Episode 7: Self-Medicating With Alcohol
In today’s episode I’m going to talk about self-medicating with alcohol; some common reasons why we do it and I’ll share an interesting tool as an alternative to using alcohol to regulate your emotions. It may or may not surprise you to learn that alcohol censors your emotions. It mutes your feelings and whether or not you’re aware that you’re choosing to overdrink for this reason, your ability to connect with your emotions is being sabotaged by alcohol.
When I was overdrinking, I never really thought about the fact that one of the reasons I was so fond of it was the medicating or sedative properties. I mean, I’m aware it acted like a sedative if I really drank too much; but I wasn’t really aware I was relying on alcohol to be a censor of my emotions, even in small doses.
You see, you don’t have to have depression, anxiety, or any diagnosable condition to self-medicate. And in fact, overdrinking conceals your natural state or true behavior enough that a real diagnosable condition would be hard to confirm.
You might just be self-medicating as a response to the pressures of everyday life. Alcohol suppresses brain systems that produce negative emotions. And negative emotions include stress, disappointment, anger, anxiety, worry, sadness, shame, or anything that feels like an unpleasant disturbance. Emotions and feelings are just vibrations in the body…they are the expression of what we’re thinking, and overdrinking interrupts this mind-body connection.
And overtime, like with anything else, once you’re out of practice with using your mind and body as your go-to source to process emotions and unpleasantness, you become very disconnected and pretty bad at this skill. And that’s if you were ever taught how to deal with your emotions and discomfort in the first place.
We’re not really taught, at least in Western culture, how to deal with our emotions or how to self-sooth. Little Angela cries and we give her a sucker. Little Johnny whines and complains, we give in to his desire. It’s not until recently that emotional intelligence and emotional self-awareness have become widely discussed topics for children. So those of you born prior to the millennial generation may not have received this type of education.
We grew up in a generation that was “you’re fine,” “stop complaining,” “children should be seen, not heard.” We were taught that crying was a bad thing and sadness should be washed away with replacement thoughts or sweets. There was never a lesson that negative emotions are okay to have, feel, reside in, process, and let go. But alcohol does a great job at this, at least in the beginning. It will relax you and help you temporarily sweep negative emotions under the rug. It takes about 10 minutes for alcohol to hit the bloodstream and then your first dose of medicine can be felt. And if you’re an overdrinker, you know this leads to more than just one sip or drink. And the more you drink, the less cognition you have, the more you do and say things you otherwise would not, which in turn creates more negatives in your life not to mention the toll on your mental and physical health.
I know dealing with emotions sounds like an awful experience but by avoiding them and drinking them away you’re perpetuating your negative experiences. You think you’re avoiding them but you’re actually piling on. It’s like a balloon that keeps growing until it pops.
But I’ll share a secret here, dealing with negative emotions and the stressors of daily life does not make your life any less pleasant…it doesn’t rob you of joy or steal your happiness. Alcohol does this…alcohol dulls the bad but also dulls the good. What’s so amazing is that by accepting any emotion into your life, you become fearless. You realize the worst thing that can ever happen to you is a feeling, an emotion, and when you re-build or build those innate abilities to self-regulate and self-sooth, you become free. You feel set free from the worry, anxiety, and stress causing you to self-medicate.
Alcohol does not make your life any better, drinking to self-medicate is not sustainable, and it’s not actually fixing the burden you’re facing. And the more you rely on alcohol to suppress your displeasure, the more you feel raw and naked without it.
Think of alcohol like a supplement and as you’re using this supplement to self-medicate, your mind and body’s innate ability to self-sooth goes dormant. Your brain is always looking for ways to conserve energy and as you repeatedly introduce this external resource as a tool, your brain’s muscles related to emotional regulation weaken. And it becomes harder and harder to feel. It becomes harder and harder to be uncomfortable. Your brain is used to the immediate gratification of alcohol and the instantaneous response it provides to unpleasant emotions and therefore, triggers a cue of a drink urge your way to remind you that drinking is how you deal with stress.
Your suffering and stress comes from your unwillingness to feel anything other than happiness. You’re constantly chasing “happy” which is not possible. We live in this nearly 8 billion count community of human beings who are complex and at varying stages of emotional intelligence. We have our biological, primitive desires and our cognitive goals. Some people are driven purely by ego and others are driven by passion. You will never live in a world you can control. You will never be able to control your circumstances.
People can say to you whatever they want. People can treat you however they want. And you will continue to suffer if you have an emotional reaction to everything that is said to you. True power is sitting back and observing everything with logic which cannot be done when drinking. True power is restraint which cannot be done when drinking. If you allow simple words to control you then everything can control you. You will feel very out of control and unsafe in this universe.
But when you learn to self-regulate your emotions and feeling, you learn how to control you. You get to decide, with your CEO brain how you want to behave, how you want to react, if at all, and how you want to represent yourself. You get to decide if you’re going to stick around that job, that relationship, that family event or move on. There’s no stress if you learn to accept your surroundings and circumstances as chosen for you or act by removing yourself or creating a plan for change.
Overdrinking leads to complacency. You THINK it’s allowing you to tolerate your life, but it’s not. Your discontent will work its way to the surface and filter out in other ways whether it’s anger, physical pain, isolation, or self-loathing. Buried emotional pain creates physical pain. Suppressed anger creates many physical ailments especially back pain, sciatica, migraines, and frozen shoulder. There’re two great books on this subject, Healing Back Pain by Dr. John Sarno and Your Body Keeps Score by Dr. Janina Fisher. Healing Back Pain helped me overcome very painful sciatica that doctors, chiropractors, stretching, and yoga could not heal.
Now as I stated earlier, feelings and emotions are vibrations in the body…they are energy. Our whole body is a powerful mix of chemicals and energy. Those emotions cannot be suppressed, with or without alcohol, and not get expressed elsewhere. Self-medicating does not come without side effects and other unwanted results.
The goal is to learn to regulate your emotions, not suppress them. Regulating your emotions allows you to recognize them, see them, even feel them, but to not necessarily act upon them. It allows you to create space between the emotion and your reaction to it. This will give you freedom. This gives you the opportunity to think. You have this wonderful, amazing cognitive brain that allows you to use logic and reason. Alcohol turns cognition off.
Overdrinking creates responses like an emotional child without a fully developed cognitive brain. Overdrinking creates overreactions and added stress. So the self-medicating you’re doing with booze is fleeting…it’s only occurring in the first few sips until your cognition weakens and you start creating more stress with your irrational thoughts, behaviors, and actions.
And as I shared, emotional regulation is a skill you can learn. It’s like a muscle in the brain. And it includes dealing with stressful situations, the stressors of life, and negative emotions. It starts with awareness and I recommend any book by Eckhart Tolle but I recently learned of a tool they’re teaching in some grade schools that I think could be very useful for those of us that were never taught how to regulate our emotions or for those of us who chose to self-medicate with alcohol instead.
Yes, I said it’s taught in grade schools but let me share this tool before you turn me off. 😊 It’s like a traffic light, with red, yellow, and green. Red means stop (how clever), it means stop and calm down. Yellow, like caution, means think and reflect on the issue and how you’re feeling. Green, is act…once you’ve calmed down and had time to think, you can take action with logic and reason. Simple, right? Well, this simple tool helps you regulate emotions because something really interesting happens in your brain when you’re at a level red, it’s called the Amygdala Hijack. And level red doesn’t have to be rage or an instantaneous reaction to a circumstance. It can even be ongoing elevated stress levels…anything that’s triggering your Sympathetic Nervous System.
What happens when you overdrink is similar to what happens when you’re in a heightened state of emotion…your cognitive ability gets shut off and you act like a primate…you know that fight, flight, or freeze. You feel very unsafe and learning is extremely difficult. You are only using about 50% of your IQ. And the way to counteract your fight, flight, or freeze is to trigger your Parasympathetic Nervous System. This restores your cognitive thinking and allows you to make a rational decision and witness your range of emotions.
So the traffic light tool is really just a matter of stopping you from taking action in a heightened state of emotion. Red, stop and calm down. And deep breathing triggers that Parasympathetic Nervous System and as you breath, take a moment to think. Think about what is happening as you’re stuck at the red light. Dr. Dan Siegel has a system called “Name It to Tame It.” Science has proven that being able to identify and name emotions actually decreases the intensity of negative emotions, helping you calm down quicker and return to a better state of mind. I highly recommend identifying your emotions, especially if you’re used to self-medicating with alcohol. You’re likely very unfamiliar with your feelings as you’ve been drowning them out. So building awareness and naming them will help you reconnect your mind and body.
This will transition you into a calmer state of mind, yellow, and if it takes a long time to get there, that’s okay but once you’re in more cognitive control, find the root feeling, are you angry, are you sad, are you hurt, are you jealous? Then reflect on each action you can take and the associated possible outcome. Every move you make or word you speak will have a result. So you learn that you can effect the outcome of every circumstance. You can continue to escalate a situation or your actions can diffuse a situation. Find the solution that offers the most benefits.
And this leads to green, go or act. Now you can speak or take action based on the solution you believe produces the best result for those involved. And then I would say to reflect again after you’ve chosen a more desirable path as proof that you do have more control than you think over your world.
When I work with my coaching clients, I don’t teach the traffic light scenario, I teach something catering to adults with a little more complexity; however, for this short podcast, I thought I would share this tool because it’s very visual and memorable. And I have to give credit to the Armchair Expert podcast with guest Daniel Goleman for introducing me to this tool. Often times the simplest explanation is the best explanation.
The world resides in your mind and if you can create a calmer space in your mind, you will live in a calmer world. As this muscle and skill strengthens, you will notice you’re in red for shorter and shorter periods of time. Then, you’ll notice you’re in yellow for shorter and shorter periods of time.
What once used to anger you for a week, now might only anger you for a few hours, and then it might only anger you for a one hour and so on.
Again, this isn’t to say you can control the universe and no bad things will happen…this is to say your perception and actions can change leading to a result with which you can sleep at night…a result that doesn’t balloon or escalate into marital issues, parenting struggles, drama at work…you can’t prevent other humans from being human but you can take actions that you’re proud of…actions that are examples to others of compassion, empathy, grace, and kindness.
Giving yourself space and time to process your emotions helps you live on purpose. It helps you learn that there is more than one way to react and there is more than one way to feel resolved and calm. Alcohol, as a medication, does not properly heal your wounds; it doesn’t relieve your stress; and it does not allow you to build the skillset needed to create a peaceful mind. I always say overdrinking is a symptom of a wound or wounds and not the real problem and not the real solution.
The more emotional baggage you’re carrying that’s unresolved, the angrier you will become. You will feel like a victim in this world subjected to all the wrongs carried out by others. You will feel like you have a short fuse, little patience, and very little understanding when other people act like humans. But as you build the skill of #1 allowing yourself to feel your emotions and #2 examining your emotions, you’ll start to feel less like the subject of everyone else’s nastiness and more like a person who can see the other person’s perspective.
Maybe you would never behave like someone treated you or someone you love; however, if you learn to regulate your emotions you can at least have an understanding, not approval of a behavior, not condoning behavior, but an understanding that maybe this other person has their own demons to work through, just like you. Maybe they were operating at the red light with their fear-based brain and not operating from the green light.
If you live or act from a red-light state of mind, you should really be able to understand when others do the same. If you’ve seen yourself over-react or make a poor choice when drinking or just feeling stressed, you know how easy it is to do. This should be your signal that the other person in this story is operating in fear and to further negotiate or school them on your point-of-view will not be heard.
Self-medicating with alcohol is a fool’s errand. It’s not sustainable and it’s creating more negative outcomes. It’s not difficult and it’s not painful to start the process of regulating your emotions…all emotions in order to lose the overreliance on alcohol. Use the traffic light tool as a reminder when you start to feel full of emotion and stress and just want to wash it away. Give yourself some time to breath and be alone and evaluate how you feel and name it to tame it.
The more you build space between your feelings and grabbing that drink, the less self-medicating you’ll need over time. And your increased presence and awareness will provide true gratification. It allows you to see your kids from a new perspective, to see your spouse or partner from a place of understanding and compassion, to see your job for what it really is…and if you don’t like, you can change it or accept it as providing something of value to you whether it’s a lesson or a means to an end.
They don’t trust themselves as if they’re powerless over their behavior so they try to control their exposure to the world. To accept that you’re a damaged human does create an inner disturbance. And you build a protective bubble around you to protect that inner disturbance. Michael Singer writes in his book The Untethered Soul about walking around with a thorn on your arm directly connected to a nerve. Let me read an excerpt here, Chapter 9, page 81 of the book.
This label becomes an inner disturbance and a thorn. As you accept that life is hard and develop a willingness to deal with it awake, aware, and present you actually start to fully live. You live a free, open life with the vulnerability to feel what’s real. You lose the fear to live.
I believe we’re humans trying to navigate the human condition. This is why I coach women to build their innate skills and wake up to the pre-programming established by our culture.
The important thing to remember is that your personality doesn’t determine your fate. You have everything you need to live a full life filled with joy and freedom. The first step is awareness of a pattern of behavior you want to change. Just by asking yourself whether you have an addictive personality, you’re on the right track but don’t believe the fiction.