In a former issue of MiNDFOOD I wrote an article about the subtle negative effects alcohol use can have on our lives. I wasn’t talking about alcoholism but about those two or three drinks we have each night to take the edge off. This amount of alcohol use can seem harmless, but it can result in low-level depression or anxiety, loss of motivation and relationship issues.
You may not be an alcoholic, but you are using alcohol as a crutch if you drink as a relief from difficulties, to loosen up socially, for relieving stress or boredom, for staying numb, or to take your mind off things. This level of alcohol use masks underlying emotional issues. We stay numb so we don’t have to face them. If you want a life that has meaning, the following advice may help you manage your alcohol use.
1. GET CLEAR ABOUT WHY YOU WANT TO DRINK
There are many easy ways to cut back on those nightly glasses of wine, however your first step needs to be becoming conscious about why you need to drink alcohol in the first place. Bring it out into the open. Own up to it. Have the courage to face yourself. Actually write down the truth about your drinking. Examples might be: life seems boring so I use alcohol to give things a buzz; I am insecure and use alcohol to quell the anxiety I feel in social situations; there is too much going on in my life and I don’t know where to start with it all so I will procrastinate by drinking; I need to make changes in my work life or relationship but it is all a bit too confronting so I avoid it all by having a drink.
2. RECOGNISE THE TRIGGER FEELING
It may be subtle but there will be a feeling inside you that you just can’t tolerate. When this feeling arises you drink to medicate it. Instead of drinking, see if you can identify and locate the feeling. Is it an emptiness or hollowness in the pit of your stomach? Is it a churning anxiety in your belly? Is there a feeling of yearning in your chest? It takes courage to face these feelings, but in doing so you open up the possibility of dealing with them and moving beyond them to a place of wellbeing. We are able to do this by developing an attitude of self-care. Learn to self-soothe by breathing gently in and out and placing your palm on the area that hurts. Tend to yourself as an adult tends to a child. Be gentle and compassionate.
3. DEAL WITH THE TRIGGERING EMOTION OR SITUATION
Have the courage to face up to the things you may have been avoiding in your life. You may need to make some changes in your life. There may be conversations to be had and new skills to develop. You don’t need to go through this alone so seek help from good friends or family to move through these issues. Now you are ready for some practical steps to help you cut back each night.
4. CHANGE YOUR ROUTINE ASSOCIATED WITH DRINKING
We are creatures of habit so introducing any sort of change into your regular routine can help break unhealthy cycles. Try sitting in a different position at the dinner table or on the couch. Put some music on instead of the television. Don’t just automatically pour a drink with a meal – start eating first. Put more effort into creating a delicious meal so this is the focus rather than the alcohol. Alternatively, try to cook meals that don’t go very well with alcohol – strong spicy food, for example, since it overpowers the taste of wine.
Exercise naturally boosts your mood so you may not feel you need that glass of wine so much. Also, as you begin to feel more healthy, you are less likely to want to diminish this feeling of wellbeing by dulling yourself with alcohol.
6. FIND A HEALTHY ALTERNATIVE
You can trick your mind into thinking that you are still having a treat by sipping on something that tastes ‘adult’ but has no alcohol content. Lemon, lime and bitters is the classic substitute, but you could try cherry, pomegranate or cranberry juice with tonic or ginger beer and add some drops of schisandra (a herb) or bitters. No, it’s not the same as a glass of wine but it can still satisfy the oral fixation aspect of drinking. But do be careful with this though. Just as some smokers find that they put on weight when they give up cigarettes because they substitute eating for lighting up, don’t over-indulge in the substitute drink.
7. GIVE YOURSELF GENUINE TREATS
We often ‘treat’ ourself with unhealthy rewards, such as alcohol or food, instead of giving our body what it really wants or needs. Substances and material items are all substitutes for genuine self-care. So instead, focus on treating yourself with gentleness. Give yourself some slow time, some relaxing time. Walk in a park or at the beach. Read something inspiring or nourishing. Get involved in a healthy way with others, such as by volunteering for a community organisation.
8. MAKE IT HARD TO SUCCUMB
Don’t keep a stock of beer, wine or spirits at home. At the very least make sure you keep any alcohol in an inconvenient place, such as in the back shed or at the back of the top cupboard. Doing this means you can’t easily reach for a drink. If you have to make an effort to get the alcohol it helps wake you up and keep you conscious about the choice you are making.
9. FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE MOTIVATION FOR NOT DRINKING
Don’t view the limiting of alcohol as a matter of denial of a treat. Instead, think of the positive reasons why you are making this choice. This uses the carrot not the stick approach to self-management. Start by focusing on the wellbeing you are building, and then reflect on the sense of empowerment you feel by being in control of your drinking. Notice how healthy and clear you feel when you wake up after a few days of not drinking. Motivate yourself with thoughts of the mature and self-caring person you wish to become.
10. GET SUPPORT
It can be hard to stay firm if the person next to you is sipping wine while you go without. Ask if your partner, friend or housemate will join with you in cutting back on alcohol consumption. You can motivate, encourage and help each other to stay on track with the healthy choice you are making together.
Cynthia Hickman is a psychologist in private practice in Melbourne.