Life is hard enough, right? We need something to cope. Why shouldn’t we have a temporary escape from the stresses of life? We know how serious alcohol abuse can become, but most casual drinkers feel that it isn’t really harming them.
The truth is that consistent use of alcohol, even at surprisingly low levels, can pave the way for serious health problems.
There are many reasons why alcohol sales total more than $200 billion every year in the United States alone. It’s highly addictive for one. According to the “Alcohol-Related Disease Impact” (ARDI) report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an average of 140,557 people lost their lives per year in the U.S. alone from 2015 to 2019 due to the chronic and acute effects of alcohol abuse. The effects of sustained alcohol abuse over time can include liver disease, digestive problems, heart problems, increased risk of cancer, and more.
And then there’s the collateral damage it can cause to families and communities.
Despite the ever-present epidemic of alcohol-related disease, most people assume that they don’t have a problem even if they drink relatively often. Many of us have learned lessons the hard way (myself included). When does our drinking become a problem for our health? More importantly, how do we honestly admit it and change our habitual behavior?
The answer isn’t one-size-fits-all and it doesn’t have to involve quitting altogether. It may simply be about shifting our relationship to alcohol while avoiding using it for the wrong reasons. The road less traveled requires we choose to face our emotions and behaviors with honesty and awareness. This life-changing, personal commitment involves prioritizing our internal well-being, rather than seeking external relief from a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer.
What Qualifies as Alcohol Use Disorder?
We’ve all heard it before, “the first step is admitting you have a problem.” The tricky part is knowing what qualifies as a “problem.” Drinking can be so deeply woven into our social circle that we don’t know what a drinking problem looks like. We believe our drinking isn’t a problem if we’re functioning adults, even if we’re drinking several times a week and regularly battling hangovers. We may think differently, however, if we could see the toll alcohol is taking on our bodies and the insidious dependency it may be creating.
The Mayo Clinic defines an alcohol use disorder as “a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.”
“Binge drinking” is defined as having five or more drinks for a male, or four drinks for a female, within two hours; many people fall into this category without even realizing it. People often confuse binge drinking with “high-intensity drinking,” which is what you might see at a college fraternity. High-intensity drinking is often defined as drinking at double the rate of binge drinking, so around 10 drinks within two hours for a male, or eight for a female. Someone who buys a six-pack of beer and drinks it within the two hours of a sports event is technically binge drinking.
It might surprise people to learn that when a man has more than 14 drinks in a week, it is considered “heavy drinking” by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Also by this standard, heavy drinking is more than seven drinks per week for a woman. Most of us know people who would be considered “heavy drinkers” at these levels. Before you shrug off this standard, consider that the body can begin seeing negative effects at even lower levels of alcohol intake.
According to the NIAAA, a standard drink is one of the following:
- 12 ounces of regular beer (5 percent alcohol)
- 8 to 9 ounces of malt liquor (7 percent alcohol)
- 5 ounces of unfortified wine (12 percent alcohol)
- 1.5 ounces of 80-proof hard liquor (around 40 percent alcohol)
According to the Cleveland Clinic, about 90 percent of people who drink 1.5 to 2 ounces of alcohol per day, about two medium glasses of 12 percent wine, or less than two pints of regular strength beer, will develop fatty liver, the early stage of alcoholic liver disease.
“If you drink that much or more on most days of the week, you probably have fatty liver. Continued alcohol use leads to liver fibrosis, and finally, cirrhosis. The good news? Fatty liver is usually completely reversible in about four to six weeks if you completely abstain from drinking alcohol,” the Clinic writes.
While fasting from alcohol use for several weeks may not work for everyone, drinking fewer days each week is a necessary start. Our bodies need a break. There should be two or more consecutive days every week that we aren’t drinking at all. If that seems too difficult, you are likely living with an alcohol use disorder. It’s not necessary to brand yourself with a label, just recognize the problem and start taking steps to resolve it.
Thinking and Drinking
Self-destructive behaviors spring from self-destructive thoughts. Many of us struggle with persistent negative thoughts that have become ingrained. These can be negative beliefs about ourselves or grievances we have carried with us for years. Often the first step to controlling our drinking is learning to watch our thoughts and stop listening to them.
Observe your thoughts, detach from them, and replace them with constructive thoughts that serve you such as “I am a work in progress. I am consciously shifting my life and making positive changes every day.”
If you want to work on improving yourself, and your relationship with alcohol, be your own biggest supporter instead of your worst enemy. The last thing we need is to beat ourselves up. That only adds more stress and a defeated mentality, which isn’t a good foundation for change.
And beware of black and white thinking about alcohol. Sobriety doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing approach, though it can be for some people. It’s also important to be realistic about our goals and have patience while we implement new strategies for dealing with stress rather than trying to drink our problems away.
Tools for Coping With Stress Without Drinking
I’m not a doctor or an addiction specialist, but I am someone who has struggled with drinking in the past, and I am related to other people who have struggled with drinking. Because of a serious desire to be healthier and more free, I have walked the talk of redefining my relationship to alcohol.
While before, I was drinking every night just to get through life, now, I successfully limit my alcohol use to a moderate amount mainly on special occasions. Many times a year, I take multiple month fasts from alcohol use. It’s not always easy, but it is possible.
My past drinking tendencies fell into the “heavy drinking” and “binge drinking” categories for many years of my life. While I knew it wasn’t great, I also wasn’t as consciously concerned as I could have been about the toll it was taking on my mental and physical health. Eventually, the dependency grew to the point that I was beginning to feel trapped; I was drinking without enjoyment out of addiction. That’s when I had to get honest with myself or face the consequences.
Stopping habitual drinking is hard, but the consequences of not doing so can be devastating.
When you look at the patterns of your drinking behavior, what do you recognize? Do you drink as a way to navigate from one stressful day to another? Are you drinking to escape how you feel? There may not be easy or clear answers to these questions but at some level, you are likely aware if your drinking is a problem. Loved ones may have said something, or you may routinely regret your drinking.
If you think your drinking is a problem, there are tools you can use to end the dangerous and vicious cycle of alcohol dependency.
Creating Space Between Thought and Action
One such tool is simply to wait before drinking. Breaking through habitual thoughts and behaviors is an important shift. This starts with creating space between a thought or impulse and an action. Instead of immediately reaching for a drink, can you wait a few minutes and reflect on your internal state of being? What is urging you to drink? Is it a feeling of discomfort? Is it a yearning for release? Most of us never really learned to just pause and feel. It is powerful and it works. We just need to open ourselves to exploring it.
Try simply sitting with the discomfort, tension, or desire you are feeling. Just feel the feeling without believing the thought stream that the feeling is triggering. It may be difficult at first, but stay with it. Try focusing on the feeling itself and not your thoughts.
You are not your thoughts. You aren’t your feelings either. Your automatic, ingrained thoughts may oppose you, but cultivating a deeper level of self-awareness will make it possible to sit and watch your thoughts and feelings. This practice takes us off auto-pilot and introduces a new level of self-observation.
Little by little, we can begin to stop unconscious action in its tracks. The behavior then continues on a more conscious level. We can then act with the intention of delaying and limiting our desire for immediate fulfillment. Success isn’t dependent on not drinking at all, but instead on beginning to engage with your mental/emotional state without immediately resorting to alcohol. As a result, you may be surprised to find that you have a new meditation practice, and a more meaningful relationship with yourself.
Set Goals and Create Boundaries
You can set goals to limit drinking in advance. Instead of drinking routinely, look forward to special occasions for drinking and use them as a reason to drink less in the meantime. Drinking every day can quickly become depressing and disappointing.
If friends or coworkers regularly invite you out for a drink, you may have to say “no” for a while, unless it is one of those special occasions.
When you’re walking through the grocery store, it may be best to avoid the alcohol aisle on most visits. Casually having a look easily leads to casually putting something in your cart. It’s best to avoid temptation while breaking a pattern of dependency.
Physically Releasing Stress Through Exercise
Exercise is a powerful tool to release pent-up tension and stress. Beginning, or prioritizing, a simple exercise routine—such as going for a jog or walk multiple times a week—can help us to fill the void of alcohol. Working out releases endorphins and breaking a sweat helps the body excrete toxins from our system. This is a powerful recipe for entering a different mind/body state. People rarely regret working out, but they often regret drinking alcohol. Building self-respect is a big part of creating a shift in your drinking.
Treating the Body Like a Temple
Nutrition and digestion tend to improve when we drink less alcohol. When we decide to take our health seriously, we also want to think about what we’re eating. Food and mood are deeply connected and eating can trigger an emotional rollercoaster that can sabotage our efforts to reduce drinking.
Foods high in sugar and fat can stimulate a dopamine surge that gives us a quick emotional high, followed by a lower emotional low. Eating healthy food regularly creates a stable base that will make it easier to manage the ups and downs of daily life.
More significantly, if you are eating poorly, you are leaving your body in a state of chronic, low-grade malnutrition. As a result, your body is sending you signals that it’s in need of nutrients. This can take the form of a stress response that will leave you feeling unsettled and can also trigger your urge to drink.
Healthy decisions also tend to be compounding. When you eat well, you will feel better about yourself and your ability to make decisions that are in line with your rational self-interest. It’s about shifting to a virtuous cycle rather than a vicious one.
Confused about what to eat? The recipe for adequate nutrition is fairly simple. Eat more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains, and less processed foods and excess sugar. Meat-eaters may want to buy meat that is grass-raised and grass-finished whenever possible. Seeking out a local farm or farmer’s market can go a long way toward ensuring that your food is fresh and grown as organically as possible.
Looking for an alcohol replacement? Kombucha is a delicious, probiotic drink with a kick. Probiotics such as kombucha can be good for gut health while giving you something with more spice than water or juice.
Remember You Are Gaining, Not Losing
Health and well-being require an integrative approach. It’s a mind and body process that extends from our internal self to the world we create through our daily choices. This process is about creating beneficial behaviors. Ask yourself, “what could I be doing to improve myself and my health?”
Don’t add to your stress by setting unreasonable expectations. Start small and improve gradually. Try one or two things this week. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. You and a friend can offer each other support or you can find a program in your area to help hold you accountable. Be patient and supportive of yourself.
You aren’t just losing alcohol. Remember to focus on the positives you will gain, rather than what you are giving up. Controlling your drinking can lead to better finances, improved sleep, improved health, weight loss, improved mental health, more time, increased immunity, more clarity, and reduced risk of disease. It can also lead to a long-term pattern of making better decisions and a better ability to navigate the inevitable challenges of life.
If you are concerned that your problem requires more serious attention, seek help from an addiction treatment program. Help is available and the serious consequences of prolonged alcohol abuse are avoidable. It’s not too late to work on your health, lifestyle, and mindset.
A part of wisdom is realizing that we can’t seek externally for fulfillment. Lasting peace is only found by seeking within. Taking control of our drinking is an important step on the path to self-mastery.
Jeff Perkin is an integrative nutrition health coach available at WholySelf.com