Q: My drinking’s really crept up during lockdown – and I’m finding it hard to change it. I feel worse without it – I’ve always drunk, but never felt like I’ve lost control of it before. What can I do?
A: If you’ve found yourself wandering back to the gym after over 100 days of not doing so, you’ll know how much strength and flexibility you’ve lost while we all sat around on the couch, hunched over Zoom calls and generally tried to avoid catching a deadly virus.
Emotional fitness is pretty similar. There’s a crude old idea – being “piss fit” – about tolerance to alcohol and how much you can drink.
Well, I prefer to flip this idea on its head and think about “sober fit”.
Addiction is much less straightforward than most people think. Alcohol is a highly addictive drug – and one that can cause great harm.
It’s also true that for some the only obvious harm is to their health – from drinking too much, too often – and how they feel about themselves as result. Some might consider this “functional alcoholism”. I prefer to think of it as a bad habit.
Alcohol “works” because it makes us feel better – chemically it’s a depressant, so it reduces tension, mediates anxiety and in doing so can make us feel more relaxed and more able to relax and express ourselves. Of course it has long-terms costs – some quite severe – but in the short term it can feel helpful.
If you don’t feel good, you drink and you feel better. Each time you do this it’s reinforcing, so we can train ourselves into drinking more – and more frequently. It’s human nature to keep doing things that make us feel better.
I believe for many of us turning to alcohol, to help with the boredom, the tension and the general lethargy and lack of stimulation in lockdown was common. We know from economic data that alcohol sales were up.
So drinking more, finding that it helps and training ourselves into feeling better as result – at least in the short term – is understandable, even predictable. But part of the cost of that, as you’re feeling now, is that it can be hard to stop.
But what makes it hard? Feelings.
Assuming you’re not drinking heavily enough to experience acute physical withdrawal, what makes it hard to stop is painful feelings. Emotions we often judge or classify as “negative”.
Anxiety, tension, worry, frustration, irritability. The feelings alcohol “treats”.
Our ability to tolerate these feelings is eaten away by drinking. Much like stopping physical exercise or going to the gym – it’s hard if we haven’t done it for while.
So how do we get “sober fit” again?
Well, the bad news is much like physically training again, it’s hard at first and it’s going to hurt a bit. The good news is, it’s entirely do-able. The research tells us that around two-thirds of people change their use or stop their drinking altogether without any treatment or intervention.
For most people, “sober fit” is about reconnecting with the things we did before our drinking increased – or before we went into lockdown.
Being more physically active is always a good idea. Finding useful distractions and activities for the times we would normally drink. Connecting more with others, especially those close to us, and sharing with them how we’re feeling and what we’re struggling with. Mindfulness meditation can also help.
And consider – at first – limiting, or even removing altogether, access to alcohol.
Because fitness takes time but it only takes a little bit every day. And if you miss an emotional workout, get up the next day and try again.
Of course, if you find you are really struggling you may need help. But you may find that with a little deliberate effort you can reconnect with the person you were before your drinking increased, before lockdown, and get sober fit again. Only one way to find out.
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