For many of us, drinking alcohol is a central part of meet-ups with friends, co-workers and family. Not only does it act as a gesture when we offer someone a drink, but the effect of alcohol can help us ease us into social situations, create bonds and let go of the stresses of the day. Many companies nowadays have ‘Beer Fridays’ or similar get-togethers to reward staff for a week of work, boost morale and encourage team bonding. Alcohol sounds quite harmless on the surface when seen in this light. The reality is, however, that it’s very easy to be in the ‘healthy drinking zone’ and quite suddenly slip into a pattern of drinking which has negative consequences on one’s health, lifestyle and relationships.
So, how would we define an unhealthy relationship with alcohol? The NHS define alcohol misuse as drinking that has harmful consequences or which is characterised by dependency. The NHS recommend not drinking more than 14 units of alcohol per week, one unit being equal to a shot of spirit, a small glass of wine or a half pint of beer. Furthermore, the 14 units need to be divided over at least 3 days in the week to avoid binge-drinking. To help you get a clearer idea of whether or not you have a problem with alcohol, ask yourself the below questions. If you answer ‘yes’ to any, you may want to read on to understand the reasons many of us drink and how you can develop more healthy habits around alcohol:
- Do you drink to reduce anxiety or forget your problems?
- Do you prefer to drink alone rather than socially?
- Is your work or education suffering as a result of your drinking?
- Have you ever tried to reduce or stop drinking and found that you can’t?
- Do you drink in the morning, before work?
- Do you often experience loss of memory due to your drinking?
- Do you lie about how much or how often you drink?
- Do other people comment on your drinking and think it’s a problem?
Excessive or irresponsible drinking habits can have quite a number of short and long-term consequences. A number of these are listed below:
- Physical injury – falls, car accidents etc
- More likely to engage in unprotected sex
- Engaging in violence or being a victim of violence
- Losing valuable items, such as keys, purse/wallet, jewellery
- Alcohol poisoning
- Being more vulnerable to sexual assault
- Serious health conditions, such as stroke, cancer, heart disease, alcoholism
- Exacerbation of existing mental health conditions
I often meet clients who, rather than having a serious addiction to alcohol, identify aspects of their drinking habits they’d like to change. Usually, this is due to the impact drinking is having on personal relationships, experiences of shame or embarrassment related to excessive drinking and concerns about losing control or developing a dependence on alcohol. So, with this in mind, what are the main reasons people drink?
Drinking tends to revolve around social interactions, such as dinners, parties, nights out, and sporting events. People tend to feel uncomfortable telling people they’re not drinking, not wanting to explain why they’re refraining or limiting their alcohol intake. There’s a human tendency to want to conform to social norms, drinking being one of them, and not want to experience social rejection if they don’t. For certain groups of people, social conformity is particularly important. For instance, people in their late teens or early 20’s, who may still be experimenting with who they are and where they belong socially, may wish to project a certain image, making it hard for them to refuse to drink when surrounded by peers who are all drinking. This may also be the case when meeting ‘the girls’ for cocktails, or meeting up with ‘the lads’ to watch football and have a beer.
Alcohol reduces inhibitions
Particularly for the socially anxious or shy amongst us, alcohol acts as ‘liquid courage’, so to speak. When we drink, a neurotransmitter in the brain which makes us feel more relaxed is triggered, therefore reducing anxiety levels. When we’re out and not feeling comfortable with ourselves, as in how we look, how funny and interesting we are etc, it can be very tempting to get hold of a drink to calm our insecurities. As a result, we may be able to take more risks socially, such as talking to someone we’re interested in or approaching someone we don’t know. In other words, we become more sociable, chatty and friendly. This is all well and good if kept in control, but a decrease in inhibitions can lead to people saying and doing things they’d never have done had they not been drinking. This can cause rifts in relationships, increase feelings of embarrassment and shame, and cause anxiety and stress.
Since alcohol can reduce feelings of stress and anxiety, it’s often used to calm us down when we’re going through stressful or highly anxious periods. Unwinding after work, for some people, involves a glass of wine or something which can take the edge off a hard and stressful day. This is particularly the case with people who tend to be quite impulsive, since they’re more likely to choose coping tools which are immediately available and work relatively fast. Ethanol, which is present in alcohol, increases the release of dopamine, causing you to crave more of this feel-good chemical. The problem with alcohol being used as a stress-reliever is that it can quite easily become an unhealthy habit and a replacemen for more long-lasting and healthy coping tools such as meditation, exercise, talking, and so on. Furthermore, alcohol use as a stress-reliever can become a slippery slope into alcohol dependence, with alcohol itself eventually becoming the stressor.
I use the word ‘fun’ with caution. Drinking can be seen as fun since people tend to become more sociable and take more risks when they consume alcohol. You may laugh more, find mildly amusing things hilarious and possibly wonder why you never took up a career in stand-up comedy. It may not be such fun the next day, however, when you remember what you said and did the previous night. Nevertheless, it was fun at the time.
If you believe that your drinking habits are causing you problems or you may be alcohol dependent, I suggest seeking professional help. There are a number of services in Malta, such as Sedqa or Caritas, which may offer you guidance or support, or you may prefer to contact a private clinic and see a therapist or counsellor with experience in addiction. For those of you who would like to change your habits around drinking, I’d like to offer you a number of suggestions which may make this process easier:
Change how you drink
- You may choose to have abstinence days, such as not drinking during the week, or only drinking on alternate days.
- You may also adopt certain rules, such as not drinking during the day or not drinking unless accompanied by a meal.
- If you tend to drink on nights out, plan how many drinks you’ll have throughout the night and stick to it. I knew someone who tended to binge drink, who limited herself to one drink per hour, alternating an alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic one. When people saw her with a drink in her hand, they never questioned what she was drinking, making it less likely for them to offer her something else.
- Change what you drink. A beer or glass or wine takes longer for some people to drink than a shot of spirit, for instance. Sticking to these drinks may help you pace yourself rather than downing numerous drinks in quick succession.
- As soon as you feel ‘tipsy’, start to slow it down. Some people equate alcohol with ‘fun’, assuming that more alcohol means more fun. The problem is that people tend to not realise how drunk they’re getting until it’s too late, ending the fun in its tracks as they’re too far gone to stand upright, let alone enjoy themselves.
- Keep alcohol out of the house, if necessary. Therefore, drinking becomes something you do only when you go out to socialise.
- If you want to cut down on alcohol consumption, it’s best to be around people who’ll support you rather than try to tempt you otherwise. If someone doesn’t respect your wishes and needs, you may need to consider whether it’s wise to spend time with this person when you’re trying to change your drinking habits. When your new habits are more solidified, you’ll be in a better position to be around people who may tempt you to drink more than you wish as you’ll be more likely to stand your ground.
- Avoid situations which inevitably lead to drinking alcohol and try to organise activities where alcohol is unlikely to be involved. For instance, you could go on a hike, or to see a film, or for coffee and cake.
- On a night out, take only a certain amount of money (e.g. have a 30 Euro limit) and don’t take your credit cards out with you. There’s nothing worse than waking up in the morning to realise you’ve withdrawn 200 Euro and have no recollection where the money went.
- Don’t go out drinking if you’re feeling particularly sad or anxious because the likelihood is that you’ll drink way too much and end up feeling even worse. Instead, stay at home with a partner or friend, or go out for dinner/a walk/a film.
Become more conscious of why you’re drinking
The next time you feel the urge to have a drink, stop for a moment and try to identify what you’re feeling. For instance, are you feeling lonely? Did you have a really upsetting incident at work? Did a friend disappoint you? Are you very tired since you didn’t sleep very well last night? Once you identify the feeling, you’ll be in a better position to know what you need. Rather than drinking to numb or block the feelings, you could try to directly meet your need. For example, if you feel lonely, invite a friend over for tea or try to reconnect with someone you lost touch with. If you’re exhausted, go to bed early. If your boss upset you, call your sister/mum/aunt or a friend and have a rant. I think you get the picture.
Explore healthier coping methods
Whilst a drink or two can calm your nerves or help you unwind, alcohol is just a short-term ‘remedy’ and can in fact lead to alcohol dependence and serious health concerns. A wiser and more sustainable way to cope with stress and the difficulties life will inevitably throw at you is to find coping methods which help you face your issues without having a detrimental impact on your health and well-being. Some alternative coping mechanisms are listed below:
- Try out yoga or meditation, which are proven to have healing and calming effects.
- Exercise – not only does exercise improve your physical and mental health, it’s a great way to let off steam and unwind after a stressful and frustrating day.
- Speak to a trained counsellor or therapist – a professional can support you to adopt healthier ways of coping as well as help you identify aspects of your life which are causing you pain, anxiety and stress.
- Create and make good use of your support network – we all need at least one friend we can call when we’re feeling sad, angry or confused. Close personal relationships not only protect us from life’s falls but help us pick ourselves up when we need it.
- Find a creative outlet – Before you say, ‘I’m not creative’, please hear me out. It doesn’t matter if you can’t paint, dance or knit to save your life…what’s important is that you enjoy it. Engaging in something creative encourages you to be in the moment, relaxes you, helps you express emotions and relieves stress. It’s also quite fun.
With some attention and effort, in time I believe you can find a more healthy and balanced approach to socialising with friends, family and colleagues, whether you choose to drink alcohol or not. Like most things, it’s all about moderation and making conscious choices with awareness.