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3 Scientific Reasons Why We Give Up On New Years Resolutions
The 17th January is the date when most New Year’s resolutions have fizzled out, including our intentions to stay sober for January. If we’re still with it, we feel our enthusiasm waning more each day, and we feel that we’re just tipping into the space where we decide that we’ve done enough, and we’ve proved our point. We start asking ourselves why are we doing this anyway, and thinking that maybe it was just fine when we were drinking, and it’s all too much effort. Sound familiar?
Why is this? Why can’t we make our minds up about something, and stick with it? Why do we only aim for one month, and not six, or twelve?
There are three scientific reasons why our resolve and resolutions are given up on.
1. Willpower Doesn’t Work For Change
When we decide to stop drinking for any longer than our natural cycle of drinking breaks (which in my case used to be from the night before until wine o’clock the next evening), we need to exercise willpower to enforce our decision. So if we’re wine o’clock drinkers, our willpower is needed the very first evening after we decide to stop drinking. If we’re weekend binge drinkers, maybe it’s the first Friday after we make the decision. Initially, it might not feel as though we’re using any willpower, and it may well feel super-easy! This is because our willpower batteries are fully charged and nothing has started depleting them yet.
Willpower is the method offered by the vast majority of support avenues: AA, general practitioner (physician), and most counsellors as well. You’ll hearthings like, ‘try to cut down’, or ‘we have to take it one day at a time’.
This is why the willpower method only works by living in a constant state of one-day-at-a-time, recovery, and constant exhausting self-regulation. To me, that really is the definition of misery. The good news is that we can keep up willpower for short bursts of time. We have evolved to need to use willpower at times of extreme stress and danger for survival purposes. Initially, we might not even be aware that we are using willpower because our determination is so strong.
Like all fight and flight responses, it works in short bursts, but willpower isn’t sustainable.
Let’s look at why.
The easiest way to explain why willpower doesn’t work is to look at where willpower comes from in our brain. It is our conscious, logical, decision making part of our brains where we make the decision to stop drinking and excercise our will to make a change. This part of our brain is around 5-10% of our brain powerhouse, and the other 90-95% is our subconscious brain. In here sits our learned behaviour, society influences, memories, emotional responses.
When we set out resolutions using willpower we are essentially setting up a fight between the conscious 5-10% of our minds, and the subconscious 90-95%. Over time, it’s like a battery running out, the subconscious mind overrides the conscious decision, and we decide to ditch our resolutions and reach for the bottle.
2. Fading Effect Bias Kicks In
It’s a strange fact of our biology that as part of our drive to survive, bad memories fade faster than good ones. It’s thought that the reason for this is that if we were traumatised and the bad memories remain our focal point, then we would be less motivated to act to get our needs met, and we wouldn’t survive. We would have less hope, and wouldn’t recover. So we have evolved with fading negative memories, Fading Effect Bias.
This explains why over a few weeks we manage to convince ourselves that maybe drinking wasn’t so bad after all, that it’s probably not that harmful, the arguments weren’t really our fault, the hangover hell was actually quite mild. You get the picture? And so we allow the reality to fade from our minds.
3. Euphoric Recall Distorts Memories
Alcohol really is a very cunning frenemy. If impossible methods using willpower, and fading bad memories weren’t enough, we have a third problem to navigate as well: euphoric recall.
I’m going to give you a bit of the science around what happens here.
Dopamine is a chemical produced by the brain that sends signals to nerve cells called neurons. Dopamine is part of our natural biology and it helps us to survive by giving us good feelings when we get things that we need for our survival like food and sex.
We then learn to do more of those things because we need them and our brain signals this through releasing dopamine. Makes sense, right? BUT… alcohol also triggers our dopamine system, and it does it massively.
I won’t go into how this causes cravings in this blog, but in terms of our memory what happens is that the positive things we remember when we’ve been drinking are memories that are soaked in dopamine. They are in effect drugged memories, rose tinted, and so when we look back on the parts of a night out we remember, we see them as better than they were because of dopamine.
For anyone watching our behaviour as we screamed with laughter at a man walking down the street wearing a hat, and nearly fell off our chair, they would have seen that we were drunk and our behaviour was ridiculous. But in our drugged state dopamine was flooding our system and affecting our memory of the event.
These are the three reasons why ultimately our best laid intentions fizzle out. The good news is that there is another method other than willpower that really does work, and that involves changing our mindset around alcohol by working with and not against our natural psychology. Even better news is that with learning and strategies we can navigate our way around both fading effect bias and euphoric recall.
Once these and other elements are dealt with we can live the lives that we want to live around alcohol – free, vibrant and happy!
If you need help to take a break or quit drinking click HERE for details of my Discover Sober Program.