking and my poor sleep. Instead, I began adding things to the mix: over the counter sleep medications, melatonin, antihistamines, etc. All this did was worsen my sleep and make me feel drugged in the morning.
We are fed the belief that alcohol helps sleep. And if we even begin to question this fact, we are struck with the fear that removing alcohol will make our sleep even worse. So we remain stuck in this drinking-not sleeping cycle. Once I finally removed alcohol I was able to see just how much it was destroying my sleep. And since then, quality sleep has become one of the primary reasons I don’t return to drinking. It’s just never worth it. Waking up clear headed and full of energy never gets old. And you never regret not drinking.
So, enough about me. How have you been sleeping lately?
The Benefits of Good Sleep
We all know that sleep is essential, but do you really know the reasons why? Here’s a reminder. High quality sleep can help you:
There are, however, some things you may not know:
If you’re in need of some better sleep, here are some tips to help you get back on track:
I hope this has been helpful for you all. Like always, please let me know your thoughts by just replying to this email. I’d love your feedback! Also, if there’s anything else you’d like me to write about, please let me know!
Take good care everyone, and sleep well 😉
Continuing along the topic of motivation, I have identified within myself five forces that make up the substance of motivation. They are:
You see, motivation is easy to sense when we have a great deal of it. But when we are seeking it out, it can feel ephemeral and unattainable. And the more grasping of it that we do, the harder it is to hold onto. So, in trying to better understand this phenomenon it was important for me to understand what really lies beneath this blanket sentiment we call motivation. If I could understand its finer particles, perhaps I could better sense its source.
Capability isn’t just a hopeful vision of what is possible. It is built upon context, on the experience of previous achievements. Your brain knows you can do it because it has had success in the past. Or perhaps, even if you haven’t personally experienced success, you know of others like you who have, and you therefore believe that you, too, can achieve such a thing.
Before I changed my relationship with alcohol, I only had a very black and white definition of what it meant to be a drinker. You were either a person who drank with control and moderation, or you were an alcoholic that shouldn’t drink due to some internal flaw. It wasn’t until I started listening to the stories of people who inhabited this “grey area” of drinking that I was able to see myself in this equation, and to understand that I didn’t have to be a “black out drunk” to seek a healthier relationship with alcohol. In essence, I saw that I was capable of living an alcohol-free life even if I didn’t fall into the (false and problematic) category of “problem drinker.” This freed me from the limiting belief system that only “problem drinkers” needed to quit, and it showed me that people are in fact capable of living and thriving without alcohol and they do not have to experience a “rock bottom” in order to come to this realization.
I also knew that I was capable of drinking less or not at all because there was a time in my life that I wasn’t a habitual drinker. Before I had begun the habit of daily drinking, life had held interest and awe and beauty without the fancy wine membership and refrigerator full of IPAs. If I was capable of so thoroughly enjoying life without alcohol then, what was keeping me from doing so now? This is venturing into another topic of learned dependence, which I will get into another day. But it’s important to acknowledge that there is a non-drinker inside of you, already complete with all of the tools necessary for enjoying your life and managing he ups and downs inherent to it. That person just needs to be found again – the tools dusted off and sharpened.
So, when you find yourself in the ebbtide of motivation’s natural cycle, the first step is to tap back into your sense of capability. Keep your successes in mind, no matter how tangential they may feel. Write them down and make them visible to you. Reflect on the times you have accomplished your goals (or even made minimal progress toward them). Write down HOW you achieved your actions in the past – what were your best tools? Also, note how those successes made you FEEL. Recall those positive and empowering emotions. Science is showing us that those feelings are really the key to behavioral change.
If you can’t cite any successes, listen to other people’s stories, learn about their journey. Let this remind you that it is possible, and you are not an exception to the rule. This is the beauty of memoirs. They allow us to see another person’s life and see, in their story, a glimmer of our own.
Finally, if you still cannot bring to mind a time that you were able to accomplish your goal, and the tales of others bring you no inspiration, you must start building these new successes this very moment. Do the thing you are aiming to do, even in the smallest iteration, despite all the feelings you have about not wanting to do it. Do it anyway. Do a day without alcohol. Imagine yourself as that non-drinker and fully embody that person in your daily life. Start using those dusty tools again. Allow yourself to recognize this as a success, no matter how painful or boring it may feel (because I promise it won’t always feel that way). You don’t have to feel motivated or even capable in order to accomplish something. It helps, but it’s not a requirement. Once you’ve logged that one little success, you build up from there.
It sounds obvious, but you’re much more likely to achieve something if you’re willing to do it. And this doesn’t just mean “willing to reap the rewards.” It means you must be willing to experience all of the things that such a change requires: the discomfort, the longing for old ways, the fear of loss, the pain of fitting into new shapes, the wariness of not knowing what your next step looks like. Though you can never know what your path will hold, you can prepare yourself at the outset for a bumpy road. As you imagine your goal and the journey it will take you on, can you bring to mind the challenges you may face? Can you prime your mind and body for these barriers – and visualize the ways you will overcome them? If you are already on the path and you feel you are losing your way, look back at the barriers you have already overcome. You likely didn’t see those coming, but you dealt with every single one of them. As you look forward, bring to mind the awareness that there will be other road blocks in your way. Are you willing to face these? Is your goal worth the discomfort and pain that you will surely face?
It isn’t going to be easy, and you must be willing to do it anyway. But this doesn’t mean you have to suffer the whole time. To stay in this place of discomfort, you must also keep in mind your original “why,” the core reason you set out on this journey in the first place. We tend to be very aware of WHAT our goal is, but as time goes on it is easy to lose sight of WHY we set out to achieve this thing in the first place. If you lose touch with your WHY, you will lose your way, because it will feel like you are aiming for something that is no longer yours. Why do you want to live alcohol free? What would your life look like without it? What have you gained from being alcohol free, if you have done so for some amount of time? Make sure this is part of your WHY list as well.
Keep your WHY list updated and relevant – it will change over time, and it MUST change with you. The reasons why you decided to stop drinking 6 months ago may be very different from the reasons you live alcohol free today. But if you’re still working off of an outdated list of WHYs, it makes sense your motivation may be lagging.
A final note on Willingness: it is important to be aware of (and avoid) Fading Affect Bias – the cognitive phenomenon in which we are more likely to remember the great things about something or someone and forget the terrible things about them. I liken it to an ex-partner. It can be so easy to remember the good times and forget why we broke up with them in the first place – the pain they caused us, the reasons we ended it. This cognitive bias occurs for people who stop drinking or end another unhealthy habit – usually a few weeks or months into their new behavior. They start to forget how bad things were and are only able to remember the “good times.” This can be a huge barrier to our motivation, making us question why we stopped drinking in the first place. Remember: this is an illusion and a trick of the mind. So, to avoid falling prey to this illusion, you must make it easy to remember the pain that you felt when you were drinking. Make this accessible. Write about the pain, the confusion, the guilt, the struggle. Talk to someone who knows the struggle you went through. Find old embarrassing photographs of times you were so drunk that you only have the photograph to memorialize the event. These things will help you keep your WHY front and center to your mind so you don’t trick yourself into thinking all this work is for nothing.
Can you have a really honest conversation with yourself and ask, “how committed am I really?” It’s ok to ask this, in fact it’s very important. I think that many of us find ourselves in the habit of reaching for something (and never touching it) without asking ourselves how much we really want it anymore. Without an authentic level of commitment, striving for something will feel empty, and even if we achieve the goal one day, we likely won’t even register how wonderful it feels to accomplish it.
Commitment doesn’t just mean wanting something really badly. It means waking up and deciding everyday that you have changed your life and will keep doing the things that maintain that change no matter what you come up against. Commitment means making that decision even when everything inside of you wants to run away and revert back to your comfort zone.
One way I have found to really cement my commitment is through routine. Routine is everything when it comes to sustained and lasting change. Some might even argue that routine is more important than motivation entirely. Building a routine that supports your new lifestyle will make it more effortless, and will help maintain momentum even when your reptile brain is tempting you back to the comforts of your old life.
So, when you’re feeling your motivation on the downslide, and you’ve assessed that you are indeed still committed to this goal, then ask, what structures do I have in place to keep me on track? What helps contain me so I don’t fall too far away from the path? In The Alcohol Experiment, Annie Grace calls these guard rails, also known as the Carrot and the Stick.
Carrots and Sticks
The Carrot and Stick metaphor refers to our tendency to move toward good pleasure and away from pain. The Carrot represents the reward for good behavior. However, this alone isn’t enough to motivate us forward at all times. The Stick balances it out with the threat of negative consequences. It is a simple concept but not always properly executed, because ultimately humans are more complicated creatures and positive and negative rewards tend to lose their power after time. Also, behavioral studies have shown that because we are very social creatures, positive and negative rewards aren’t always as powerful as the pressure that our peers place on us (or the pressure that we perceive to be placed on us). However, when we are trying to maintain or revive our motivation, we must use all the tools at our disposal. So, the take away here is you must incorporate Carrots (positive rewards) and Sticks (negative consequences) into your plan and these must be updated periodically to maintain their power. Also, if you can incorporate a social element into your Carrot and Stick structure, you will tap into your natural desire to be perceived positively in the eyes of your peers (family, friends, colleagues, etc), and therefore add power to your motivators.
What might this look like if you are working to reduce or end your drinking habit?
Do you see how I added in a social element to both the carrot and the stick? This incorporates not only a reward and consequence for you, but also some added accountability because you have brought someone else into this plan, and they have something to gain if you succeed.
Again, the Carrot and Stick cannot stand alone. If we use this tactic as our only plan for maintaining motivation, we will risk depleting our stores of willpower, possibly failing, and then feeling worse about ourselves and our plan, which simply leads to greater dis-empowerment and discouragement.
Drive (toward something greater)
This final point is important but can be tricky. When we are so focused on the minutiae of our daily behaviors it can be really easy to lose sight of WHY we are doing this in the first place. We forget to see the forest for the trees. So, underlying everything, we must have an idea of what all our efforts are for. What is the point of it all? When I was knee deep in my drinking habit, all I knew was that I wanted to drink less. I knew I felt terrible in my own skin, and that I would feel better if I reduced or ended my drinking. But it wasn’t until I actually ended my drinking habit that I was able to see the bigger picture of what my drinking had resulted in. I started to see that alcohol had affected so many small aspects of my life, which all added up to a larger picture of discontentment and disconnect from the things that brought meaning to my life. The underlying result was that I had lost touch with myself, and lost sight of how I was connected to the rest of the world. When we drink (or consume other mind altering substances) we tend to turn our energy inward. It is as though our bodies and brains know that they are being harmed, so they must ignore the outside world to reserve as much energy as possible to stay alive. We become unable to see our place in the world, how we affect others and how other people’s well-being is greatly connected to our own. We lose sight of the forest.
So, when we are setting out with a plan to make change in our life, we need to have a focus not just on each step we take, but also on the horizon. This keeps us connected to the bigger picture, to the things, people, feelings, memories, and creatures that surround us and make up the whole of our life. Some questions you can ask yourself:
This final step may feel intangible, even confusing, if you are at an early stage of trying to create change in your life. That is OK and normal. The point is that you are finding ways periodically to take a step back from your focus on the trees to take in the forest from your new vantage point. As you make progress, your perspective will shift, and one day you will realize that you can now see the horizon, and it is beautiful.
One of the common topics I discuss with my clients is motivation: how to maintain it, how to build it, and how to tap into it when we feel it waning.
Motivation is the driving force behind our actions. It is the general willingness to do something (and continue doing something) over time to achieve a desired effect. The challenge is, motivation has a natural ebb and flow to it. If we think of motivation like energy in our body, it makes sense that it isn’t always at 100%. There will be times we are very focused on our goals and see clearly the way ahead. This helps move us forward. There are other times when we feel like we are wading through mud. We can’t see what is ahead, and we don’t have the strength to keep moving forward.
When I was just starting out on my alcohol-free life (reading Annie Grace’s The Alcohol Experiment), the pain of not changing was much greater than the pain of having to change. And so the desire to feel better, feel different and overcome my habit was what motivated me to move forward each day without alcohol. It wasn’t a challenge to tap into that energy – I felt like I was overflowing with it. I woke up an hour early with energy and focus, knowing that I had a whole new day to improve my life. I read tons of books and listened to hours of podcasts. I meditated every morning and evening and filled a journal with all of this inspiration.
But a few months later, I felt a distinct dip in my motivation. It was the end of what they call the “Pink Cloud” of sobriety. It’s not that I wanted to start drinking again, but I didn’t feel that powerful and self-sustaining energy I had at the beginning of my journey. Luckily I had done a few things in my early days that ultimately helped sustain me through this time. One of those things (I’ll tell you the rest in Part 2), was that I made an account of all of the reasons why I needed to quit drinking. This list of reasons was essentially a written sum of my motivation. It was all the things I loved and wanted more of. All of the things I feared losing. All of the things I knew I was destroying.
There will be times when you doubt your journey, second guess your decision, and don’t feel the energy to continue along your path. It doesn’t mean you’re on the wrong path, and it doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong. It simply means you’re human. During these times you will have to get creative and intentional about how to continue making forward motion.
The first thing to understand is that there are different types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic. They are ways of describing the variety of things inside of you and outside of you that motivate you toward your goals (in my case, thriving in your alcohol-free life. Yours might be similar, or perhaps there’s a different substance you’re trying to quit, or a behavior, or a person).
Extrinsic motivators are things (people, ideas, activities, etc) outside of yourself that motivate you to continue along the path you’ve chosen. These things might be your family or partner, who has seen you go through the pain (and have themselves experienced the pain) of your drinking and they have invested at least part of themselves in making sure you don’t drink again. There’s your job – your boss and team – who expect you to show up in the very least not drunk, hungover, or late for work. External motivators are usually other people, but can also be systems, expectations, responsibilities, etc. They are things that connect you to the world outside of your body.
For me, a very strong extrinsic motivator was my son. At the time, he was only 3, but part of the reason I wanted to quit drinking was that I knew I could be a more present, patient, and kind mom to him if I wasn’t a habitual drinker. I also knew that drinking made me exhausted and destroyed my sleep (just like my 3-year-old did), so if I ever wanted to feel rested again I had to get rid of one of them…
Extrinsic motivators get a bad rap. People often say these are less powerful than the motivations that point inward (intrinsic) but that’s not true. Having and depending on strong extrinsic motivators is a sign that you aren’t a completely selfish human being with no regard for the rest of the world. It’s a sign that you’re a connected, empathetic person who cares about your impact on other people at least a little bit. Extrinsic motivators can also be our saviors in times when we aren’t able to tap into our intrinsic energy. But, I’m getting ahead of myself…
Intrinsic motivators are the things we do for ourselves, and not because anyone else told us to, but because we know it is the right thing to do, or it feels good, or both. For me, intrinsic motivation was rooted in the knowledge that I wasn’t living according to my own belief system. I didn’t like knowing that I had a habit that I couldn’t control. I believed myself to be healthy, but the poison I was imbibing on a daily basis said otherwise. In the end, my main intrinsic motivation was to stop lying to myself. For others, intrinsic motivators might be to get healthy, to improve their sleep or their complexion, to stop embarrassing themselves at parties (that may be a mix of both intrinsic and extrinsic), to be able to enjoy activities without wondering when they can get their next wine refill.
At times they can be stronger than extrinsic motivators, but not always. There will be times when, as I mentioned above, you just can’t see past your next step, and you just don’t have the energy to keep going. This is exactly when you need to have a firm understanding of your extrinsic motivation. Because there will always be times when one kind of motivation isn’t enough for you, and in these times you will need to draw on the other while the other refreshes itself.
When I look back to the time when I first felt my motivation tank (about three months after I stopped drinking), I believe it was because I was experiencing a shift in my intrinsic and extrinsic motivations. It wasn’t a sign that I was on the wrong path or destined to fail. It was simply time for me to turn inward, assess the work I had already done, and reevaluate the reasons for my continued journey down this path.
I will end here because there is a lot to say on the topic of motivation and we only have so much time in our day to read articles. But if this reading has resonated with you at all, perhaps you’re also feeling a dip in your motivation to achieve the thing you set out on once upon a time. It might be time to sit down with this feeling and get to know it a bit. Take account of what motivated you to begin on this path, and how that may be different now. Make a list of the extrinsic and intrinsic motivators that started you on the journey, and then ask yourself if these are still relevant, still worth your time, still important to your path. My guess is that your list needs to be updated. If so, then make a new list. It would make sense if your motivations had changed in the last few months (hello COVID). It would be, in fact, insane, if they hadn’t shifted a bit. So, take the time to listen inward, get curious and nonjudgmental about where you are in your journey, what still matters to you, and what, if anything, no longer motivates you. Make this new, refreshed list easy to access and reflect upon. Take time to write about each one of the points over the course of the next week.
In part 2, I will talk about 5 components that make up motivation: capability, willingness, commitment, rewards, and the connection to a greater purpose.
It has been just about a year since I changed my relationship with alcohol. Just about a year since I put down my daily wine glass (or three) and picked up The Alcohol Experiment. Over the past year, I have changed my internal life so dramatically that it is hard to believe people wouldn’t be aware of this change if I didn’t tell them.
My drinking was never a public spectacle. Never a topic of conversation (as far as I am aware). I never felt that I was making a fool of myself or that my drinking was causing my life to fall apart. My decision to change my drinking habit was much less fascinating, less dramatic, and anticlimactic than most of the people writing about their return from Rock Bottom. And yet the shift it has caused in my life has been seismic. Like the slow rumbling movement of tectonic plates miles below our feet.
The thing that has surprised me the most about ending my drinking habit hasn’t been the life-saving sleep, the saved money, the calm mind, the stronger healthier heart. All those things are true and are worth their weight in gold. But the real magic hasn’t been the presence of something. Rather, it has been in the absence of things. With alcohol no longer taking up so much room in my life, I realized I had created this immense space. It is into this space that my life has grown in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I feel as though I have created a quiet and peaceful clearing in a once tangled, overgrown forest. This is the greatest gift I have given myself because in this space I have welcomed in potential energy that would have otherwise had no place to thrive.
I realize now, alcohol created so much noise in my life. The kind of noise that creates blockages and interference. Fog. Static. Meaningless emptiness. The opposite of energy.
This noise came in the form of thinking about alcohol. Imagining the drinks I would have out with friends. Planning evenings around it. Wondering how “good” the bar would be at the restaurant where we were eating that night. Budgeting for the nightly wine: could I justify a $20 bottle on a Wednesday? Maybe just settle for the $12 cheapy. Wondering if I was going to feel too tired in the morning to go to my workout. Wondering if I’d even be able to sleep that night. Calculating how much I could drink before I felt too tired to put my son to bed. Researching the effects of alcohol on my skin, my hormones, my fertility, my cancer risk, my life expectancy. SO MUCH NOISE.
I never noticed this noise until I realized I could simply turn off the switch. I thank myself and whatever higher force is out there that I did this. At first, I stopped drinking for 30 days, then 60, then 90. It took less than a month to notice that by turning off the “switch” of alcohol, I had created this really big space in my life.
At first, this space was really scary. The silence was too loud. What I noticed in the beginning was more noise in the form of doubts and fears. I worried about what would be left when I removed alcohol from my life. Would my friends enjoy my company less? Would I find life to be terribly boring and unfulfilling? Would I dread Friday evenings out with my husband? Could I even DO this not drinking thing and still recognize myself and my life? This space also came in the form of more TIME. Without alcohol, my brain was no longer drugged and foggy. I was waking up way too early but fully rested. I used that time to meditate, write, learn, and just SIT in that space, get to know its corners and crevices little by little, one morning at a time. Soon I was realizing this space wasn’t scary at all. It was a space full of potential. Full of formless energy that I had full control over. This was the gift I never knew I could give myself. This gift of vast openness, of potent life-giving energy.
It is in this space, I learned, that my Self was waiting to be rediscovered. I don’t mean my ego, my identity, my body. I mean the infinite, eternal, connected-to-all-beings-and-the-whole-universe Self. The self-less self. The self that seeks truth, experiences, inspiration, and awe when faced with the simple beauty of mundane life, the self that sees the perfect nature of all things, and is not disconnected from that nature.
In this space was the potent energy I had been manifesting during those early mornings. This was the silent space I was creating when I turned off all that noise. And in this silent sacred space, I was reintroduced to what we call “intuition.” I was suddenly, heart-breakingly able to hear that wordless voice that has no origin, that we cannot describe because it is of us, never separate from us.
In this clearing, my ears had tuned in to this silent voice and I knew I could trust it. I knew that in this clearing I would be able to find my direction and hear the answers to my questions, and if I allowed this space to be filled by noise again, I would lose this divine connection.
So, this is what I have been doing this past year. Keeping this sacred space clear and open. Visiting from time to time, but when there is no time to visit, knowing that it is there. Sometimes just knowing that space is there, available to me, is what helps keep me steady when life is storming around me. I guess that’s what some might call faith?
Can you relate to feeling like your life is too loud at times?
Maybe there are things in your life taking up too much space?
I wonder, what would happen if you found the courage to just let them go?
What might it look like if you allowed yourself to grow into the space that you had created?
I have lots of hopes and goals for the coming year, including new coaching programs, sharing more of my daily experience being alcohol-free in my newsletter, and finding new ways to reach people looking for support in their own journey toward freedom from alcohol.
I cannot wait to see where this next year takes me, and I am so glad you’re along for the ride.
As we all know, the new year is an important time to reassess our life’s direction and reflect on what we want to achieve in the coming year. Since 2017, Dry January has become a popular way for people to challenge themselves to a healthy start to the coming year. It is a self-guided effort to abstain from drinking for the entire month of January in order to “detox” after the boozy December holidays (and for those in the US, the festivities begin during Thanksgiving in November).
Even before its popularity spike in 2017, originating in the UK, abstaining from alcohol after the holidays was a popular tradition (or goal) for many people over the years. It makes sense: a month of alcohol free living can have very real benefits for your physical and mental well being, even if you have every intention of restarting your drinking on February 1. One study from 2018 showed clearly positive results for Dry January participants:
For me, taking a month off of drinking led me to taking another 30 days, and then 60 days turned into 90…and before I knew it I had completely changed my relationship with alcohol. Taking the space from it, learning about how it affects my body and mind, and experiencing the benefits of no booze on a daily basis convinced me that my life was just truly BETTER without alcohol. And I never could have believed this had I not taken that first 30 day break.
I’m writing about this because, as you may or may not know, I am a certified coach helping other people reevaluate their relationship to alcohol. Through individual and group coaching, I offer support and accountability for those who have decided alcohol is no longer serving them.
I have just launched a Dry January 2020 FREE live coaching program, and if you have gotten this far into the post, I invite YOU to join me.
What do you think about committing to a month of alcohol-free living?
Does the idea strike fear in your heart?
Does it excite you?
Do you think you could do it?
I never thought I could, until I did. And it was WAY easier than I expected, and MUCH more rewarding than any month that I had spent as a daily drinker.
What could you achieve if you weren’t spending time, money, and energy on drinking alcohol? Would your goals for 2020 seem a bit more in reach?
Starting January 1, for the entire month, I will provide weekly group coaching calls to all group members. We will explore the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of your relationship to alcohol. Throughout the month I will help you dig deeper into why you drink, what alcohol does for you, and what it feels like to be free from an unhelpful habit.
You will have access to me and the group for accountability, support, shared successes, and commiseration (because to be honest, sometimes not drinking is HARD). Between calls I will be posting live coaching tools and tactics to make sure you have every bit of support you need to reach the end of the month not only alcohol free, but having gained greater knowledge, wisdom, and insight into what you want for your life moving forward.
The group will end January 31, but the lessons you take with you will last forever, and they will bolster all the other goals you make for the rest of your year. I promise you that.
It is very hard to put a price on the value of clarity, health, and sobriety, so I have made this program totally free. I only ask in return that you engage, participate, support group members, and bring your 100% effort to the month.
If you’re ready to sign up and make this the best New Year’s gift to yourself, click here to join the group.
Once you’re there, you can direct message me or email me with any questions you might have.
Let’s make this the best year yet, shall we?
You can also sign up for my newsletter below, to receive updates like this and special coaching offers, sobriety resources, and blog posts directly in your inbox.
If we remember we’re the ocean, we won’t be afraid of the waves.Tara Brach
In a group coaching discussion, I was asked a question that really dug deep into the private experience of sobriety. The question was: at the end of the day, how do you sit alone with yourself, without the help of alcohol to tame the thoughts, emotions, and memories flying freely in your mind. The painful truth of this question really struck me. I remember in the early days of removing alcohol from my daily life, when I was still thinking about it constantly and I was working really hard to NOT think about it. I felt I had to run away from my thoughts, fight them, or ignore them. My mind didn’t feel like my friend at times. This woman’s question made me remember how tender those first few weeks are when you don’t really trust yourself yet and you’re uncertain about just how strong you can continue to be.
I learned a lot about the mind when I stopped drinking, and these were lessons I couldn’t have understood when I was still forcefully numbing my mind to the vivid experience of my internal life.
You see, at the end of the day, no matter who we are surrounded by, we are left with just ourselves, in our own mind and body, alone in the experience of being alive. What I found after becoming alcohol-free was how much more aware I was of the thoughts, feelings, and sensations in my body, all of which I had been numbing and silencing with alcohol over the years.
For anyone going through this process right now, who is afraid of what they will find when they stop drinking, the first thing to know is that you CAN handle those emotions. You can and you will. Because the only other option is to numb them again and delay the day that you will have to deal with them. You are choosing to deal with them now, and this is the work that cannot be done when you are drinking (or escaping those feelings and thoughts in other ways). This is, in fact, the exact opposite of what you’re doing when you have a drink.
I found that once I stopped numbing the feelings and thoughts, and instead welcomed them in and just listened to them, first of all, they weren’t as scary as I thought they’d be. Second, I finally saw that they had no power over me. Mindfulness and meditation are SO essential at this stage. Not as a means to transcend to another state of mind, since that is also a form of escapism, but rather to ground yourself in the bare reality of the moment, in all of its beauty and terror. Mindfulness (just 10 minutes per day) opens a space in your consciousness that allows you to step back from the experience of those emotions and thoughts and lets you observe them. You are able to identify not as the emotions, but as a person experiencing them. As Tara Brach stated, you begin to see that you are not the waves that crash and churn, you are the sea below: calm, deep, and steady.
I invite you to try this tonight (whether you’re still drinking or not). Sit in your bed or somewhere safe and cozy, without the distraction of a TV or phone screen. Perhaps play some music if the silence is too loud. Set a timer for 10 minutes and welcome in all the thoughts and feelings you fear. Don’t push them away. Welcome them in like a visitor in your home. See them in detail, the messages, the words, the images in your mind. Observe them, don’t get lost in them. Can you feel the difference between being the thought and observing the thought?
Whenever you feel like you’re getting overwhelmed with a memory or emotion, step back from it and focus on your breathing, or on the sensation of your body on the surface of the Earth. Remember you are NOT your memories or emotions, they are simply things happening in your brain. After 10 minutes, check-in with how you feel. What was the experience like. Journal about it if that helps.
Consider this an introduction to your “demons” so to speak. The more you shed light on them, the less power they have, the less scary they will be. And as you welcome them in, you will come to understand them, and understand yourself, in a way you never could have before.
Remember that this is brave work. The majority of people will never willingly face their own internal landscape, naked and unprotected by a mind-altering substance. It is only in this space that you can start to see the path toward befriending your mind and soul and seeing that you are already eternally perfect and unmarred. For you are the sea, not the waves.
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This is part 2 of a two part blog post. Click here to read Part 1.
In early 2019 a very close friend told me she was taking a 30 day break from alcohol by reading Annie Grace’s The Alcohol Experiment. I was impressed by her decision, and very doubtful I could ever do the same. But curiosity got the best of me and I read it.
And then my whole life changed.
I went from a daily drinker to a person who may have a drink every month or so. If you had told me this would happen even a year ago I would have laughed in disbelief. “Ten years of steady drinking doesn’t just stop,” would have been my first thought. But one of the absolute truths I have learned in this process is the brain is insanely powerful. Not only did I take control of my drinking, but I did it without waging a battle of willpower, without feeling deprived, without having to white-knuckle it through each day and night.
I did this by retraining my brain to create new habits and by resolving the cognitive dissonance that I carried for so long. Cognitive dissonance is the feeling of conflict that you experience when your thoughts, beliefs, or behaviors contradict one another (1). The competing beliefs that “alcohol relaxes me”, “everyone drinks”, and “alcohol isn’t bad for me” got in the way of my logical understanding of the detrimental effects of alcohol on the body, mind, and spirit. By becoming aware of and examining these opposing beliefs and desires I was able to resolve the years of conflict and put my mind to rest, resulting in the death of my drinking habit.
This experience is a testament to the amazing plasticity of the brain. Plasticity, or neuroplasticity, refers to the brain’s natural ability and propensity to change and adapt throughout an individual’s lifespan. It is the reason people are able to heal from years of habitual alcohol use and return to a healthy, well-functioning stable state of mind. Below, I will describe all the ways alcohol changes the human brain, even with occasional moderate drinking. I will also explain why there is always reason for hope, because no matter how long you have been drinking, once you remove alcohol from your life your brain and body start healing immediately. More on that later. First, let’s talk about some of the very common effects alcohol has on our brains.
Brain fog: sure, it’s not the most technical of terms. But I know you know what I mean. Anyone over the age of thirty can relate to this, and the feeling is especially apparent when you’re a drinker. I don’t mean the buzz you get right after you have a drink. I mean the resulting feeling after a day or night (or a decade) of drinking, when you are listless, slow, and have a hard time putting two coherent thoughts together. When there’s no amount of caffeine that can get you through the day, and not even a full night of sleep can help you cut through the fog.
Brain fog was one of the main reasons I was forced to examine my drinking. At the time I stopped, I was about 10 years into a pretty sturdy drinking habit. I had a toddler, a husband, and a full time job (still do, thank goodness). And despite having those things, I was pretty certain I could no longer blame any of them for my bone-deep exhaustion. Each day I felt as though I was wading through mud, physically and mentally. I couldn’t account for it: the midnight baby feedings had long passed. Work was work…but it wasn’t usually stressful or demanding. My husband and I shared equal responsibilities over the home and child rearing. Why, then, did I feel like I had just woken up from a coma every day? Once I kicked the booze, it all became pretty obvious. I was lost in Brain Fog.
Dr. Mike Dow, a cognitive behavioral therapist, describes brain fog as the product of a chronically undernourished, chemically imbalanced brain (2). When three key chemicals – dopamine, serotonin, and cortisol – are out of balance, it is nearly impossible for us to feel good. The excess use of “brain altering substances” such as alcohol contribute to this imbalance (please refer back to Part 1 of this blog post for details on how alcohol affects dopamine and cortisol). In sum, dopamine overstimulates our brain, which causes an amplification of the stress hormone cortisol to restore chemical balance. When these chemicals are out of natural balance our emotions, energy, and mental processing all slow down, making it hard to feel alert, clear headed, and emotionally in-tune.
Brain fog is a term for the general slowing down of the brain’s various processes. The frontal lobe, the cerebellum, and the cerebral cortex are some of the areas that scientists have found, through experimental studies, are particularly altered under the influence of alcohol. Each of those regions are responsible for unique functions, and so the effects of alcohol on those regions become apparent in different ways. Below we will look at those in more detail.
Executive functioning is a fancy way of describing all the things one must do as a productive responsible human. It refers to our ability to use our highly evolved frontal lobe of the brain – the region of the brain that sets us apart from other mammals, allowing us to create and survive in our complex human society. Alcohol alters neurotransmitter activity in the frontal lobe, a part of the brain that helps us manage our behavior, emotions, and physical activity (5). As we consume it, it changes the way our neurons naturally connect, fire, and communicate, which over time can impede our hard won ability to do things like make good decisions for our self and our family, plan into the future, control impulses, and in general, do the adult things we need to do for survival. It also diminishes the natural motivation we have to complete the important (though sometimes mundane) tasks that make up our life: going to work, paying bills, feeding the children, etc. When your brain is addicted to (aka habitually seeking out) a substance, most of its energy goes into finding that substance. This causes a lack of motivation to complete tasks that don’t involve drinking alcohol.
.This showed up in my life in small but frustrating ways. At work, especially in the afternoon, my mind would go to what I would drink that night, taking my focus away from the meeting, project, or colleague in front of me. At home, already exhausted from the full day, it was nearly impossible for me to be present with my child and husband until I had a drink in my hand. And after that drink or two, making dinner and preparing for the next day tumbled far down to the bottom of my priority list. This simply made everyday life a slog – something I had to suffer through, rather than enjoy. Once I removed alcohol from this routine I was of course still tired, but it wasn’t that bone-deep exhaustion type of tired from before. I was better focused at work, more present with my family, and instead of crashing toward bedtime, I had energy to write, read, and meditate before bed. This meant I was able to complete the tasks of everyday life with less of a struggle and know that when I finally went to rest, I had accomplished another day – not suffered through it. (I also slept better…but that’s a story for another time.)
Have you ever gone to a trivia night at a bar? If so, you know how silly the whole concept is: people becoming steadily more inebriated while challenging themselves to recall obscure and inane facts about the world AND work as a team. Thinking while drinking is HARD. And there’s a good reason for it. Alcohol impedes the functioning of the cerebral cortex, the key region of the brain responsible for processing and understanding new information (5). Long term alcohol use (including moderate use – about 2 drinks per day for women and 3 for men) can have long-lasting affects on our ability to learn and process new information, acquire skills, and complete unfamiliar or complex tasks (6). Organizing ideas and objects, understanding what you see in front of you, and focusing on details are all highly important skills involved in learning something new. And these are exactly the higher-order tasks that are impaired when your brain is under the influence of alcohol, or has been in the past few days or weeks.
A recent study showed that alcohol can help consolidate previous learning, pointing to a connection between the number of drinks consumed and the ability to recall information the day after drinking (7). However, it is easy to be mislead by this headline. Researchers belief this is the result of alcohol causing the brain to shut down prematurely and become unable to learn more information in a given setting, causing the person to fall asleep. Because we do a lot of learning in our sleep, these folks begin the process of synthesizing information sooner than if they not been drinking. However, this novel finding (in such a small study) does not account for the more global affect that alcohol has on the brain’s ability to intake, synthesize, and remember the learned knowledge. This leads to the final points about brain shrinkage and memory loss.
Scientists used to believe that as we age into adults, our brains stop growing due to the natural dying off of old brain cells. We now know the opposite is true: that our brains continue to grow new brain cells well into adulthood (3). New brain cells means greater potential for continuous learning and adapting throughout our adult life. However, we are working against this when we imbibe alcohol regularly. In fact, brain scans show that even moderate drinkers experience brain shrinkage in the area of the brain responsible for cognition and learning (5). Brain volume shrinks in proportion to amount of alcohol consumed, so the more one drinks, the more the brain shrinks (4).
Why does this matter? Brain shrinkage and slowed brain growth directly relate to our ability to learn, function, and make sense our lives. By drinking alcohol we are impeding our brain’s adaptability and plasticity, making it harder to learn, do new things, and recall that which we have already learned. Brain shrinkage also impacts health and life expectancy. Because such atrophy means diminished communication between brain cells and entire regions of the brain, long term effects of brain shrinkage can range from dementia, seizures, and aphasia (the inability to speak and understand language) (9). While these are extreme examples, they are illustrative of the damage being done by steady (and binge) drinking.
Memory loss is one of the best understood and documented results of alcohol use. The creation of new memories is made possible by the brain’s hippocampus. The hippocampal region also ensures that our short term memories become long term, meaning the creation of our life’s narrative doesn’t just happen magically. It is a sensitive process requiring a well functioning brain. Alcohol can cause short term and long term memory loss as well as the all-too-common phenomenon of “blacking out.”
A black out is a short bout of amnesia that can last for minutes or hours, occurring after ingesting even small amounts of alcohol in a short period of time. Scientists have learned recently of the neurological process behind these lapses. They found that “alcohol interferes with key receptors in the brain, which in turn inhibits [the] process that strengthens the connections between neurons and is crucial to learning and memory” (11). Most of us who drink have experienced a blackout. These memory lapses, no matter how brief, can be alarming and dangerous. In adulthood my drinking was more of the every day type – two to three drinks a day, over a 3-4 hour period. But when I was in my teens and still experimenting with alcohol, I had at least a couple incidents of blacking out and I am lucky I came out of them unharmed. As I got older and learned how to better “manage” my drinking habit, I was careful not to reach the point of blacking out, but the memory damage was still occurring.
I was also not immune to the more subtle and insipid memory lapses that are common with regular drinking. Similar to the causes of blacking out, short and long term memory loss are the result of the inhibition of hormones on neurotransmitters described above. These longer term lapses can also be caused indirectly through alcohol’s detrimental effect on high quality sleep. Consuming alcohol reduces the amount of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep we can attain, even a few nights after our last drink (12). Our brains rely on this phase of sleep for processing newly gained information, so when we get less REM, we miss out on the results of that cognitive processing. It’s akin to interrupting a software update halfway into it’s download.
Before I quit, I never made the connection between by habit and my poor memory. I just attributed it to getting old, being tired, or having “baby brain” after the birth of my son. But it became pretty clear after a few months of living alcohol-free that I was causing my own memory loss. Once I came out of my brain fog I could more easily recall what I had for dinner the previous night, where I left my keys, and what we discussed at last week’s meeting. I was even able to recover longer term memories from years before. It was a sad realization for me, seeing how many memories I had lost through my own actions. But as more time passed and my brain and body healed, I recovered more of my memories, my sleep greatly improved, and my thinking felt sharper and quicker. It was exciting and empowering to know that by simply replacing alcohol with non-intoxicating beverages, I had taken control over my life and started the process of healing my body and brain.
And so, we come to the part about hope. While combing through all the research showing the undeniable connection between alcohol and brain damage, it also became clear to me that the brain is an amazingly resilient organ. As I mentioned above, we know that the adult brain continues to grow, adapt, and change throughout a person’s lifetime. Though alcohol impedes this process, once alcohol consumption ceases the brain begins to heal itself immediately.
In an interview, Maria Pagano, PhD, addiction researcher and associate professor of psychiatry, discussed the benefits of abstaining form alcohol after long term use (5). “After cutting back on alcohol” she said, “damaged regions of the brain can start to ‘light up’ again on brain scans…and we often see improvement only after months of complete abstinence and giving the brain time to heal.”
After just two weeks of abstinence, researchers found that the shrunken areas of the brain begin to grow back, such as the cerebellum, which tends to recover faster than other regions responsible for higher-level cognitive functions (13). Studies have shown that the fewer “detox episodes” a person has had, the more quickly they will regain functions such as short term and long term memory, verbal IQ, and verbal fluency (14).
A month after going alcohol free, your ability to build, retain, and recall memories comes back as cells in the hippocampus begins to regenerate (10). After 6 months of no drinking you are much less likely to be triggered by and have cravings for alcohol, which greatly reduces your chances of returning to your drinking habit (14). The greatest recovery can be seen after the 1 year mark. Most people will begin to experience improved memory, cognitive performance, emotional stability, and motor coordination, indicating a regrowth of brain function in all affected areas of the brain (15).
So, dear reader. Please know: wherever you are on the drinking spectrum, there is absolute hope and possibility for your own healing. Once you decide your drinking habit is no longer serving you, you can decide to take action. You will see, with a little distance from your daily habit, that alcohol is likely the thing standing in your way of becoming your best self. As Annie Grace says, it is the “big domino” that once fallen, allows for the next thing, then the next thing to fall away, leaving you with a clear path forward. I won’t say it’s the easiest thing in the world to dismantle a habit that has until this point been your main tool for coping with life. But if you take the approach of “experimenting” with building a NEW habit, you will find you can do it without white knuckling your way through.
This is the approach I have taken, which worked for me, and which I now teach others. I encourage you to check out Annie Grace’s books, and to subscribe to my contact list below, where I will provide new resources, tips, and guidance for walking this life where alcohol is small and insignificant.
So please, set down your drink and join me.
(1) (n.d.). Cognitive Dissonance. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/cognitive-dissonance
(2) Dow, M. (2015). The brain fog fix: reclaim your focus, memory, and joy in just 3 weeks time. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House, Inc.
(3) Weintraub, K. (2019, March 25). The Adult Brain Does Grow New Neurons After All, Study Says. Retrieved from https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-adult-brain-does-grow-new-neurons-after-all-study-says/
(4) Merz, B. (2017, July 13). This is your brain on alcohol. Retrieved from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/this-is-your-brain-on-alcohol-2017071412000
(5) (n.d.). Here’s What Really Happens to Your Brain When You Drink Too Much Alcohol. Retrieved from https://www.health.com/alcoholism/effects-of-alcohol-on-the-brain
(6) Katherine Tzambazis, Con Stough, ALCOHOL IMPAIRS SPEED OF INFORMATION PROCESSING AND SIMPLE AND CHOICE REACTION TIME AND DIFFERENTIALLY IMPAIRS HIGHER-ORDER COGNITIVE ABILITIES, Alcohol and Alcoholism, Volume 35, Issue 2, March 2000, Pages 197–201, https://doi.org/10.1093/alcalc/35.2.197 https://academic.oup.com/alcalc/article/35/2/197/152694
(7) Carlyle, M., Dumay, N., Roberts, K., Mcandrew, A., Stevens, T., Lawn, W., & Morgan, C. J. A. (2017). Improved memory for information learnt before alcohol use in social drinkers tested in a naturalistic setting. Scientific Reports, 7(1). doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-06305-w
(8) Wood, AM et al. Risk thresholds for alcohol consumption: combined analysis of individual-participant data for 599 912 current drinkers in 83 prospective studies. Lancet; 14 April 2018; DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)30134-X
(9) Watson, S. (2019, March 29). Brain Atrophy: Symptoms, Causes, and Life Expectancy. Retrieved from https://www.healthline.com/health/brain-atrophy#symptoms
(10) Keck, R. (2018, March 3). How Does Alcohol Affect the Brain? (It’s Not Pretty). Retrieved from https://draxe.com/health/brain-health/how-does-alcohol-affect-the-brain/
(11) Tokuda, K., Izumi, Y., & Zorumski, C. F. (2011). Ethanol Enhances Neurosteroidogenesis in Hippocampal Pyramidal Neurons by Paradoxical NMDA Receptor Activation. Journal of Neuroscience, 31(27), 9905–9909. doi: 10.1523/jneurosci.1660-11.2011. https://source.wustl.edu/2011/07/the-biology-behind-alcoholinduced-blackouts/
(12) Khazan, O. (2017, December 15). Even Small Amounts of Alcohol Impair Memory. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2017/12/even-small-amounts-of-alcohol-impair-memory/548474/
(13) (n.d.). Alcoholics Brains Recover Quickly After Detox. Retrieved from https://www.livescience.com/24027-alcoholics-brains-recover-detox.html
(14) (n.d.). The Brains Recovery From Alcohol Use Disorder – Neuroscience. Retrieved from https://www.recoveryanswers.org/research-post/neuroscience-of-recovery-the-brain-in-recovery/
(15) (2004). Alcohols damaging effects on the brain. PsycEXTRA Dataset. doi: 10.1037/e306622005-001
The effects of alcohol on the brain are well documented and written upon. But, when I was drinking I absolutely avoided that information. I was hiding from it, really. I was terribly afraid of destroying the pretend world of “I’m a normal drinker” and “alcohol is good for me.” Too much science would wreak havoc on my fragile ego, and I was holding onto my cognitive dissonance stronger than I held onto my wine.
When I first stopped drinking I didn’t do it for any specific reason, I just knew things didn’t feel right in my body, heart, or mind. My mood was unstable, I couldn’t think straight, and I was way more interested in my nightly drink (ok…drinks) than connecting with the people I love. After reading The Alcohol Experiment and then delving into some more “Quit Lit” I found that my experience wasn’t unique. In fact, it was downright run of the mill. And once I began my alcohol-free journey, I was eager to expose myself to all the truths about alcohol that I had so willfully ignored.
Alcohol’s effects on the brain are fascinating to me. Understanding how alcohol impacts different regions of the brain helps explains so much about our love-hate relationship with it. And it can really help explain our confusing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors resulting from consistent, moderate drinking. So, here are 5 ways that alcohol changed my brain and is changing yours, too.
Many of us drink to feel better – to soften the edges of painful thoughts, lighten a heavy heart, detach from the stress of the day. Indeed, alcohol is an effective tool for numbing our emotions and helping us feel (temporarily) light, happy, and relaxed. This is the result of alcohol affecting the emotional center of our brain, the limbic system.
Our ability to feel, process, and express emotions is controlled by the limbic system of the brain. This region is a collection of interconnected parts that control emotional response, motivation, learning, decision making, memory, and pleasure-seeking and rewarding. This last one refers to the part of the brain that responds to the dopamine hit from things like drugs, alcohol, sex, and chocolate, to name a few (1). William Porter, the author of Alcohol Explained, explains that alcohol inhibits the limbic region’s ability to function properly, resulting in dysregulated emotional states, unexpected or uncharacteristic behavior, and the inability to create and access long-term memories (2). So, in the short term, it may be tempting to let this part of our brain “loosen up,” but in reality, our lives depend greatly on our ability to regulate our emotions and behaviors. And by consistently washing the brain in alcohol, we are diminishing its ability to do its job over the long term. Due to brain shrinkage and slower learning (more on that in Part 2), we are reversing all the work our brain has done throughout our life to master these skills, and we are left with an increasingly unstable and detached experience of life.
Alcohol numbs our emotional response to daily life and the things we used to find joy in. We find ourselves no longer stimulated and rather bored with life when alcohol isn’t involved. This is the result of alcohol’s effect on the pleasure-seeking, or the reward regions, of our brain. For simplicity’s sake – because I am not a brain scientist – I will narrow this topic to the interaction between dopamine and the nucleus accumbens.
Well into my drinking habit, I found that I would base my decision of which activities and social events to attend on my access to the amount and type of alcohol served at that location – dinner dates with my husband and friends, children’s birthday parties and baby showers, weddings, camping, going to a movie. All these things, in my mind, required access to a drink (and specific kinds of drinks) or they would be devoid of joy and pleasure. I was seriously upset when I would arrive at an event to find there was no alcohol being served. Going out with friends absolutely required cocktails, otherwise, what was the point? This seemed so normal to me, and I couldn’t see the sadness inherent to the fact that life held less joy for me if I didn’t have a drink in hand.
I understand now that as a habitual drinker I had conditioned my brain to seek out the dopamine hit that alcohol produced in the nucleus accumbens region of my brain. Over the 10 years that I had been drinking, the seeking and obtaining of alcohol had conditioned my brain to see alcohol as the primary reward of all my pleasurable activities. This constant interaction taught my brain that alcohol gave it pleasure, so it guided me to keep seeking it. As I repeatedly met this need, my brain built ever-stronger connections associating alcohol with pleasure, and soon alcohol became the only thing that could create that desired feeling to the detriment of all other activities. This interaction illustrates the “dopamine reward pathway,” (3) which forms the basis of substance addiction in the brain.
Importantly, addiction isn’t simply the obtaining of a reward, it is the motivation to seek out the reward in the first place. So, when alcohol becomes the primary source of pleasure for our brain, all of our motivation becomes focused on alcohol, and we are left with a clear lack of desire to do anything else. The things we used to enjoy before alcohol all fall away; they seem boring, empty, and pointless. Though we still may gain some pleasure from those activities, that pleasure is less vibrant and harder to hold onto. This results in a situation where if alcohol isn’t involved our motivation to do anything plunges into nonexistence.
Near the end of my drinking, I was consuming 2-3 drinks in one sitting and still not able to feel much of that enjoyable buzz I sought. I also noticed I did not feel *too* terrible the next day (or I had gotten so used to being hungover that it was the new normal). I also wasn’t exactly enjoying drinking as much as I had in the past, but I kept doing it, thinking I could get back to that good feeling I used to have with the right combination of drinks, food, and time. It never did happen. When I removed alcohol from my life I gained the clarity to see that drinking had changed from an enjoyable activity I chose to do to a habit I no longer had a choice in, but that I kept doing in the blind hope I could feel good again.
That constant seeking of pleasure from alcohol caused a shift in my brain chemistry, making it harder to obtain that original “high” feeling alcohol gave me. I am guessing you can relate to this. Anyone with a brain and a drinking habit will experience some level of tolerance building over time, in which you receive less and less of the reward despite continuing to drink more amounts of alcohol. In the effort to feel that high you consume more of it over time, but never quite reach that elusive euphoria again. This process is what we call “building a tolerance,” which is often a point of pride for people. In reality, it is a sign that you are drinking more than your body can handle, and your body is reacting in multiple ways to protect you from further physical damage.
One of the primary mechanisms occurring here is the releasing of two hormones in your brain: dopamine and dynorphin (4). Dopamine is the good stuff – the thing we all crave. It is what makes our brain feel rewarded for seeking and obtaining whatever substance or behavior that produced it. When we are drinking, dopamine is released at an abnormally high level in our brain (compared to other naturally pleasing activities such as eating food or having sex) and we feel good, even euphoric – a step away from the harshness of reality. But within 20 minutes or so, in the body’s effort to regain balance, the dopamine is replaced by another hormone called dynorphin. Dynorphin has sedative effects on the brain and works to mop up the dopamine, essentially killing our buzz. As we progress through our drinking habit over time, this dopamine-dynorphin interplay happens more quickly and efficiently, causing us to increase the amount and rate at which we consume to achieve and maintain that buzz. What we also find is, as we build our tolerance, the buzz we sought is not only harder to obtain, it is also more fleeting and generally less pleasurable. And the saddest part is, our inability to feel pleasure isn’t limited to our drinking. Rather, it starts affecting all of the other activities we used to find joy in…spending time with our partner or children, playing a sport, watching the stars. Because our brain has been so artificially overstimulated by alcohol, its ability to feel natural pleasure is dampened and we are left with a lackluster experience of life (4).
Highly related to points 1-3, but important to discuss separately, is the relationship between alcohol use and mood disorders, namely depression and anxiety. If we look at depression and anxiety simply as an amplification of normal human emotions, we can see, based on the discussion above, why alcohol may be a contributing factor. In a study from 2001, nearly 14,500 people were surveyed to find a link between depression and alcohol use. The researchers found that there was a correlation between people who drank alcohol and those who developed major depression after 1 year of being studied. The people who had higher levels of alcohol consumption were more likely to develop depression (5). Interestingly, women who drank were more likely than men to develop depression.
Another study showed how alcohol literally rewires the brain, making the person more likely to experience anxiety and less capable of healing from traumatic events (6). Yet, we continue to believe the opposite: that alcohol relieves anxiety by relaxing us. Indeed, 20% of people with an anxiety disorder also have an alcohol use disorder (7). Unfortunately, science shows us that alcohol does the opposite of relaxing us in the long term. When we consume alcohol, the initial effect is that of sedation and relaxation. But because the brain is designed to maintain balance in our body, it responds to this sedation by releasing stress hormones (adrenaline and cortisol), thus re-stimulating our brain and inducing feelings of alertness and even more stress than before we had that first drink (4).
An important way to look at the effect of alcohol on our emotions is exploring the way we react to those emotions and understanding the reasons we drink in the first place. I know that when I was drinking, I was seeking an escape from the uncomfortable emotions of social awkwardness, loneliness, and stress. We are taught through constant messaging our whole life that we should be happy at all times and that we should avoid negative emotions at all costs. But what this teaches us is to be afraid of normal human emotions and to numb ourselves from them, rather than exploring them in the effort to understand ourselves better.
Emotions are feedback signals telling us about our experience of life. When we feel happy we know that things are in balance, as they should be. When we feel stress we know that we are overwhelmed and that our body needs a break. When we feel sad we understand that something is out of balance in our world, and perhaps needs our attention. These signals are what help us navigate our life, attend to the areas that need attention and meet our most basic needs for survival. When we teach ourselves that these feelings are bad and that alcohol can help us not feel them, we are tuning out from the signal and disabling our ability to effectively address the issue. Depression and anxiety are simply sadness and stress that have been left to fester as our lives go unattended to. They are the mayday signals, the distress call. When you are numbed by alcohol, you aren’t able to hear that message anymore.
But the good news is, once you remove alcohol, though those emotions don’t just go away, you will be clear-headed enough to step back from the emotions, get curious about them, and begin attending to the things that are causing the signal in the first place. That is where true healing can begin. More about that in Part 2.
In Part 1 we explored how alcohol impacts our emotional experience and relationship to the world. In Part 2 we will look at the 5 ways alcohol changes the way we learn and function.
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(1) Wikipedia contributors. (2019, August 8). Limbic system. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 14:08, August 19, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?
(2) Porter, W. (2018). Alcohol explained. Lexington, KY: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.
(3) Malenka RC, Nestler EJ, Hyman SE (2009). Sydor A, Brown RY (eds.). Molecular Neuropharmacology: A Foundation for Clinical Neuroscience (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Medical. pp. 365–366, 376. ISBN 978-0-07-148127-4.
(4) Grace, A. (2018). The alcohol experiment: a 30-day, alcohol-free challenge to interrupt your habits and help you take control. New York: Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House.
(5) Gilman, S. E., & Abraham, H. D. (2001). A longitudinal study of the order of onset of alcohol dependence and major depression. Drug and Alcohol Dependence, 63(3), 277–286. DOI: 10.1016/s0376-8716(00)00216-7
(6) (2012, September 4). Heavy drinking rewires brain, increasing anxiety problem. Retrieved from https://healthtalk.unchealthcare.org/heavy-drinking-rewires-brain-increasing-susceptibility-to-anxiety-problems/
(7) Social Anxiety Disorder and Alcohol Abuse. Retrieved from https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/social-anxiety-disorder/social-anxiety-and-alcohol-abuse
I learned something new this summer: traveling causes cravings!
Especially when you’re stuck with an 8 hour layover with your sleep deprived, jet lagged 3 year old. Airports are highly adept at targeting our baser desires and speaking to our sense of scarcity. The huge crowds, tight spaces, and inability to escape without dire consequences (aka the security line) – they all contribute to a visceral sense of being trapped in a cage. When you’re feeling trapped, the lights, the advertisements, the bars at every turn all beckon to you – “hey, you can escape here, just sit down, have a drink, and chill out.”
How do you stay centered in the storm? Maintain distance from the screaming temptations, and accept those inevitable feelings instead of fight them?
For me, it’s been months since I’ve even had a craving for a drink. My typical life doesn’t revolve around the constant reminders anymore. So sitting in an airport all of the sudden feeling attacked by these urges was unexpected. And to be honest, really disheartening. I thought, naively, that I was beyond that. But a few months not giving into urges is nothing compared to over a decade of always giving in.
So what can you do?
I ACTed it out.
Let me tell you about it.
Developed by Annie Grace of This Naked Mind, ACT stands for Awareness, Clarity, and Turnaround. It is a technique that helps us take a step back from our internal experience of the external world and become the observer of it. It helps us depersonalize the thoughts and deeper beliefs that color our perspective – a perspective that ultimately determines our behaviors and patterns.
I’ll walk you through my ACT:
Awareness of the thought: Take a moment to pause and observe what is going on in your mind when you start feeling the craving. What are the actual words your brain is telling you. Release yourself from judgement and get curious about what’s going on inside. For me, in this situation, my brain was screaming: “A drink will help me handle this unbearable stress at the airport.”
Clarity around the thought: I investigate the effect of the thought. How does this thought make me feel? What emotions are brought up? What physical sensations do I feel in my body when I have this thought? And importantly, what are the actions and behaviors that result from this thought?
This thought makes me feel anxious, impulsive, like something is missing or wrong. Like I can’t handle my current situation on my own. I feel disappointed in myself, dependent, and weak.
Physically, the thought gives me a fluttery heart, my breath feels shallow, and a have a knot in my stomach anticipating the split mind that drinking will cause.
This thought leads to me to feel incomplete and absolutely in need of a drink, and if allowed, it will lead to me step into the airport bar and order a drink. I’ll enjoy it for maybe 10 minutes, then get tired, cranky, and upset because not only am I still in the same situation, but now I’m coming down from the dopamine hit that alcohol gave me and my adrenaline and cortisol are ramping up, causing more stress and anxiety than what I began with.
Put this way, my conscious brain says no thank you!
What I have done us revealed the cognitive dissonance present between my conscious and subconscious minds. The next step is to resolve that conflict.
The Turnaround. This is where we design a new helpful thought. By doing this, and replacing the original, triggering thought, we are giving our brain a tool to literally change its wiring and create a new neural pathway. Because our brains are highly plastic (especially brains not washed in alcohol), actively changing our thought patterns allows us to recondition decades old patterns in the brain that in the past caused us to go so quickly from unwanted thought to unwanted behavior. The new thought needs to be true enough that we can believe it, and helpful enough that our brains will seek it out when in need.
My turnaround in this situation is: “having a drink will feel great for 10 minutes and then I will get sleepy and become even more irritated and stressed.” This is what alcohol does to anyone with a brain and a body. I have trained myself to remember this whenever I have a craving, and I promise you, it’s like magic. It works.
Once I go through this process, my craving is immediately quelled, and my next step is to find something that will actually relieve my stress. In this situation, it was sitting down to get a meal, letting my toddler traipse around the terminal a bit, and writing this post.
I encourage you to try this on your own. Get a journal and write down these thoughts that come up – the thoughts that lead to you the desires to act on unwanted behavior. Leave your judgement at the door, get curious, and observe. Once you’ve gone through the process reflect on how it worked. This process of observation, experimentation, and reflection truly changes the brain, which is the catalyst to changing your whole life.
Want to learn more about this process?
Need a little help walking through it?
For a limited time I am offering a free one hour coaching session to help you start exploring your relationship to alcohol. Contact me today if you want access to this technique and many more, as well as a real person support to guide you in your journey toward your own Clear Heart.