A common response for many people to a stressful day is to open a bottle of wine, head to the pub for a ‘pint or two’, or to have a couple of beers in front of the TV.
Research carried out in 2015 showed that alcohol advertising has been very effective in convincing us that alcohol is ‘essential to relaxation’
TV programmes such as ‘Sex in the City’ have left still powerful images in my own mind when I think of a young woman getting home from a day of work and needing to unwind, whether with friends or alone.
In fact, when I was beginning my long habit of drinking alone, I often saw myself like Carrie Bradshaw, convincing myself that what I was doing was cool and sophisticated, rather than the problem behaviour that I now see it as.
How alcohol helps us feel less stressed
That alcohol creates that release and relaxed feeling cannot be denied.
Alcohol affects the brain chemistry, and changes the behaviour of neurotransmitters that send information around the brain.
It depresses the parts of our brain that feel inhibited, whether that inhibition is caused by stress, social awkwardness, shyness etc.
This is why conversation seems to flow easier after a couple of drinks, as the normal filters that govern and censor what we say become less active.
Over time, and number of drinks however, this depressive quality of alcohol takes a darker turn.
The lack of inhibition often leads us to behaviours that we might regret, and can lead, ultimately, to depression.
Alcohol mimics the behaviour of GABA, a powerful neurotransmitter that makes us feel good.
GABA calms and soothes the nervous system, so in imitating this behaviour, alcohol makes us think that it helps us relax.
However, while alcohol is ‘pretending to be’ GABA, it is also increasing the production of cortisol in the brain.
Among its many roles in the functioning of the body, cortisol is ‘the stress hormone’, produced as part of the stress response of the nervous system
Alcohol creates dopamine, the neurotransmitter that creates pleasure and reward.
When something creates a rush of dopamine in the brain, we want more of it.
This is why many people find that once they start drinking, they find it hard to stop, and why alcohol is so dangerously addictive.
Over time we need more to create that same dopamine rush, and, cruelly, it becomes harder to get that dopamine hit from other sources.
As Brene Brown says in ‘The Gifts of Imperfection’
“We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.”
Many people think that alcohol helps them to sleep.
I convinced myself of this for years.
Having suffered with insomnia since a silly film left me terrified that we were all going to be murdered in our beds as a child, I realised early in my heavy drinking ‘career’ that if I drank enough, I could ‘fall asleep’ without any of the night time rumination that kept me awake when sober.
The irony that I was staying up absurdly late to get this drunk was totally lost on me, and every morning I would wonder why I struggled to even hear my alarm clock (going to bed totally drunk at 2am would have been the obvious answer, but I never saw the connection, or maybe was wilfully ignorant of it)
Alcohol might help you fall asleep quicker, but it does not give good sleep. After a night of drinking, you are unlikely to wake up feeling energised and refreshed, but are more likely to feel lethargic, sluggish and in need of more sleep.
Alcohol interrupts the sleep cycle so that we get less of the REM that is needed to allow the brain to do the work it needs to do when we sleep.
Lack of sleep also contributes to stress and increases cortisol levels, so by drinking to beat stress and insomnia, there is a chance that we are actually increasing the chances of being affected by both.
Healthier ways to deal with stress
There are many other ways to deal with stress in a healthier way that isn’t going to have such and adverse effect on mental health and leave us at risk of addiction.
Yoga, good breathing, walking, creative practices, talking to a good friend, exercise, gratitude, meditation and stillness, gardening and more are all powerful ways to shift tension and stress, and create that much needed sense of release and relaxation without causing short term, and potentially long term damage to the body and mind.
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