Episode 8: Why It’s So Hard to Quit Drinking
In today’s episode I’m going to share the top 3 reasons why I believe it’s so hard to quit drinking…for good. Now, I don’t just coach on sobriety or abstinence, I’m not completely abstinent myself, I do take a few sips of alcohol a year, but for this episode I am going to talk about quitting drinking permanently.
For those of you seeking moderation or controlled social drinking, I would listen in though because your struggle to moderate comes from the 3 reasons I’m going to talk about today. You know, as long as you’re longing for alcohol, your road to moderation is going to be paved with struggle. In fact, I say the best way to learn moderation is to start with a dry period…the longer, the better. So listen along as I share my top 3 reasons why it’s so hard to quit drinking sustainably.
Now, when I say it’s hard to quit drinking, the word withdrawal probably comes to mind. And, you’re likely thinking physical withdrawal. But there are actually two types of withdrawal I’m going to talk about today and the one you’re thinking, the physical withdrawal, is not the type that makes it so hard to quit drinking for good. And before some of you get upset by this statement, let me explain why I say that.
I’m not discounting that physical withdrawal exists and I’m not discounting it can be painfully awful but what I’m saying is that it’s not the reason why you keep going back to alcohol. Once you get over the physical withdrawal, it’s done. I think the most common physical symptoms are headaches, night sweats, crazy dreams, nausea, some shakiness but I do believe the less you pay attention to your symptoms, the less severe they can be. In my Sober Candor community private group on Facebook, many of the ladies suggest taking an amino acid complex supplement to reduce physical symptoms.
The physical withdrawal is the reduction or elimination of the concentrated dopamine kick you’re getting to your system from alcohol. Eliminating sugar or soda, diet and regular, and other concentrated dopamine sources will cause physical withdrawal. I mean the most common when eliminating sugar and soda is awful headaches.
Human beings were not designed to handle these high concentrations of dopamine. We evolved over thousands of years to be able to handle ethyl alcohol so that we could have greater odds for survival when we transitioned from tree to land animals. This allowed us to eat semi-rotting fruit that had fallen from trees and travel further and migrate. But rotting fruit only has a tiny amount of alcohol compared to the alcohol we drink. So this high concentration of alcohol and dopamine does a number on our bodies. But your body does eventually adjust once that source is removed.
And when your body adjusts to life without alcohol, what you’re actually left with is the emotional withdrawal. Your brain hasn’t adjusted. If you’ve experienced an awful episode of physical withdrawal, on paper, that should be enough to keep you from ever going back to drinking again, but you do go back. Think about a hangover, think about your worst hangover. It hasn’t stopped you from going back to alcohol. Why? Because of the emotional withdrawal you experience long after the physical withdrawal goes away.
So what do I mean by the term emotional withdrawal? Well number one, it’s the emotional toll you experience when you remove a habitual resource from your routine. It’s the emotional turmoil you feel due to inactivity from a programmed neural pathway and this is reason # 1 for why it’s so hard to quit drinking for good.
What is a neural pathway? Well, when you have a habit that you repeat over and over it goes from the frontal lobe, the cognitive brain, to the back of the brain, the primitive, cave woman center. Any time you do something for the first time, it’s difficult because you’re using your cognition and concentration to figure it out. But once you repeat it enough, your brain learns it and creates a memory of how to do it, builds a program and association, a neural pathway, and then stores it in the non-cognitive part of the brain. So the next time you go to do this task, the energy in your brain gets preserved as your primitive brain carries out the task. It completes the neural pathway and program.
Think about learning to type…when you first learned to type on a keyboard it wasn’t easy. You had to learn where the letters were and use your fingers to write in a new way…all ten fingers. You had to find the right cadence so you weren’t typing the letters in the wrong order…something I still do quite frequently. But you were very slow at first and then the more you practiced, the better you became. Now when you type, you barely use any brain power because this keyboard is stored in your primitive brain. You don’t have to think about it much any longer. But imagine if they changed the letters on the standard keyboard. Imagine if your phone keyboard had the letters in different places. It would take you forever to type a text message.
This is the same with drinking. Your brain expects alcohol in response to all the associations you’ve created over the years. So when you decide to drink in response to certain triggers, events, emotions, the brain has learned this and it will feel naked, sometimes like you’re literally in public naked, when you don’t follow through with giving it the alcohol it expects.
So what does the brain do in response to an incomplete neural pathway? It throws a fit. It acts like an emotional child and shoots cravings, drink urges, and desire your way. A drink urge is simply a cue from your programmed brain to complete a programmed neural pathway. This cue is the feeling of desire and deprivation…it’s your brain informing you that something bad is going to happen if you don’t complete the cycle of drinking. Now, you’re not going to die but your primitive brain is worried that you will.
It thinks it’s doing you a favor by reminding you that you’re missing something. So as this neural pathway flares up and gets triggered and receives no response, it gets irritated and starts warning you that you need this thing to survive, but as you know, you really don’t. So you feel the desire to drink, you feel that drink urge and you make this mean you’re an alcoholic. You get anxiety which compounds the drink urge perpetuating the overdrinking cycle and reinforcing your belief that you have a drinking problem. But it’s just the brain thinking it’s helping keep you alive. Your brain is functioning completely normal.
And the problem here is not the feeling of desire or the drink urge, the problem is your unwillingness to feel desire and not respond to it. This is the trap. First, you make it mean there’s something wrong with you because you have the strong desire to drink even though cognitively you want to quit and then once you move past that, you don’t want to feel uncomfortable. You don’t want to feel the discomfort it takes as this neural pathway diminishes and loses its power.
So you give in and give it what it wants after you fight it with resistance and willpower for a while. The problem with willpower is it’s finite. It uses a lot of energy and consumes a lot of brain power so by the end of the day when your brain and you are tired, your willpower is gone.
So the sustainable path to quit drinking is to learn to accept the discomfort. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Let the feeling and energy flow through you like the tide. Let it rise and fall without resistance and willpower. What you’ll find when you don’t resist it, is that the desire is not there as long. It will dissipate quicker.
It’s not going to always be uncomfortable when you quit drinking…eventually it gets easy when that neural pathway weakens. But by accepting discomfort, you learn the most valuable skill for change. Discomfort is the key to growth. It’s the key to achieving your goals and dreams in every aspect of your life…not just overdrinking.
The second reason it’s so hard to quit drinking sustainably comes from shame. The shame you feel after you’ve quit when you don’t participate in the drinking culture…”the societal norm.” Being the “outcast” triggers fear, another primitive brain response. You’re afraid of not fitting in with your social group.
The primitive brain evolved in the context of group approval. When we lived in communities of 100 people or so, we had to not only rely on each other for survival but we had to stay in the herd. The odds of one person becoming food for a tiger were much greater if we were alone versus if we were one person in a group of 100 people. Not only could people in your community be on the lookout for dangerous predators but if a predator was able to infiltrate the pack, the odds of 1:100 or 1% was much better than 1:1 or 100%. So it was in your best interest to fit in, get along, and do as others do.
If you did something bad, you put the whole group at risk. And if the group loses trust, you were shamefully banished which was essentially a death sentence. So shame feels awful so you don’t repeat dangerous mistakes to your life and the lives of your pack. You’re programmed to try and fit in and you’re programmed to feel shame if you think you can’t partake in something everyone else is doing.
So one key here is to remind yourself that you’re choosing not to drink, it’s your choice. It’s not because you can’t…you most definitely can, it’s because you don’t want to. It’s a very important distinction. Choice is empowering but you have to believe it. So if you think you can’t drink, I encourage you to dig a little deeper and discover why you believe that. And when you forego drinking, you’ll learn that you’re not drinking by choice not because you can’t.
The other piece to shame I want to discuss is drinking as a societal norm. Yes, we live in a drinking culture but that doesn’t mean it’s the best or only way to live. There are many cultures where drinking is not a part of the culture. And those of us living in societies where drinking is weaved into the fabric of life, it’s okay to question it. It’s okay to have a different perspective. I’m not anti-alcohol but I am pro-education and once you learn all the horrible things that happens to your body from even a little bit of alcohol, I’d have to say people who believe alcohol should be a social norm must be under a spell by the alcohol industry. This stuff is dangerous.
Alcohol is not meant to be concentrated, it’s not necessary for survival, it’s not important for evolution, in fact, it makes us less in touch with our cognitive evolutionary capabilities, it’s not important for the world, it’s not healthy, recent studies not backed by the alcohol industry have shown no amount of alcohol is considered to be safe, and it’s not good for your mental health and longevity.
So when you start feeling shame or FOMO (fear of missing out), go into inquiry. Question your brain, evaluate what thoughts are being unintentionally generated. Debunk the fear in your mind and remember you’re choosing not to drink because you prefer to sleep well, skip the hangover, avoid the added toxins to your system, spend a restful evening at the end of the night, and wake up refreshed. Those are choices.
I also want you to realize that other people’s opinions about you and your choices are none of your business. That’s their business and has nothing to do with you. You can do everything “right” and people will still find something they don’t like. Others will always have an opinion about you no matter what you do, so stop worrying about pleasing others which is an impossible accomplishment and make choices that allow you to sleep well at night.
Make choices that are true to your authenticity and build that trust with yourself. That trust that says no matter what others say, I know I am fabulous. No matter what pressure I’m receiving to drink, I know I’ll be true to myself and my goals. This helps you rebuild that self-confidence that gets destroyed in this overdrinking cycle.
And remember, if you’re choosing not to drink, that means you’re awake. You’ve awakened from the societal spell that drinking makes life better. You know the secret and you’re on the path to clarity, enlightenment, awakening, and presence. You’re living with strength and courage to be vulnerable enough to show up as you, flaws and all. You’re accepting that you’re not perfect and loving every imperfection as that’s what makes you different and amazing. Living without your armor allows you to discover where your opportunities for growth reside so you can work on building those skills. It’s the more courageous path to take.
The third reason I want to discuss today that makes it so hard to quit drinking is the raw feeling you’re left with when you remove your coping tool or crutch. The reasons we drink are far and wide but the biggest reason is to cope with life. I covered this in quite a bit of detail in episode 7, Self-Medicating with Alcohol, but I’m going to touch on it from the perspective of emotional withdrawal.
You think alcohol has been there for you. It’s pretended to be useful and fill the void, whatever that void is. So when you remove this crutch without learning innately how to cope, you’re going to feel naked, raw, and very vulnerable. I want you to think about the lessons in your life when you were taught how to cope with bad days or bad choices, or bad circumstances and events. Who taught you to feel the bad feelings? Who taught you to allow time to process what’s happened and that it’s okay to feel bad? Anyone?
As kids, we don’t understand that our negative emotions don’t just disappear, hell, as adults I’m not sure we understand this. As kids, we just want to move on to the next pleasant moment. I remember my father telling me when I was about 12 that he and my mom were getting a divorce and I was ready to leave the house on my bike to go to the pool. I was so focused on getting to the pool to be with my friends, I didn’t even care what he was telling me. Then I got mad that he wouldn’t let me go to the pool because my mom wanted to talk to me when she got home.
And she tried and my sister tried but at 12 I didn’t really understand and I was only interested in getting to the pool. But no one asked me how I felt a week later, two weeks later, or ever again. I was just told everything would be fine.
It takes a concerted effort to teach people how to deal with their emotions. It’s an ongoing process and most of us are disinterested in this process because it’s usually the negative emotions we’re in need of processing. And we’re on that eternal chase for happiness and joy or maybe it’s an eternal escape from pain and sadness. Maybe we’re not chasing happy, maybe we’re running from pain, right?
Alcohol is an easy fix here. And I use the term fix loosely. It’s not a fix, but it pretends to be. Alcohol pretends to heal the wound; it pretends to be the band-aid. So when you rip the band-aid off, you’re left with an improperly healed wound. It’s raw and irritated. This is what happens when you quit drinking without learning to cope with life without alcohol. You are susceptible to reverting back to overdrinking to superficially deal with your emotions and feelings.
It takes practice to learn how to not only feel your actual feelings but to not react to all of them. It’s a skill that can be learned. How to feel anger and not have an outburst. How to feel sorrow but still be productive. How to experience fear but not let it stop you from moving forward. When you live unconsciously, you allow your emotions to control your behavior. But when you wake up, you can see that your emotions are a product of your thinking and not every emotion needs a response. Living aware allows you to see alternative outcomes from alternative decisions. It allows you to be a little more in control of the results in your life especially if you’re not adding additional fuel to the fire with an emotional outburst or an abrupt irrational decision you can’t take back.
Alcohol has been your tool to buffer life’s unpleasantries away. But they’re not actually going anywhere. You feel emotional withdrawal because it’s all there waiting for you and now you’ve removed your tool. And I don’t want to discourage you from quitting drinking prior to building new tools and skills; you can do both. But what I want you to consider is building that awareness around the fact that alcohol was your crutch and understand those muscles are going to be weak because they’ve been relying on an external support system.
So, it’s time to start building your innate skills and start learning how to deal with life. This is why people use life coaches. This is why this industry is so popular. This is why I love what I do as The Sober Coach. The transformation in people is amazing just by learning how to manage their minds and emotions.
All three of these reasons I’ve shared have one thing in common…living on autopilot. Letting your cave woman brain be in charge of you rather than using your CEO brain to run the show. The desire from incomplete neural pathways, the shame you feel from foregoing a societal norm, and the raw vulnerability you feel when you give up your crutch are all realities of emotional withdrawal and they are all created and resolved in the mind, by the brain. So be an eternal seeker of knowledge and awakening and be an advocate for your life… a life of less drinking and more joy.