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Drinking to Relax: Examining the Scientific Facts

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Drinking to Relax
During Stressful Times

We can all understand how drinking became a more popular pastime during the Covid 2020 lockdown. New stories of massive alcohol sales growth were common and almost expected. We were all feeling the stress and anxiety of the virus in our lives. Working from home, family-time overload, entertainment breakdowns, cabin fever, and drinking with vigor were all part of the new real-life of 2020. And I’m the first to admit, that I leaned into the alcohol. I became a daily drinker, where just a year ago I would still have described myself as a non-drinker. Or at least a drinker on random occasions when I’m with friends.

I crave ice cream. I do not crave any kind of alcohol. Even still, I became a day-drinker by habit, by association, and by my own FOMO issues. When your partner is about to “get high” it’s hard to not join in. I didn’t want her to get buzzed and be left back here with my anxiety, stress, and low energy. I would say, “Sure!” when I was asked if I wanted a cocktail too. And this habit continued over the summer and the last months of 2020. We drank daily. Does that mean we’re alcoholics? Was I becoming that which I most feared, like my father, an alcoholic? The simple answer is NO, I was not becoming an alcoholic. Am I an icecream-aholic? Definitely.

The Lie of Alcohol

The media bombards us with alcohol=fun messages. A party is not a party without booze. Vacation? Sure, you’ve got to plan what alcohol you take with you to the beach, or to the mountains. Booze-centered entertainment is an essential part of American life, American youth, and American prosperity. If we’ve made it, we can afford good booze, good entertainment, and there’s no problem. Right? No problem… Well, wait a minute.

Alcohol is the only drug you have to explain why you’re not taking. People who drink really want those with them to join in on the drinking. “What will you have?” It was a mantra during my parents’ era, it’s alive and well here in the roaring ’20s. Can you imagine an upcoming Super Bowl Party this year without booze? Only if it’s a sober living SB party. Otherwise, people drink and are expected to drink. It’s an addition or a party drug most of the world endorses. AND, it’s not really all that good for you.

Let’s look at a bit of the science of alcohol and our desire to relax and reduce our anxiety.

Alcohol & Anxiety

Alcohol has a biphasic effect (2-phase) on our bodies and brains. Phase 1, as the booze enters our bloodstream we get a warm fuzzy feeling, we can feel our tension get blurry and fade away, and we become somewhat happier or euphoric. The euphoria doesn’t last very long. And to keep the buzz on we have to drink more alcohol. Phase 2 is the depressant side of alcohol. It slows everything down. Our respiration slows. Our breathing slows. And for some of us, it makes us a bit sleepy.

So we imagine that alcohol is a good way to relax before bed. It seems to make us sleepy. (That’s my biggest complaint of alcohol in general when I have my first drink I do feel the buzz, but I often feel exhaustion right along with it.) Alcohol is not a good sleep med. It messes with our REM sleep. It can keep us from experiencing the deeper states of sleep we really need. And, occasionally, we have the 3 am wakeup moment, after drinking, which can be a bit puzzling until you learn what is happening. According to a Psychology Today article, the “wakeup moment” is what happens when the depressant effect wears off and our physical bodies jolt awake as if trying to rouse us from the restless alcohol-inhibited sleep.

What this restless and inefficient sleep does to our bodies is easily documented. When we don’t get enough sleep or enough deep sleep, our bodies become stressed. We’re agitated. We’re impatient. We’re easily pissed off. (SEE: Porcupine Mode) And the buzz we thought was giving us relief is now actually causing us stress.

A New Understanding of Alcohol

Until this recent period with alcohol, I didn’t really understand the pull of “drinkers” to drink. For me, it was fun, but only if I didn’t have some creative or social function I was interested in working on. Alcohol often dulls my creative output and makes me more susceptible to wanting a nap as an escape from the uncomfortable artistic struggle when things don’t come easily. So, when I wrote the book The Third Glass a few years ago, I did not have a complete picture. I had never considered myself a drinker before nine months ago. Today, I understand the drinking urge much better.

While I’m not an alcoholic, I did enjoy the unplugging of the day at around 4, each day, weekday, weekend, holiday, whatever. We drank. We drank every day. It wasn’t a thing, it was just a habit. And there was some fun to it for me. I was fascinated each time I had to go back to the liquor store for more tequila. “Wow, I’ve never bought two large bottles of any alcohol at once visit, ever,” I would say to my partner. I was laughing. I was not concerned. I knew that tequila was not like ice cream for me. I was lucky. I was not tilting towards alcohol dependence.

Updating The Third Glass

If alcohol is having a detrimental effect on your life or your relationship, it is time to look at how the cunning and baffling drug is impacting your life. My partner and a few family members have been running a #dryuary (no drinking in January) program between us, and I have to say, I feel cleaner, more alert, and more healthy than I did while we were downing 3 – 4 drinks a day. And I don’t crave the first drink on February 1. But I do want the drink.

It’s like ice cream for me. I moderate my desire by not buying ice cream. If it’s not in the house, there is no chance of me eating it. Same with alcohol, if it wasn’t around I wasn’t inclined to drink. But alcohol is always around, isn’t it? It’s important for you to understand your relationship with alcohol. And almost as important for you to understand your partner’s relationship with alcohol.

Alcohol is a bitch. It feels good. It feels relaxing. The physiological effects are not all good. I’m in the process of writing a 2nd edition of The Third Glass, to include a few more chapters on MY NEW DRINKING AWARENESS.

If you want to talk about drinking, relationships, or parenting, I’d be happy to have a free 30-minute zoom call with you.

Resource article: Does Alcohol Really Help Your Anxiety – Psychology Today

Always Love,

John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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