One of my friends hasnâ€™t had a drink in over a year. She stopped drinking because she realized that it clouded her thinking. She realized that she was using alcohol to relieve stress and escape from her thoughts and feelings. No one would call her an â€œalcoholic.â€ In fact, many of her friends donâ€™t understand why she quit.
But, without alcohol, sheâ€™s seen many positive changes. She has more clarity. She feels more motivated. She sleeps better. Sheâ€™s more present in her life.
We think of drinking in two ways: Either youâ€™re a normal drinker. Or youâ€™re an alcoholic. Either you have a serious problem. Or you donâ€™t. But drinking is way more nuanced and much more layered than that.
Maybe you drink a glass of wine every night to alleviate stress or numb the pain. Maybe you drink to temporarily forget your anxiety. Maybe you have a single drink before attending social events because it helps you feel more confident. It helps you to loosen up. Maybe drinking helps to brighten the dark edges of your life. For a few moments. Maybe youâ€™re worried that you look forward to drinking. Too much. Maybe you spend most Sunday mornings worrying about what you said or did the night before.
Whatever the specifics, maybe yourÂ drinking just doesnâ€™t feel right. Thatâ€™s how Rachel Hartâ€™s clients typically notice theyâ€™re using alcohol as a crutch. Hart is a life coach who works with women wanting to take a break from drinking.
The Allure of Alcohol
â€œAlcohol can become a crutch when you unconsciously teach your brain that it makes a specific situation easier or a part of your life more bearableâ€”usually because you donâ€™t yet have alternative means to cope,â€ Hart said.
She shared this example: A person comes home to an empty apartment. They feel lonely, which they donâ€™t like. They pour themselves a glass of wine. They get a buzz and forget how theyâ€™re feeling. Over time, this becomes a routine. Over time, this person teaches themselves that wine solves their loneliness. But, in reality, their loneliness remains.
Alcohol is a quick and easy way to erase our discomfort, Hart said. Instantly we erase the discomfort of stress, socializing, insecurity, boredom. But itâ€™s short lived, and we donâ€™t reach the root.
Hart calls alcohol a â€œproblem-staller.â€ â€œYour attention is temporarily diverted away from whatever discomfort youâ€™re feeling. But in the long-run alcohol does nothing to solve the underlying problem.â€
In her early 20s, Hart stopped drinking for a year. â€œI loved waking up clear-headed and not having to worry if I had done something embarrassing the night before.â€ But eventually she returned to drinking. Because sheâ€™d removed the only relief, the only coping mechanism, she had. And her underlying issues lingered.
For Hart these issues were intense social anxiety and a merciless inner critic. Whenever sheâ€™d be in an unfamiliar social situation, sheâ€™d keep having the same thought over and over: â€œI donâ€™t fit in here.â€ Sheâ€™d fixate on her supposed flawsâ€”like her appearanceâ€”and how other women had something she didnâ€™t. Her discomfort dictated her behavior. â€œEverything about me read, â€˜don’t talk me.â€™ And sure enough, I didn’t fit in. The only way I knew how to relieve this feeling was by having a drink.â€
She also believed that the solution resided in â€œfixingâ€ her physical appearance. She assumed that losing weight, dressing a certain way and making sure she looked â€œperfectâ€ would finally help her to fit in.
â€œI was convinced that if I could master how I looked on the outside, I would feel better on the inside.â€ But she didnâ€™t feel better. And the more uncomfortable she felt, the more alcohol she consumed.
Instead, what started helping Hart was thinking, “I’m sure there is someone else here who feels just as out of place as I do.”
â€œIt seems like such a small change. But it gave me a little bit of relief. It made me feel less alone. I could relax the tiniest bit. Breathe a little better. It was just enough space, to feel like I could get through the first 30 minutes of a partyâ€”which to me were always the worstâ€”without needing to drink.â€
According to Hart, if youâ€™d like to stop using alcohol as a crutch, the best thing you can do is to practice sitting with painful emotions. â€œThe more comfortable you are with your negative emotions, the less you will resort to covering them up.â€
Hart suggested starting by simply observing and describing how an emotion feels in your body.
â€œWhen I tell my clients this, they usually say, â€˜But I feel anxious, stressed out, insecure so much of the time, and now youâ€™re telling me I have to feel that way even more?!â€™â€ But usually they arenâ€™t actually sitting with their emotions. Instead, theyâ€™re dismissing, masking or resisting them.
However, the more you observe your emotionâ€”without judgment or interferenceâ€”the more you realize that you can handle it.
Specifically, focus on your distinct physical sensationsâ€”versus saying something like â€œI feel terrible.â€ Naturally, â€œif it feels terrible, we want to get rid of it as fast as possible by distracting ourselves or finding something that will mask it,â€ Hart said.
And the good news is that you already know how to identify your sensations. You do this any time you say anything like, â€œIâ€™m so nervous, I have butterflies in my stomach.â€
Every emotion feels different for every person, Hart said. â€œSadness for me feels like my body is constricting. My chest tightens making it difficult to take a full breath. I feel my throat closing up. My shoulders start to slump, my stomach pulls in, and I can feel my body wanting to curl up into a ball. If the feeling is particularly intense, I’ll notice almost a buzzing in my chest cavity.â€
For a long time, Hart evaded her sadness. If she felt like she was going to cry, she tried everything to stop it. But she realized that observing her sadness actually gave her authority over it, and she didnâ€™t need to run away.
â€œObserving your emotions gives you a new perspective. Every emotionâ€¦is just a set of physical manifestations in your body that you are totally capable of handling on your own.â€
Quitting drinking may or may not be right for you. The key is to explore your relationship with alcohol and to remember that there are many dots along the spectrum (not simply â€œnormal drinkerâ€ and â€œalcoholicâ€). The key is to explore how youâ€™re using alcohol in your lifeâ€”and whether itâ€™s time to find healthier ways to navigate underlying issues.