Health And Wellness

Being Human Is Hard — And Alcohol Isn't Making Us Feel Any Better

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cocktail drinks

I grew up in a heavy drinking culture that believed alcohol is only bad for you if you are an alcoholic. One time I was sitting at a bar talking about a mutual friend that was entering rehab. Between sips of her third IPA, my friend remarked, “I can drink as much as I want and never have a problem because I’m not an alcoholic.” 

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The term alcoholic is rooted in a period in history when eugenics was a leading theory. And the research behind the disease model of alcoholism was funded by the alcohol industry.

The term alcoholic makes it about the person instead of the drug, which of course benefits the industry who can continue selling it to the rest of us who don’t have a disease.

The more modern language of Alcohol Use Disorder makes it clear that our relationship with alcohol is dependent on how we use the drug. In contrast to the disease model of alcoholism, Alcohol Use Disorder makes it clear that no one is doomed and no one gets a life-long hall pass to drink as much as they want and never have a problem.

The alcohol industry had a brilliant strategy funding the disease model of alcoholism. Now they can propagate nonsense marketing to the rest of us, who aren’t alcoholics, and sell drinking as something young sexy people do. And not drinking is what uptight, fun-killing people do.

This isn’t just your individual behavior change problem, it’s also cultural.

Everyone will choose to do things that aren’t healthy — but it’s impossible to make an informed choice when we don’t understand the risk of the behavior. And we can’t have a safe relationship with alcohol until we recognize how dangerous it is.

The most recent science demonstrates that there is no amount of alcohol in any form that is healthy. Alcohol consumption contributes to insomnia, depression, anxiety, and cancer.

After I stopped drinking a family friend said, “I’m so proud of your choice to stop drinking. I think it’s a great idea. I should probably do that too, but it doesn’t fit my lifestyle.” I assume she meant, I can’t stop drinking because I don’t want to lose all my friends.

That’s real.

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And our evolutionary impulse to belong is so strong, it’s easy to confuse the bonding that happens when drinking with friends, with the alcohol itself.

I used to drink a beer while my one-year-old was in the bath. And when I started to pay attention, I suddenly realized that I was bored and lonely. I was reaching for a beer in a desperate attempt to feel how I did when I was out at a bar with friends, instead of the tedious boredom I felt being alone with a baby that couldn’t talk yet.

You don’t have to be a problem drinker to have a problem drinking less.

And I didn’t know alcohol had a different physiologic impact when I drank it alone. The present moment, joyful bonding that happens when drinking with friends goes the other way. Truly social drinking leads to increased happiness — while drinking alone exacerbates depression and anxiety.

This isn’t just our individual behavior change problem, it’s also cultural. A few months ago, a family friend told my curious five-year-old that, “Alcohol is bad for kids. But if you’re an adult, it’s good for you.”

Mainstream culture holds underlying beliefs about alcohol — that upon further investigation, simply aren’t true. And while this isn’t only a personal problem, our personal choices do make an impact.

We need more choices for adults who don’t want to drink all the time. And it’s deeply satisfying to see how that’s slowly starting to change thanks to pioneers like Ruby Warrington and Holly Whitaker.

The wonderful truth is that without alcohol, your brain is more sensitive to pleasure. When you stop drinking or start drinking less — your brain will stop compensating, and you will find more pleasure in everything.

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Habits are so deeply engrained that they happen before we have time to think. A lot of what I do with my clients is re-work painful situations. We slow down and notice what they were paying attention to, and investigate what they believed to be true underneath the behavior — that at the moment didn’t even feel like a choice.

As we slow down and gain more insight and understanding, we also gain more choices. As we feel more and notice more, we get more space between stimulus and response — which Viktor Frankl taught us, is the space where we find our freedom.

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All behavior change is hard and takes time. And with alcohol, it’s exquisitely hard.

Our brains want the serotonin, our hearts want the bonding, and our individual relationships with alcohol are unnecessarily loaded with shame. You don’t have to be a problem drinker to have a problem drinking less, but our culture doesn’t totally get that yet.

When we start to pause. And notice what we are paying attention to. And actively take in new information — like you are doing right now — we are already creating change.

And our world needs that sanity.

Meghann McNiff is an Integral Professional Coach. Check out www.integralcoachcollective.com.

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