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Binge Drinking

Why Is It So Hard To Control How Much I Drink?

February 23, 2023
17 min read
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Written by
Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
February 23, 2023
17 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
February 23, 2023
17 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
February 23, 2023
17 min read
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Reframe Content Team
February 23, 2023
17 min read

We’ve all been there: we tell ourselves we’re only going to have one drink. But one becomes two, two becomes three, and before we know it, we’ve lost count. The next morning, we wake up feeling hungover, regretful, and disappointed in ourselves for not being able to “drink responsibly.”

So, what gives? Why, despite our best intentions, is it so hard to control our drinking? In this post, we’ll explore why it can be hard to control our drinking, and what we can do about it. Let’s get started!

How Does Alcohol Affect Our Brain Chemistry?

How does alcohol affect our brain to make it so difficult to control our drinking? Repeated alcohol use creates a chemical imbalance, making it harder for our brain to function as it once did. As a result, it becomes harder to rein in our drinking. Let’s take a closer look at how this happens.

The Problem With Dopamine

When alcohol first enters our system, it promotes the release of dopamine — a neurotransmitter integral to our brain’s reward system. Dopamine is known as the “feel good” chemical because it creates feelings of happiness and pleasure. This is why we get that euphoric sensation as soon as we start drinking.

However, with repeated exposure to alcohol, our dopamine response can become dysregulated. Eventually, the same amount of alcohol may no longer result in the same level of dopamine release in our brain, causing us to drink more to achieve the same effect. 

This can set the stage for dependence, as the brain starts associating alcohol consumption with pleasure and reward, leading to cravings and increased use. The more our brain makes this connection, the harder it is to cut back on alcohol and control our drinking. If this association becomes strong enough, even just the thought of having a drink can increase our dopamine levels. 

As we continue to increase the amount of alcohol we consume — and the frequency with which we consume it — alcohol begins changing the way that parts of our brain function, altering our brain chemistry more and more. 

Eventually, we begin to feel as if we need alcohol to feel normal. The experience is similar to being hungry when we haven’t eaten. And just like being hungry, the longer we wait, the more intense the hunger and pains become. Similarly, the longer we go without drinking, the more our brain craves alcohol to feel normal.

The Problem With GABA and Glutamate

But dopamine is only part of the story. Alcohol also affects both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters within the brain. More specifically, alcohol increases our brain’s transmission of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), an inhibitory neurotransmitter that helps us feel calmer and more relaxed. This substance acts like a brake, slowing brain activity. As we drink, we're essentially applying more pressure to that brake, leading to a feeling of relaxation. 

On the other end of the spectrum, alcohol inhibits glutamate, an excitatory neurotransmitter that increases brain activity and energy levels. When glutamate is inhibited, we experience a decrease in neural activity and slowed brain processing. If glutamate is our brain’s gas pedal, speeding us up and stressing us out, drinking alcohol takes our foot off the pedal.

The problem, however, is that repeated drinking throws off our brain’s equilibrium by inhibiting glutamate (which would speed us up) and increasing GABA (which further slows us down). This chemical imbalance, which leads to impaired GABA and glutamate signaling, weakens our ability to deny strong urges. In other words, no matter how much willpower we exert, we’ll still have trouble controlling our alcohol consumption.

The Good News About Our Brain

So are we entirely helpless? Not quite! Fortunately, our brain is resilient; it has a remarkable ability to repair itself. In fact, our brain can change and grow new neural pathways through a process called neuroplasticity. 

Research shows that when we cut back or quit drinking, the actual structure of our brain starts to recover, growing new cells to repair damage. This leads to improved functioning in many areas, from focus and memory to decision making. 

Cutting back on alcohol also helps normalize dopamine, GABA, and glutamate levels. As our brain starts to heal and these important neurotransmitters come into balance, our urge to drink diminishes.

It’s important to note that while our brain does have the ability to repair itself, long-term, heavy consumption of alcohol can cause damage that may be irreversible. This is why the sooner we can get a hold of our drinking, the better. 

Tips To Control Your Drinking

So, how can you start controlling your drinking? First and foremost, remember that cutting back on alcohol is a process that requires time and patience. It may not always be easy (especially at first!). But over time, the physical and mental health benefits make the effort worthwhile. 

With that in mind, here are eight steps to help us control our drinking:

  1. Write down your why. One of the most important things you can do for yourself is to identify why you want to cut back on your drinking. Make a list of all the reasons you’re trying to control your drinking — whether it’s for your health, improving your relationships, or to get better sleep. Write these reasons down on paper and put them in a visible spot, such as on your fridge, bathroom mirror, or computer monitor. 
  2. Let your friends and family know. We should treat changing our relationship with alcohol the same as we would any other major life change. That means we should tell our friends and family about it, so they can best support us. For instance, they can help hold us accountable when our goal is to stick to two drinks at a party. And they can also refrain from offering us more alcohol if we tell them we’re trying hard to drink more mindfully.
  3. Have a prevention plan in place. As with anything, prevention is key, as it can keep problems from arising further down the road. When it comes to cutting back on alcohol, it’s important to have a prevention plan to help us take action when inevitable challenges arise (like cravings, triggers, or peer pressure). For instance, we can create a list of people we can reach out to when we need a distraction from a craving or when we need an excuse to leave a party early. We can also keep non-alcoholic beverages on hand and bring them with us to social events.
  4. Understand your triggers. Triggers can push us to lose control of our drinking, so it’s important to identify them. They can involve anything that provokes our emotions or our senses in a way that elicits a desire to drink. For example, we might feel triggered when we smell pizza because we associate it with beer, or we might have an urge to drink when we’re angry. When we understand our triggers, we begin to exercise greater power over them. Over time, we can instead turn to healthier coping mechanisms — like taking a few deep breaths, finding a replacement beverage, or calling a friend — when triggers pop up.
  5. Practice assertive communication: We often lose control of how much we drink because we have trouble saying “no” when somebody offers us a drink, or encourages us to have “just one more.” Be prepared ahead of time with what you’re going to say if this happens. For instance, you might say, “No thanks, I’m only having one tonight,” or, “No, I have a lot to get done tomorrow and want to be feeling my best.” And remember, a “no” is not just a “no” to alcohol — it’s also a “yes” to a healthier mind and lifestyle. If someone is particularly pushy, stand your ground! You can even say, “No thanks, but I’d love to have a mocktail with you.”
  6. Track your drinks. A lot of the time, we lose control of how much we drink because we lack proper accountability. That’s where drink tracking comes in. As its name implies, this means tracking how much we drink over the course of a day, week, or month. At Reframe, we make drink tracking easy through our in-app Drink Tracker. This tool can help you customize your drink limits and collect data on your progress over time.
  7. Find new ways to socialize. If drinking is a big part of your social life, try exploring other activities and hobbies that don’t involve alcohol. There’s a world of alcohol-free activities out there: meditation or yoga, drawing or photography, a new type of exercise class, or any number of book clubs. Exposure to new things helps fill the time we might formerly have spent drinking while connecting us with like-minded individuals. 
  8. Keep at it. If our drinking gets out of hand one night, it’s tempting to wallow in shame and regret. Don’t do this! Cutting back on alcohol is not a linear process, and we are bound to slip up. Show yourself some compassion and keep moving forward. Ask yourself what you can learn from the slip — and what you can do to prevent it from occurring again. 

The Bottom Line

Why is it so hard to quit drinking? It’s not because of our willpower. Regularly consuming alcohol alters our brain chemistry and structure, which is why we might have a hard time controlling our drinking. Thankfully, cutting back on alcohol or eliminating it entirely can help “reset” the brain and bring things back into balance. While breaking free from alcohol’s pull might not be easy, we can take back control with time, patience, and continued practice. 

If you want to cut back on your alcohol consumption but don’t know where to start, consider trying Reframe. We’re a neuroscience-backed app that has helped millions of people reduce their alcohol consumption and develop healthier lifestyle habits. 

Summary FAQs

1. What role does willpower play in cutting back on alcohol? 

Our willpower has nothing to do with drinking less. No matter how sincerely we want to cut back on alcohol, and no matter how much willpower we try to exert, we can still find ourselves having a difficult time. 

2. Why is it so hard to control how much you drink? 

When we consume alcohol on a consistent basis, our brain chemistry begins to make long-lasting changes, which means it’s more challenging to stick to a limit and say “no” when people offer us “just one more.”

3. How does alcohol alter your brain chemistry? 

Regularly consuming alcohol in large amounts disrupts the delicate balance of important neurotransmitters, such as the “feel good” chemical dopamine, the excitatory chemical glutamate, and the inhibitory chemical GABA. This imbalance is responsible for cravings and can lead to dependence, making it difficult to control our drinking.

4. Can your brain ever go back to normal? 

Cutting back on or quitting alcohol can help the brain heal and repair itself, and restore balance to important neurotransmitters. However, some damage caused by long-term heavy consumption of alcohol may be permanent. 

5. What are some tips to help you control your drinking?

Cutting back on alcohol is a process that takes time and patience. We can help control our drinking by identifying why we want to cut back on the first place, building a support network, developing a prevention plan, understanding our triggers, practicing assertive communication, tracking the number of drinks we consume, and finding new ways to socialize. Most importantly, if we slip up, don’t beat yourself up: practice self-compassion and keep at it. 

Take Control of Your Drinking With Reframe

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

The Reframe app equips you with the knowledge and skills you need to not only survive drinking less, but to thrive while you navigate the journey. Our daily research-backed readings teach you the neuroscience of alcohol, and our in-app Toolkit provides the resources and activities you need to navigate each challenge.

You’ll meet millions of fellow Reframers in our 24/7 Forum chat and daily Zoom check-in meetings. Receive encouragement from people worldwide who know exactly what you’re going through! You’ll also have the opportunity to connect with our licensed Reframe coaches for more personalized guidance.

Plus, we’re always introducing new features to optimize your in-app experience. We recently launched our in-app chatbot, Melody, powered by the world’s most powerful AI technology. Melody is here to help as you adjust to a life with less (or no) alcohol. 

And that’s not all! Every month, we launch fun challenges, like Dry/Damp January, Mental Health May, and Outdoorsy June. You won’t want to miss out on the chance to participate alongside fellow Reframers (or solo if that’s more your thing!).

The Reframe app is free for 7 days, so you don’t have anything to lose by trying it. Are you ready to feel empowered and discover life beyond alcohol? Then download our app through the App Store or Google Play today!

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