You’ve guzzled down a few glasses of Sauvignon with dinner, had one too many cocktails whilst bored during lockdown, and that’s all before you’ve popped open a bottle of bubbly to ring in the New Year.
The festive season is arguably one of the most booze-filled times of the year, but amidst the clinking glasses and cheery chit-chat, things might not be so merry and bright. In fact, if you struggle with your drinking habit, it might be the toughest time of the year.
As the bottles pile up and the hangovers catch up with us, our boozy tendencies can leave us our minds, and our bodies, feeling worse for wear. And if you struggle to curb your drinking it can lead to serious problems.
According to Drink Aware, around four-fifths of adults in England drink alcohol, with 27% being classified as binge drinkers.
It’s a staggering statistic, especially seeing excessive drinking can lead to an increased risk of heart disease, liver damage and stroke.
But alcohol doesn’t only wreak havoc with our physical health, it can have serious repercussions on our mental and emotional wellbeing too.
How can alcohol affect your mood?
You’re probably well aware of the usual physical symptoms of a hangover — you have a throbbing headache, your mouth feels as dry as the Sahara desert and even the smell of food can make you feel nauseous. However, the mental repercussions can be just as harmful.
Initially, it might not be so bad. After your first sip, the alcohol might dull your inhibitions and make you feel more confident, talkative and relaxed. And, in moderation, this is completely fine. It’s when you continue to drink to excess, that the cons will inevitably outweigh any pros.
Once the initial buzz wears off, you might feel a whirlwind of emotions, even if you were in a great mood to begin with. From anxiety and depression, to anger and relationship difficulties, here are just a few ways alcohol can leave us feeling out of sorts…
Alcohol and anxiety
If you suffer from anxiety, you might be tempted to turn to alcohol for some dutch courage. A beer or two might make you feel more at ease before going to a party, or maybe you’ll often have a stiff drink to unwind before a big date. This ‘relaxed’ feeling isn’t coincidental. It happens because alcohol causes chemical changes in the brain.
When we drink alcohol, we get a rush of the feel-good hormone, dopamine. For a moment, we feel happy or ‘buzzed’. However, this feeling quickly fades.
Fast forward to the morning after, and you might wake up haunted by the memory of what you said the night before. Or perhaps scrolling through your phone makes your stomach do somersaults. These post-drink feelings are so well-known they’ve even earned their own nicknames like ‘hangxiety’ and ‘the fear’. But what exactly causes it?
The brain relies on a delicate balance of chemicals and processes every day. The keyword here is ‘balance’. This means that the fleeting feeling of calm and happiness you experienced the night before needs to be paid for — and usually, there’s interest.
To counteract that surge of happy hormones you experienced whilst drinking, your brain won’t produce as much dopamine the following day. As your dopamine levels plummet, you’ll likely experience a wave of anxiety, guilt and stress. And, over time, chronic drinking actually depletes the amount of dopamine in your brain, making it harder to get that ‘buzz’.
The real danger is that you may start to chase the momentary happiness alcohol provides, which can lay the groundwork for addiction.
Alcohol and depression:
The link between alcohol abuse and depression is undeniable. But sometimes it can be difficult to tell where one condition stops and the other one begins. Some people turn to alcohol to ‘drink away their sorrows’ when they’re feeling low. Others might slip into depression directly because of their alcohol abuse. In fact, nearly one-third of people with major depression also have an alcohol problem, according to WebMD.
The so-called ‘booze blues’ are well documented. And It’s understandable that we feel this way. After all, alcohol is a natural depressant. Again, after the initial dopamine rush, we’re depleted of these happy hormones and feel downhearted. Plus, heavy alcohol consumption can also make medications such as antidepressants less effective. On a more basic level, alcohol can also put a spanner in the works and make life a bit more difficult. We might be more prone to arguments, struggle with our workload or feel like we’re burning the candle at both ends, which can lead to low self-esteem and depression.
Alcohol and anger
Do you ever lash out after one too many drinks? You’re not alone. Chances are you feel this way because alcohol makes it hard to think straight. You might have tunnel vision, misread social cues, and disregard the consequences of your actions whilst drinking. And this deadly mix creates the ideal conditions for a heated argument. During Christmas, you’ll probably be cooped up all day with distant relatives and free-flowing alcohol, so you might be more prone to angry outbursts. Take care to monitor your alcohol consumption because if someone provokes you, you might be more likely to rise to the bait.
Signs you have an alcohol problem
Drinking is pretty ingrained in British culture and, sadly, this can make it difficult to spot when someone has a serious problem. What’s more, because of the stigma surrounding alcoholism, sufferers may also be secretive or angry if confronted which can make things even trickier.
We know just how difficult living with alcoholism can be. Sufferers often describe how they have a strong, almost uncontrollable, urge to drink. And, as a result, they’ll place this craving above all other obligations, even when they know it causes them harm (for example, even if their drinking results in a job loss or a marital breakdown, they’ll still have the urge to keep going). They might even become so dependent on alcohol that, if they stop drinking, they experience withdrawal symptoms such as hand tremors, nausea, insomnia and sweating.
‘Harmful drinking’ is slightly different. This is when you have an occasional pattern of binge drinking however, you’re not physically dependent on alcohol. For instance, you might drink too much at a party and risk a bust-up, however, it’s not habitual. The NHS, for example, advises that drinking more than 14 units of alcohol a week can cause serious damage to your health. Nonetheless, this sort of behaviour shouldn’t be downplayed. Even if a drinking problem seems minor, it’s important to get help as soon as possible to stop it from snowballing into a serious issue.
If you’re worried you or someone you know might be have an alcohol problem, here are a few tell-tale signs to look out for:
- They are intoxicated often
- They drink more or for longer than they plan to
- They’ve tried to cut back or stop drinking but couldn’t
- They experience temporary blackouts and memory loss
- They’re unable to say no to alcohol
- They need to drink more in order to get the same ‘buzz’
- They suffer from anxiety, depression or other mental health problems
- Their alcohol consumption is impacting their work or family life but they continue to drink
- They engage in reckless behaviour after drinking (e.g. fighting or driving)
- They’re secretive and dishonest in order to hide their alcohol problem
- They’ve become more withdrawn or isolated from friends and family
- They drink alone or in secrecy
Mental health and alcohol abuse treatment
Decided to put the brakes on your drinking? Props to you. Overcoming alcohol abuse can seem like an insurmountable task. But change is possible. If you need a helping hand, here are a few tips to get you back on the road to recovery…
Get expert help
If you are worried about your drinking, remember that you don’t carry this burden by yourself. A good first step is to see a GP. They’ll assess your alcohol intake and discuss the services and treatments available to help you get back on track.
Depending on how severe your alcohol dependency is, your GP will help you decide if you need to go to a clinic or hospital to detox. Some people may also be prescribed medication to help them abstain, whilst others may be advised to go therapy or counselling.
As well as this, there are also a number of incredible charities that provide support for people who have an alcohol misuse problem, such as Alcohol Change UK, Alcoholics Anonymous and We Are With You.
Realise the pros of going sober
Not sure if you’re ready to change your drinking patterns? Other people can help but, ultimately, if you want to make a real change, it’s up to you. If you’re in two minds about recovery, weighing up the pros and cons will help.
Take a moment to jot down the reasons you might not want to change your drinking habit (e.g. ‘It makes me feel at ease socially’, ‘Change is hard’, ‘I feel like I won’t fit in with my friends). Then compare this with the pros of shaking up your behaviour. (e.g. ‘It’ll improve my relationship with my family’, ‘It’ll improve my health’ and ‘It’ll save me money’.)
Chances are you’ll realise that the cons definitely outweigh the pros. This is important because if you’re motivated and understand the benefits of curbing your drinking habits, you’ll probably be more motivated to stick with it.
If going sober seems nerve-wracking, the acronym SMART can help us break your goal into smaller more manageable chunks. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Time-framed, and by applying it to our goals, progress might not seem so daunting.
Initially, you might commit to stop drinking on weekdays. Then you might limit your weekend drinking to no more than three or five drinks before ultimately stopping drinking alcohol altogether by a set date.
Remind yourself that your craving won’t last forever
When you have an alcohol problem, the urge to drink can seem paralyzing. But take a deep breath and remind yourself that this craving will probably only last an hour or so at most. It can be helpful to think of your urge like a wave. It builds up and peaks but, inevitably, it will ebb away. Remember this feeling will eventually pass so don’t cave. Simply distract yourself and ride the wave until the craving passes.
If you need extra support with this therapy technique, you might find it helpful to listen to the ‘Urge Surfing’ and ‘Distraction’ episodes of Self-care, our new audio and video therapy library.
Prepare for obstacles
Overcoming an alcohol addiction can be a long and bumpy road. Chances are you’ll encounter obstacles or difficult emotions along the way. So what can you do to get on top of them?
You might try to ignore them or practice self-control at the moment. But a better solution might be to prepare for potential pitfalls. Take a moment and jot down any times when you’re more likely to turn to alcohol. Understanding what might trigger you to relapse and having a plan in place are the first most important steps for prevention.
Here are just a few common relapse triggers:
- People or locations associated with drinking
- Emotional distress
- Seeing or smelling alcohol
- Times of celebration
- Peer pressure
- Being over confident
Alcoholism doesn’t just crop up from out of the blue. More often than not, people turn to alcohol because they want to numb uncomfortable or painful feelings. Because of this, therapies such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can be really useful if you’re suffering from an alcohol problem. That’s because it gives you a safe space to unpick where your alcohol dependency stems from, so you can identify what may cause you to relapse in the future.
In your session, you’ll get to the root of these difficult problems and overcome them, improve your self-control, identify your triggers and identify coping strategies to help you control your urges.
Progress isn’t always linear. It takes time to break old habits so if you have a slip-up don’t beat yourself up about it. Addiction is a difficult beast and one step back doesn’t mean you’re at square one. Remind yourself of how far you’ve come. Over time, resisting the urge to act on cravings will get easier. So be kind to yourself and practise self-compassion.