"Stoptober" - why we use alcohol as a crutch, and what we can do to reduce dependence
This article is part of a Q&A I did for an article published in Natural Health magazine.
NH: Why do people tend to use drinking as a coping method?
AT: Drinking is one of a number of “soothing” methods. According to Compassion Focused Therapy (CFT) a “soothing” method is a means by which we try to manage stress. Healthy “Soothing” would include things like meditation, a walk, deep breathing or a bath – ideally something which doesn’t cost money that grounds us…note that even a spa day can
be expensive, and putting oneself in debt causes more stress. The other form of “coping” is engaging with what “drives” us eg. gets our adrenaline pumping such as running or playing a sport…both help us cope, as long as we come back to face the issue in a healthier and more calm frame of mind.
Drinking falls within the "soothing" category of recreational drugs, binge watching TV, over-spending or comfort eating – things that give us a short term sense of feeling better and even in control because we are “doing something” (we don’t always stop to think if what we are ‘doing’ is effective – simply we are satisfied our mind is occupied…it is why diet coaches will often ask people are you eating because you are hungry or bored?). It is also more likely to rise during this period of “enforced lockdown” because it is also something over which we may feel a “guilty pleasure”, and with so many freedoms feeling restricted, there is an excitement in indulging it and also a feeling of “I’m not giving that up too.”
It is also something that currently we can still do with off-licenses deemed “essential” in the list of shops remaining open. Further, as “house parties” move online, it is still a way to get into the social-distanced party spirit.
More conventionally however, drinking has been a common means of “blotting out” incidences we would rather not reflect on because of the negative physiological effect they may have on our self esteem. It is easier to say “I was so drunk I don’t remember” rather than face or acknowledge behaviour we might be ashamed of and it is a means of deflecting responsibility. Of course, this would also lead a therapist to explore further what must be so bad that drinking and it’s potential unpleasant aftermath feels like the only answer.
NH: Are there more benefits to stopping drinking completely, or doing it gradually?
AT: Reducing the amount of alcohol has health benefits – alcohol can have a detrimental effect on the brain (notably memory), and it is often cited as an excuse for “not controlling one’s emotions”. It is important to note here that in people who simply “feel a bit more relaxed” after a drink, the alcohol doesn’t “turn you into someone else”, but it may reduce our ability to filter our words or think carefully about the consequences. The drives to behave in certain ways are still likely to be within the person to performs them (with or without alcohol).
Further there are a number of calories in alcohol, so reducing consumption can bring results in weight loss; and alcohol often pairs with other behaviours which can affect our health such as snacking or smoking – reducing it, along with its accompanying partner(s) can also leave us feeling healthier.
Whether you should reduce your intake gradually or stop completely “cold turkey” – can be a personal choice. Reducing intake gradually can stave off withdrawal symptoms and make make it easier for some people to manage, but others, who prefer to function with stronger personal “rules”, it may be simpler for them to say “I don’t drink” or perhaps “I only drink spirits after 9pm” and so on. The health benefits need to sit side by side with the long term motivational ones, and whatever is easiest to stick to is going to be the best method for that person unless there is a medical reason why you should not drink at all.
Another benefit of course is that you may end up with a little more cash.
NH: How can going sober improve someone's life, who is currently using drinking as a crutch?
AT: Learning to live without the use of any crutch (alcohol, food, anger and so on) will always bring with it life improvements.
However, if you are using alcohol as a means of avoiding your problems, note that it will get tougher before it gets easier. You may feel better and healthier if you have stopped drinking, but the problem that caused it still needs to be tackled and that is why you often need support because if that doesn’t work out in a positive way, the temptation will be to relapse to the familiarity of the bottle.
One thing I say to my clients though is that when you do nothing you are two steps away from the potential to be happy – if you take the plunge, even if it is a bit tougher before it gets easier, you have moved one step closer than the person who is still standing on the other side of the pool.
If you have professional help reducing your alcohol intake you will often be introduced to other strategies to manage the emotions or deal with the situations that were causing you to use the crutch in the first place. Healthy living is not always about removing a crutch (whatever the crutch is) – it is about addressing the reasons it was needed and giving options for dealing with them as well as healthy alternatives for when things aren’t going happily. It is about broadening your outlook and your behaviour choices.
It is these interventions (along with the potential benefits of feeling fitter, more clear headed, perhaps losing weight and even having a little more spare cash) that will also help rebuild the relationships that may have become fractured – removal of the crutch isn’t an isolated event.
Through the work you do in going sober, you may also find your circle of friends changes, you may find new job opportunities, you might explore options you didn’t realise were available to you – that too will help you live in a more positive frame of mind. It is not simply about finding alternatives to a crutch, but lifestyle changes which may result in no longer needing one at all.
NH: Do you have any practical tips to support someone who wants to cut down on their drinking habits?
- Have an easy to reach healthy substitute
If you recognise the triggers that cause you to drink habitually (rather than as an occasion), perhaps it is after spending time in certain company, or after a stressful commute, or to help you unwind - find something that is easy to do that generates the same feeling of relaxation, or at least provides a distraction while you "surf the craving" until it passes.
- You may wish to set specific targets on how much or at what time you will drink
When we make goals specific and measurable, it is a lot easier to attain them because we are very clear on what the success measure looks like.
- Use a smaller glass
It's a little bit like having a smaller plate can help you feel more full while cutting your portion size. McDonalds brought in "large fries" after they noticed that people were (literally) scraping the bottom of the packet of chips but did not want to order twice - perhaps for fear of looking greedy (Fat Land, 2004). A smaller glass may make you think twice before you refill.
- If you are using alcohol as an avoidance strategy, work on accepting and managing your emotions
NOTE - This may take professional support, and my suggestions here are no substitute for professional help. Rather than reaching for a drink to "forget" or "suppress" instead try the following:
- Name the emotion you are experiencing (and this must be something more than "feeling bad" eg: upset, hurt, rejection, anger, rage, frustration, disgust...)
- When you know what it is, try to "step back" in order to observe it - thinking about what it does to you, how it makes you feel, why it may have occurred. (You may want to write this down)
- See if you can identify any ways in which you can lessen the chance of the unpleasant emotion happening in future.
- Acknowledge that it's ok to feel that way.
- See if engaging in your health substitute enables you to feel better, and when you do, see if you can identify ways in which you can deal with the issues that caused the unpleasant emotion.
Dr Audrey Tang is a chartered psychologist and author. Her work is focused on giving you practical tips for self improvement.
Listen to her podcast Retrain Your Brain here; watch her psychology & coaching skill pill on YouTube Or catch her hosting Psych Back to Basics on DisruptiveTV where she and her team discuss how psychology affects our behaviours in the workplace and what we can do about it.
Follow her on Twitter/IG @draudreyt (but she doesn't check it regularly anymore - she cut down on that in a similar way.)