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Alcohol has become a pandemic problem in the English speaking world with growing numbers of people, and dramatically growing numbers of women, finding themselves addicted. And yet, alcohol addiction is stigmatised, and full of ignorance. Even people who are suffering hold onto the idea that there is a ‘them and us’ of ‘other people’ with a real drink problem. When we keep our problems secret, and when they are loaded with guit, self-doubt and confusion it causes us unecessary stress. We think we’re weak and incapable.
When I ask my masterclass audience if one of the reasons that they drink alcohol is to relieve stress, the response is an overwhelming ‘YES!’.
It’s often one of the things we do as part of an evening routine, and for many women the routine has expanded slowly over time. What may have been an occasional social drink ten or twenty years ago, has now become a nightly source of tomorrow’s hangover. But why? And does it matter?
There is so much misinformation about, as facts are glossed over, and alcohol is glorified in sponsored TV shows, advertising placements, and even cards that we buy for friends.
The truth is that alcohol is highly addictive as well as toxic, and in a study conducted by Professor Nutt (previously the Chief Medical Officer in the UK) it was found that alcohol is the second most addictive drug on the planet, after heroine. In another study, and scored against sixteen different indicators, alcohol scored 72/100 and came out on top as the most harmful drug on Earth compared to heroine and cocaine that followed with scores in the 30s.
When alcohol is drunk over many years, it is no surprise that an ever-growing number of normal, regular successful women become addicted. In the UK in 2018 (NHS Digital) 7% of all hospital admissions were due to a primary or secondary diagnosis linked to alcohol. Of those admitted a staggering 39% of patients were aged 45-64, with a peak at 45-54, and there is a growth in these patients being women. I was addicted to alcohol until 2016.
I started drinking at University in the late 1980s, early 1990s, we were part of a drinking culture where it was never questioned, and also fully expected that we would all drink a lot and often. After I left university and went to work in the city, after-work drinks took over from the university bar, and then dinner parties followed in my 30s. I started drinking at home after work occasionally and then it became a nightly activity. Half a bottle, then a whole bottle, and sometimes the second bottle was opened as well. At weekends I’d drink more just because it was the weekend and that’s what people did. No one questioned it. My drug taking was completely normalised. But I’d often drink more than I intended, and if affected my behaviour. I had blackouts, acted irrationally, and sometimes aggressively, and wouldn’t remember what happened as I woke up guilt-ridden and anxious the next day only to have another drink that night, or the following day to relieve my stress. What I didn’t know then was that a large part of that stress was caused by the alcohol itself.
Does alcohol relieve stress or cause it? The answer is that it does both.
In the early days of drinking, large amounts of the neurotransmitter, dopamine, are released by the brain in response to alcohol being consumed. Dopamine is connected to the reward and learning cycle in our brains and is an essential part of our natural survival and biological mechanism. In nature, dopamine is the reward for us doing and getting what we need to survive. We learn that what we did was beneficial and so we do it again. Alcohol hijacks this by effectively teaching us to become addicted.
As the dopamine gives us a high, alcohol also slows down our function, and in an effort to keep biological balance, adrenaline and cortisol are released into our systems. Adrenaline and cortisol are stress and anxiety hormones, and these remain in our system for seven to ten days after consuming alcohol.
This means that we are walking around with levels of stress and anxiety caused by alcohol, and it also explains the horrible anxiety a drinker feels when she wakes with a hangover at 4am.
The feelings of stress and low-level agitation are temporarily relieved when we have the next drink of alcohol, because the slowing down of brain activity dulls these feelings. In our learning and reward cycle our subconscious minds link the activity of drinking with feeling better from the stressed sensations, and we conclude that ‘alcohol relieves stress’. But, with that next drink comes further release of adrenaline and cortisol, more stress and more anxiety, and so the cycle continues.
It’s like a car alarm sounding off, hour after endless hour. Then it is turned off, and there is silence. How do we feel when it’s turned off? Happiness or relief? Would we want to turn the alarm on again? Because that is exactly what we do when we reach for the next drink.
The problem is further complicated by our natural survival mechanism. We are designed to constantly strive for improvement and to do more, and the way we are motivated to do this is that the levels of dopamine decrease if we only carry on doing the same thing. This means that the ‘reward’ becomes less, and so we do more in an attempt to get the reward we want.
When it comes to alcohol, this means that we drink more in an attempt to get that high feeling back again, but over time it is a law of diminishing returns, and eventually alcohol always takes more than it gives. There doesn’t need to be a ‘park bench’ rock bottom, and women in homes everywhere are unknowingly drinking to try to get back to where they were before they started.
At a time in a woman’s life when hormones are out of kilter, and they may be suffering from perimenopausal or menopausal symptoms, and other changes in our lives, women can find that alcohol consumption increases, as they try, unknowingly to use it to relieve our feelings of stress.
Alcohol not only puts strain on our bodies for health reasons, it also causes emotional stress and anxiety as it causes the very thing that we seek it to relieve.
Let’s end the silence, and the stigma. It’s Time to Talk.
If you need help to take a break or quit drinking click HERE for details of my Discover Sober Program.