Have you ever woken up with a crippling hangover, swearing off alcohol, only to find yourself reaching for a glass of wine later that same day? We’ve all been there. It's important not to be hard on yourself, as the reason this happens is not purely from a lack of self-control... Alcohol changes your brain on a biological level. Over time, drinking can wear down the mental and emotional resilience needed to change your habits. This can become like a feedback loop, keeping you stuck in cycles of drinking. Fortunately, there are ways to break out of this and take back your power. It can be helpful to become aware of the impact of drinking on your brain and how it can keep you trapped. Let’s take a closer look…
How Alcohol Changes Your Mind
When you’re out with friends sipping on your favorite craft beer, it can be easy to forget that you’re actually ingesting a toxin. Alcohol can cross the blood-brain barrier, meaning that it can directly affect the health of your brain. Studies show that heavy drinking can damage existing neurons and prevent the growth of new ones. Over time, it can even shrink the size of your brain.(1) Alcohol may also damage the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for storing memories. Over time, this can lead to forgetfulness, less clarity, and an inability to focus.(2)The purpose of this information isn’t to scare you, but to help you understand the huge impact alcohol can have on your brain. If you think about it, your brain affects your entire perception and experience of reality. In a sense, alcohol is hijacking your mind. So if you’re having a hard time controlling your drinking, it's important to seek support. The good news is that this damage is reversible. The miracle of the human body is that it's self-healing when given the right conditions. Taking a break from alcohol allows your brain to repair itself, leading to brain growth and improved brain function.1
How Alcohol Causes Cycles of Anxiety
Many believe the myth that alcohol is a quick cure for anxiety – and for good reason. In the short term, a buzz is an easy way to calm your nerves. But the reality is that drinking can actually worsen your baseline levels of anxiety over time. At first, alcohol can feel relaxing because it temporarily boosts the neurotransmitter, GABA. Over longer periods of time, a drinking habit can actually lead to a deficiency of GABA.(3) This may actually cause a feedback loop. As alcohol depletes GABA and increases anxiety, many will cope by reaching for another drink for temporary relief. This further worsens the GABA deficiency, digging you deeper into a pit of stress.
Hangovers are another way that alcohol can affect mental health. There's actually a scientific reason behind that feeling of hangxiety. Hangovers increase activity in the areas of the brain responsible for anxiety and panic attacks.3 If you’re particularly sensitive to alcohol, these effects can last for days. Frequent drinkers may not notice this as the increased anxiety has become their new normal.
By taking a break from alcohol, you will no longer be swimming upstream against its stress-inducing effects on your brain. Many notice that their baseline level of anxiety drops, simply from removing alcohol.
How to Take Back Your Power
At first, it can feel like an uphill battle to try to quit or cut back on drinking. It’s so important to have self-compassion and remind yourself that this is a normal part of the journey. When you experience stress or negative emotions, it may feel habitual to reach for a drink. Learning alternative coping skills will help carry you through these cravings. As your alcohol-free journey goes on, it will get easier. The longer you refrain from drinking, the more your brain is able to rebalance and repair itself. This will allow you to face stressful situations and cravings with more and more ease.
Over time, you will find that you are strengthening your own innate resilience. This is something you’ve always had inside of you, but alcohol has temporarily robbed you of. These benefits will extend beyond sobriety, as you can use that power to create new habits and life changes. In the initial phases of quitting drinking, it is so important to have adequate support in place. That’s what we’re here for. At Reframe, our approach is based on an awareness of neuroscience.