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Drinks o'clock

Updated: Jan 7, 2022

I need to unwind”

“I’ve earnt it”

“Just to take the edge off”

Have you had similar thoughts to these? You’re certainly not alone. Many people globally look forward to that 6 o’clock happy hour every night of the week. Perhaps even more common is the Friday night ritual of blowing off some steam, marking the end of a week you’d rather forget or rewarding yourself for being ‘well-behaved’. However, far from relaxing or cheering us up, research by Andrea Wycoff (University of Missouri) reveals that alcohol could be exacerbating the problem.

Those who are able to abstain from drinking during the week may be creating a problem for themselves in two ways; the first is that they anticipate the weekend binge, building expectation to this blowout that they have built up in their minds to be a rewarding experience. Secondly, their tee-total existence during the week gives them the impression that they are in control of their alcohol consumption; the illusion of choice. Problematic drinkers are prone to proving to themselves and others that they can stop at any time they wish. Of course, anyone can stop at any time but can they stay stopped? They may find they have a starting problem!

Another concerning outcome of ritualistic drinking is it appears to operate an internal credit system. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the individual banks up mental tokens for when they were ‘good’, either by abstaining at another time or getting through a particularly tough scenario; whatever incidents, one banks these credits so they feel entirely justified in cashing them in at whatever arbitrary time they have assigned to drink. If the drinking becomes problematic, the desire for excuses to drink exceeds the number of rational scenarios that ‘deserve’ the reward of a drink, therefore one begins manipulating situations or distorting their memory of events so that they turn into another reason to drink over. ‘Harmful drinkers’ not only imbibe large quantities of alcohol, they also have an inability, or unwillingness, to see their problem. Without this recognition, harmful drinking is notoriously difficult to treat.

Not surprisingly, people don’t exactly jump at the chance to label themselves with alcohol dependency, particularly when they believe it is doing such a good job of helping them cope. Part of the problem is they can only see two extremes: chronic alcoholic or normal drinker (whatever that is). There isn’t a lot of bandwidth for nuance, though James Morris et al. (London Southbank University) believe reframing could be the solution to treating harmful drinkers. They concluded that the use of stigmatizing language is the biggest barrier to treatment.

Ultimately, by numbing your stress or concerns, or leaning on a drink for happiness, reward or indulgence, one is not learning how to deal with problems in reality and not developing coping strategies. The truth is alcohol deepens depression and anxiety and tends to lead one to ruminate on unhelpful thoughts and feelings. Alcohol can seem like an appealing solution because it’s effects are almost instantaneous and requires little effort on our part since it is readily available in most places.

However, tolerance and dependence also develop with relative ease. If heavy consumption becomes a regular habit, the physical effects are documented widely enough that I needn't elaborate here, though it feels relevant to point out, in light of the pandemic, that alcohol suppresses our immune system, inhibiting one’s ability to combat infection.

Alcohol consumption wreaks havoc on your sleep patterns. Sure, you might fall asleep quickly, but REM sleep periods are shortened meaning you’re not getting benefitting from that really restorative stage. Therefore, instead of rewarding and relaxing you for a brighter day tomorrow, you are likely to wake up feeling the negative feelings even more keenly than before.

Perhaps an obvious consequence that isn’t taken into account when one seeks their comforting release is the number of liquid calories one unthinkingly consumes on a regular basis, not to mention how this is likely to affect our resultant food choices after consumption and the next day. Furthermore, it prevents the uptake of vital nutrients like vitamins B1, B12 and zinc to name a few.

Conversely, those more waist conscious may starve themselves during the day to compensate for their nightly alcohol binge. This deprives the body of much needed nutrition and has a knock-on effect for our mood and emotions, again, worsening the very state one is trying to escape!

The pursuit of escape from one’s problems creates a barrier between people, since you are not really present as your true self. Yes, in moderation, alcohol is widely considered a social lubricant but when one drinks to numb out from feelings, they are also numbing out from one of the worlds most potent stress reliever and feel-good factor, human connection. Again, just when the individual thinks they are soothing their situation they are actually making things worse!

By now, I hope you are convinced that alcohol really isn’t an effective coping strategy, but what to do instead? The pursuit of healthier outlets and the development of new habits is going to be your best way out of this destructive cycle. No, it’s not a quick fix and probably wont initially feel as rewarding as a crisp glass of white, but I would like to suggest the long-term benefits of contentment, peace of mind and health far outweigh the short-term release and a hangover.

A really great way to relieve those pent up feelings is to learn how to talk about them, in therapy or with a trusted friend, saying it out loud rather than drowning the issue in drink will ultimately free you from the desire to escape. Get busy. Go outside. Start a new hobby. Do something for someone else; all of these and more deserve a post of their own! If you feel your alcohol consumption is more than a little indulgence you may wish to consider talking to your GP, attending an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or arranging a chat with a counsellor for an objective perspective. Just remember, alcohol is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, it is often not the friend it claims to be.

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