One of my friends hasn’t had a drink in over a year. She stopped drinking because she realized that it clouded her thinking. She realized that she was using alcohol to relieve stress and escape from her thoughts and feelings. No one would call her an “alcoholic.” In fact, many of her friends don’t understand why she quit.
But, without alcohol, she’s seen many positive changes. She has more clarity. She feels more motivated. She sleeps better. She’s more present in her life.
We think of drinking in two ways: Either you’re a normal drinker. Or you’re an alcoholic. Either you have a serious problem. Or you don’t. But drinking is way more nuanced and much more layered than that.
Maybe you drink a glass of wine every night to alleviate stress or numb the pain. Maybe you drink to temporarily forget your anxiety. Maybe you have a single drink before attending social events because it helps you feel more confident. It helps you to loosen up. Maybe drinking helps to brighten the dark edges of your life. For a few moments. Maybe you’re worried that you look forward to drinking. Too much. Maybe you spend most Sunday mornings worrying about what you said or did the night before.
Whatever the specifics, maybe your drinking just doesn’t feel right. That’s how Rachel Hart’s clients typically notice they’re using alcohol as a crutch. Hart is a life coach who works with women wanting to take a break from drinking.
The Allure of Alcohol
“Alcohol can become a crutch when you unconsciously teach your brain that it makes a specific situation easier or a part of your life more bearable—usually because you don’t yet have alternative means to cope,” Hart said.
She shared this example: A person comes home to an empty apartment. They feel lonely, which they don’t like. They pour themselves a glass of wine. They get a buzz and forget how they’re feeling. Over time, this becomes a routine. Over time, this person teaches themselves that wine solves their loneliness. But, in reality, their loneliness remains.
Alcohol is a quick and easy way to erase our discomfort, Hart said. Instantly we erase the discomfort of stress, socializing, insecurity, boredom. But it’s short lived, and we don’t reach the root.
Hart calls alcohol a “problem-staller.” “Your attention is temporarily diverted away from whatever discomfort you’re feeling. But in the long-run alcohol does nothing to solve the underlying problem.”
In her early 20s, Hart stopped drinking for a year. “I loved waking up clear-headed and not having to worry if I had done something embarrassing the night before.” But eventually she returned to drinking. Because she’d removed the only relief, the only coping mechanism, she had. And her underlying issues lingered.
For Hart these issues were intense social anxiety and a merciless inner critic. Whenever she’d be in an unfamiliar social situation, she’d keep having the same thought over and over: “I don’t fit in here.” She’d fixate on her supposed flaws—like her appearance—and how other women had something she didn’t. Her discomfort dictated her behavior. “Everything about me read, ‘don’t talk me.’ And sure enough, I didn’t fit in. The only way I knew how to relieve this feeling was by having a drink.”
She also believed that the solution resided in “fixing” her physical appearance. She assumed that losing weight, dressing a certain way and making sure she looked “perfect” would finally help her to fit in.
“I was convinced that if I could master how I looked on the outside, I would feel better on the inside.” But she didn’t feel better. And the more uncomfortable she felt, the more alcohol she consumed.
Instead, what started helping Hart was thinking, “I’m sure there is someone else here who feels just as out of place as I do.”
“It seems like such a small change. But it gave me a little bit of relief. It made me feel less alone. I could relax the tiniest bit. Breathe a little better. It was just enough space, to feel like I could get through the first 30 minutes of a party—which to me were always the worst—without needing to drink.”
According to Hart, if you’d like to stop using alcohol as a crutch, the best thing you can do is to practice sitting with painful emotions. “The more comfortable you are with your negative emotions, the less you will resort to covering them up.”
Hart suggested starting by simply observing and describing how an emotion feels in your body.
“When I tell my clients this, they usually say, ‘But I feel anxious, stressed out, insecure so much of the time, and now you’re telling me I have to feel that way even more?!’” But usually they aren’t actually sitting with their emotions. Instead, they’re dismissing, masking or resisting them.
However, the more you observe your emotion—without judgment or interference—the more you realize that you can handle it.
Specifically, focus on your distinct physical sensations—versus saying something like “I feel terrible.” Naturally, “if it feels terrible, we want to get rid of it as fast as possible by distracting ourselves or finding something that will mask it,” Hart said.
And the good news is that you already know how to identify your sensations. You do this any time you say anything like, “I’m so nervous, I have butterflies in my stomach.”
Every emotion feels different for every person, Hart said. “Sadness for me feels like my body is constricting. My chest tightens making it difficult to take a full breath. I feel my throat closing up. My shoulders start to slump, my stomach pulls in, and I can feel my body wanting to curl up into a ball. If the feeling is particularly intense, I’ll notice almost a buzzing in my chest cavity.”
For a long time, Hart evaded her sadness. If she felt like she was going to cry, she tried everything to stop it. But she realized that observing her sadness actually gave her authority over it, and she didn’t need to run away.
“Observing your emotions gives you a new perspective. Every emotion…is just a set of physical manifestations in your body that you are totally capable of handling on your own.”
Quitting drinking may or may not be right for you. The key is to explore your relationship with alcohol and to remember that there are many dots along the spectrum (not simply “normal drinker” and “alcoholic”). The key is to explore how you’re using alcohol in your life—and whether it’s time to find healthier ways to navigate underlying issues.