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 of how many we’ve had. 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 blog post, we’ll be chatting all about this common dilemma. But first, let’s take a look at willpower.
What’s Willpower Got To Do With It?
Actually, it doesn’t.
Let’s make one thing clear — just because we haven’t been able to control our drinking doesn’t mean we’re a failure. Cutting back on alcohol isn’t about a lack of willpower or the collapse of our determination. What’s really happening is that part of our brains have been chemically altered to the point of dependence.
Dependence on alcohol, whether physical or mental, has many complex components that interact in complicated ways. While each person’s experience with alcohol is unique, everyone who has a problem controlling their drinking happens to share a common condition: Their brain chemistry has been altered by excessive alcohol consumption over time.
When someone occasionally drinks alcohol in moderation, the experience is generally relaxing and enjoyable. The changes these people undergo are temporary, and their brains will return to normal once the alcohol’s effects wear off. However, when we begin to drink alcohol on a consistent basis, especially in larger quantities, 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.”
The Vicious Cycle
When we become dependent on alcohol, whether physically or emotionally, the first noticeable difference is that we need more alcohol to achieve the same effect. It takes us longer to feel that “buzz” or the relaxed feeling we might seek. This is often referred to as an increase in tolerance.
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 certain parts of our brains function. This, then, then impacts how we feel. As we drink more and more alcohol to achieve that same effect, our brain chemistry is altered more and more.
Ultimately, it becomes harder and harder for our brain to function as it originally did before the excessive consumption altered it. We will actually feel as if we need alcohol to function normally. While the specifics can vary from person to person, the longer that we go without drinking, the more our brain craves 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 pains become. They’re almost impossible to ignore.
Alcohol and the Brain
A report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism said: “The positive reinforcing effects of alcohol generally are accepted as important motivating factors in alcohol-drinking behavior in the early stages of alcohol use and abuse.”
That is, alcohol can become a driving force behind our behaviors.
In the case of alcohol, many of us will experience alcohol-induced happiness or a reduction in our anxiety levels. These are known positive reinforcements and will increase our alcohol-seeking behavior because they teach our brains to associate alcohol with feeling good. The more our brains make this connection, the harder it is to control our drinking, and thus, cut back on alcohol.
Another reason why many of us have problems controlling our alcohol intake is due to the effect that dopamine has on the brain and body. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is commonly associated with happiness and pleasure levels. It’s known as the “feel good” hormone because of the temporary happiness boost it gives us. We see dopamine play out in other instances, such as when we get a bunch of “likes” on one of our Instagram photos, or if we smoke a cigarette.
There are studies that suggest dopamine plays a role in the incentive and motivation for alcohol use, as well. “Alcohol ingestion and even the anticipation that alcohol will be available produce dopamine release,” according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
Similarly, alcohol withdrawal produces decreases in dopamine functioning in people who are dependent on the substance. Because of this, decreased dopamine function may contribute to withdrawal symptoms, and/or may lead us to slipping due to the discomfort of the withdrawal experience.
So, How Do I Control My Drinking?
When setting out to control your drinking, there are a few big factors to keep in mind: preparation, communication, and awareness.
There are several steps you can take to make sure you stay a step ahead of issues that might arise. Here are a few important tips for controlling your drinking.
- Let your friends and family know. We should treat our goals to control our drinking 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. They can hold us accountable when we have a goal, let’s say, of sticking 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.
- Have a Prevention Plan in place. As with anything, prevention is key, as it can prevent problems from arising further down the line. When it comes to cutting back on alcohol, it’s important to have a “Prevention Plan,” which can help you take action when inevitable challenges arise (like cravings, triggers, or peer pressure).
Have go-to people you might reach out to when you need a distraction from a craving or when you need an excuse to leave a party early. Keep non-alcoholic beverages on hand (and bring them along to share at parties). Whatever you include in your Prevention Plan, make it as easy and realistic as possible to avoid slipping or giving into cravings.
- Understand your triggers. Often, when we’re triggered, this can push us to lose control of our drinking. What are triggers? These involve anything that provokes our emotions or our senses — sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste — in a way that elicits a desire to drink alcohol. For example, we might feel triggered when we smell pizza (because we may associate it with beer) or we might have an urge to drink when we’re angry.
When we understand these triggers — whether they’re emotional, connected to our sensory experiences, or both — we have greater power over them. Over time, we can instead turn to healthier behaviors — like taking a few deep breaths, finding a replacement beverage, or calling a friend — when triggers pop up.
- Practice assertive communication. Often, we lose control of how much we drink because we have trouble saying “no” when somebody offers us a drink. We may feel FOMO if we say “no,” but ultimately, we have to remember that we’re saying “yes” to a healthier mind and body. Plus, those who truly care about our well-being will respect our “no.”
Practice how you might say this “no.” It doesn’t have to come off as rude or standoffish. This “no” can look like, “No, thanks. I’m trying to control how much I drink so I can get healthier. But I’d love to have a mocktail with you!”
- 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 accessible for you through our in-app Drink Tracker. This tool can help you customize your drink limits and collect data on your progress over time.
The Dangers of Quitting Cold Turkey
Some might believe that quitting drinking can be easy and is the safe thing to do; however, if the problem is serious enough, quitting cold turkey without medical supervision can lead to a number of health complications.
The withdrawal period from alcohol can cause problems like seizures, hallucinations, anxiety, depression. In serious cases, withdrawal can even be fatal. Because of this, we recommend cutting back gradually — by about 10% per week — to avoid negative outcomes.
By being more mindful about how alcohol shows up in our lives, and by being more communicative with those around us, we can begin to have better control over how much we drink.
Let’s Take Back Control!
While breaking free from alcohol’s pull isn’t easy, you can take back control.
Reframe is here to meet you where you are at and help you begin your journey to cutting back on alcohol. Our app offers several features to help you control your drinking — like our Drink Tracker, Thrive Tips to help you navigate specific scenarios, and even a Cravings Timer.
Here at Reframe, we’re about science, not stigma. We want to help you take control of your drinking so that you can become the healthiest version of yourself. And whether you’re seeking to cut back on alcohol or quit entirely, we’re here to support you every step of the way. See you on the app!