Boozy to Butterfly

Is Overdrinking a Habit?

May 25, 2021 This Brain of Mine Episode 11
Boozy to Butterfly
Is Overdrinking a Habit?
Chapters
Boozy to Butterfly
Is Overdrinking a Habit?
May 25, 2021 Episode 11
This Brain of Mine

How do we get caught up in this overdrinking trap...is it just a habit or is it more? Well, listen to this week's podcast episode as Emily shares a few thoughts on this subject. She talks about if it can help people overcome overdrinking by talking about it as a habit versus addiction and does the word habit negate the seriousness of alcohol dependence? And regardless of habit, how do you stop overdrinking? She offers a few tips on how to overcome overdrinking.

Looking for more support on your stop overdrinking journey? Head over to https://thisbrainofmine.com/stopoverdrinking to sign up for my free 10-day training course. 

If you're ready for private coaching, email me at [email protected]

Show Notes Transcript

How do we get caught up in this overdrinking trap...is it just a habit or is it more? Well, listen to this week's podcast episode as Emily shares a few thoughts on this subject. She talks about if it can help people overcome overdrinking by talking about it as a habit versus addiction and does the word habit negate the seriousness of alcohol dependence? And regardless of habit, how do you stop overdrinking? She offers a few tips on how to overcome overdrinking.

Looking for more support on your stop overdrinking journey? Head over to https://thisbrainofmine.com/stopoverdrinking to sign up for my free 10-day training course. 

If you're ready for private coaching, email me at [email protected]

Episode 11: Is Overdrinking a Habit?

Hello everyone and welcome to episode 11. This week I’m going to discuss the question, Is Overdrinking a Habit? This is a hotly debated topic among people who’ve quit drinking and I think it’s a relevant topic as you start to evaluate why you’re overdrinking, why it’s so hard to stop overdrinking, and if the words and language you use as you begin to awaken will help your progress or hinder it. 

If you listened to my first podcast episode, you know I believe words matter, so I’m not for labels like addict, alcoholic, recovered, relapsed, etc. But I do believe you can become dependent on alcohol and learn to rely on it as part of your everyday life, even when the overdrinking is causing unwanted results in your life. So can it help people overcome overdrinking by talking about it as a habit versus addiction and does the word habit negate the seriousness of alcohol dependence? And regardless of habit, how do you stop overdrinking?

Those are three things I’m going to talk about today but before I do, let’s dive into what habit are, how they get formed, and what’s happening in the brain. There are a few definitions of a habit, of course, but a habit can be defined as a settled or regular tendency or practice, especially one that is hard to give up. It’s a repeated behavior that seems to occur automatically with strong ties to your subconsciousness. It’s behaviors occurring on auto-pilot and behaviors that can be desired or expected by the brain.

Habits start in your cognitive decision-making brain, what’s known as your pre-frontal cortex. You start doing something intentionally, whether it’s brushing your teeth, driving to work, or pouring a glass of wine. And the more often you repeat this activity, the easier it becomes to do that action. What’s happening here is your brain is learning from your actions. It’s keeping a record of your environment, the time of day, what happened before, what happened after, what steps you took, etc. Your brain wants to remember repeated behaviors for you in order to reduce the energy it needs the next time you take the same action. 

The brain’s job is to keep you alive and part of that is making your life more efficient by preserving energy. So it learns what you do most often for you so you don’t have to think about it. Now this is absolutely necessary for survival but it can work against humans, too. It causes us to live unconsciously and stop using our pre-frontal cortex. We learn to navigate life on autopilot taking direction and orders from our programmed brain. And that programmed brain gets so good at learning your behaviors, it will actually “warn” you when an anticipated action didn’t occur or when you’re doing something different than what it expects. You might feel uncomfortable, see episode 10, or anxiety, or even experience the feeling that you’re missing something.

The brain is really amazing. And not only does it learn your behaviors for you so you don’t have to start from square 1 each time you take the same action, but it uses chemical reactions to intensify the memory of behaviors it believes are life or death circumstances. You may have heard of dopamine. 

Any behavior that repeatedly stimulates the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward pathway can also form a habit. Many everyday activities stimulate dopamine release: exercise, sex, eating tasty food, social engagement, and drugs, including alcohol. When dopamine is released, you feel pleasure. Thus, the activity is rewarding and you want to do it again. And alcohol releases a high concentration of dopamine, so immediately the desire to drink again is strong. Your amazing brain quickly associates the behavioral pattern of drinking alcohol with the sense of pleasure.

So what ends up happening over time, and that timeline is different for everyone, is you feel a cost of not having that dopamine reward. The cost is that drink urge when you don’t pour the drink your brain expects. The cost is withdrawal, both physical and emotional, when you stop overdrinking. The cost is that craving to have wine with dinner because this was a repeated pattern for you and one with immense dopamine.

Cravings set up powerful physical sensations, emotions, and the brain begins to focus on alcohol. The brain has grown accustomed to the presence of alcohol in association with many other behaviors and patterns in your life. So what happens is not only are you craving alcohol but you start craving it more often in association with the other behaviors in which alcohol was present.

So if you drink wine with dinner, you may not crave wine all day until you start to make dinner or eat dinner then that cue strikes. If you drink wine as soon as you get home from work, your brain is going to prompt you to give it this reward. If you drink a cocktail when you sit down at night to watch your favorite shows or scroll through social media, your brain is going to expect that cocktail in association with those other habits and routines. If you drink every weekend, your brain is going to expect it and the sooner, the better. So you can see how there is a layering effect to your habits and routines and the highly concentrated dopamine reward with alcohol intensifies the brain’s desire for it because dopamine is a chemical tied to live or die. 

So, is overdrinking a habit? Yes, it is. And even if you believe overdrinking is an addiction, it’s still a habit. And knowing that it’s a habit makes it easier for people to talk about when they’re looking for help to understand why it’s so damn hard to quit drinking or cut back. As I said in the beginning of this episode, words matter. If I’m trying to navigate through all the confusion, feelings, and chatter in my mind that’s occurring when I try to quit drinking or even moderate, I’m looking for information, I’m looking for resources. 

And most of what you find is “you have an addiction, you’re an addict, you’re an alcoholic, try AA, go to rehab, you have addictive personality disorder, there’s something wrong with you, you have a disease.” None of that is helpful. If you’re looking to lose weight, you learn how to change your eating habits, that’s what dieting is. But when you’re looking to stop overdrinking, you’re faced with damaging, ineffectual content. You as a person get attacked, your character gets attacked, you immediately start to feel shame as if something is wrong with you when in fact, your brain is working exactly how it’s supposed to. Your habit-forming brain responding to concentrated dopamine and associated routines is doing its job 100%. 

So what happens when I read all of this negative news and these negative words about my overdrinking? I shut down. I try to figure it out on my own, silently. I don’t share my struggles. I don’t share my pain and now my pain is compounded not only by going this journey alone but because I’m now really wondering if there is something wrong with me. Am I different in a bad way? Will I ever have the power to overcome something that seems so powerful now? When I thought it was a habit it seemed like I could overcome it but now that I’ve read I might have a disease, how do I overcome this? Do I have to live with the labels alcoholic, addict, recovered, and relapsed forever now?

No, you don’t. No matter how hard it is to stop overdrinking, it’s still a habit, one you can change. I think it’s important to understand that rehab and addiction treatment centers are a trillion-dollar commercial industry with millions of advertising dollars available to control the narrative on this topic. I’m not stating there aren’t great facilities that really help people, but I’m stating I’ve read and seen the literature and for most, the strategy is fear and shame. 

Because if you feel powerless and scared then you can’t do it on your own and you need their resources. In addition, when you read the material, it makes you feel worse about yourself. What may have started as curiosity about why this habit seems so hard to break turns into a character assassination. You’re powerless to alcohol (which you’re not) but not because of the concentrated dopamine reward it triggers in your brain and not because of the conditioning and neural pathways that get created, but because you have a disease or a disorder. 

But does calling it a habit negate the seriousness of alcohol dependence? It can if you’re dismissive. If you’re reaching out for help and your peers say you’re overreacting and it’s just a habit, don’t worry about it, it absolutely diminishes the real difficulty you can face on this journey. Not to mention, they have skin in the game. If you’re overdrinking with them frequently, they have likely had similar thoughts but aren’t ready to stop the party. They’re not in that inquiry stage that you are yet and would like to keep things status quo. 

If your friends or loved ones are dismissive, think about their own motives. Think about their own perception of what addiction and alcoholism is and I assure you, they’re not educated on the subject and have the same negative outlook as you would expect. Their dismissal of the topic of how hard it can be to stop overdrinking is because they’re thinking very binary, you’re an alcoholic or you’re not. You’re an addict or you’re not and they know you’re not an addict because you don’t look like what they’ve see on TV. 

Alcohol dependence affects everyone at varying stages of their drinking…even a hangover is withdrawal and the painful process of your body ridding itself of this toxic drug, yet people go out and do it again. The more often you drink and the more regular or patterned you drink, the more your brain is going to desire it and crave it when you remove it, period.

If it’s been difficult to stop overdrinking or quit drinking, know that you can find the solution. It is a hard-wired habit and all habits can be changed. I know this first-hand and so do my students. We all know how hard habits are to break, especially now that we have these iPhones designed with algorithms to keep us on our phones. You know you have to consciously put your phone down. You know you might have to set a time limit to ensure you get off you phone and do something productive. 

If you’ve ever dieted, you know you have to consciously break eating habits. If you’re an over spender, you have to set a budget. Hell, if you have a detour on your way to work, you have to consciously remember to take that damn detour for a few days until your brain automatically remembers to do it. Maybe you have a habit of finishing people’s thoughts or correcting people. Or you habitually interrupt your spouse or undermine them. 

The first thing it takes to break any habit is awareness that it’s happening. You can’t change what you’re not aware of. Watch your patterns and behaviors and routines. Recognize when you’re drinking and how much. Is this the same time of day every day, is it just weekends, is it when you feel anxious or sad, is it celebratory or when you’re socializing? The more ways you couple alcohol with other activities in your life, the harder it is to change. Think of it as not only trying to change one habit, but having to change multiple habits at one time. 

And keep in mind, once it’s in your awareness, it becomes really frustrating because you want immediate change. You want to snap your fingers and be a different person with different habits and results. Again, I know I keep referring to dieting but they’re very similar, it’s like deciding you want to lose 15 pounds and the next day you want the 15 pounds gone, you don’t want to wait for this change, you definitely don’t want to do the work, and exercising sounds dreadful. So the awareness stage is a mucky place to be, mentally, so living consciously and using that pre-frontal cortex becomes important here.

And that’s really the second stage to breaking a habit is bringing it into your consciousness. So, remember a habit is a learned routine by your brain, it’s a learned behavior. It’s now living in your subconscious happening automatically without you having to think about it. In order to change the habit, you have to bring it into your conscious and use that amazing executive function your brain has, what I like to call the CEO brain, to keep it on track. 

You have to remind yourself of your goal, you have to find positive affirmations to repeat to counteract the negative thoughts that are going to accompany the removal of alcohol. You have to consciously find other hobbies and activities that stimulate your brain. You have to consciously remember that your brain is going to want to drink when you start dinner or put the kids to bed.

Prepare. Prepare for the brain activity that is going to occur. Expect it and don’t make a big deal about it. Ultimately if you have to sit with the desire or craving and breath through it, you’ll learn to break the habit. Each time you have a craving and don’t give it alcohol, your brain is re-learning that it doesn’t get alcohol. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs where once the food was removed when the bell was rung, they still drooled for a period of time expecting food. But after a while of not receiving the food when the bell was rung, the drool stopped. 

The brain is malleable and changes every minute of every day. Your brain changes when you see and learn new faces, when you talk to someone, when you read something, when you stop drinking, when you eat something new, your brain is learning and unlearning patterns all the time. And the great news is when you stop overdrinking, your brain repairs itself. Your cognitive function weakens when you overdrink but it doesn’t take long for that cognitive function to be restored when you stop overdrinking. Take this as motivation for change.

By knowing that overdrinking is a habit, it will help destigmatize the shame and self-blame preventing you from talking about your struggle with others and allow you to listen to helpful resources that may get you to where you want to go faster than if you do it on your own.