Alcohol Awareness Week | Alcohol and Mental Health
So, let’s talk about alcohol.
It’s no secret that alcohol consumption is heavily romanticised in British culture. Socially and culturally, it is as equally entwined with positivity , having fun, relaxation and celebration, as it is with negative emotions, escapism, coping and commiseration. While alcohol as a product in and of itself is not necessarily good or bad in a black and white way, the ways that we use it and the emotions surrounding our alcohol use significantly shape its presence and impact on our lives. For some people, looking forward to a glass of wine or a cold beer in the evening after a stressful day at work is completely innocent and offers a simple way to unwind, demarcating personal me-time from work time. Maybe there’s nothing more exciting than the idea of going out to a bar for a couple of drinks – some glitzy and glamorous looking cocktails – with some old friends on a Friday night to catch up and reconnect, providing a welcome respite from the whirlwind of adult life. Birthdays, weddings, christenings, football games – you name it, alcohol consumption is visibly a significant dimension of basically all special occasions and celebrations.
However, sometimes the romantic, cheerful and carefree image that drinking culture manifests in our minds, our homes and our social circles is at odds with the ways that our drinking makes us think, feel and behave. It can start to feel like a hindrance or a dependence, affecting our focus, our relationships, our work, and our overall happiness. But where do we draw the line? When does drinking become… not fun anymore? When is it a problem? There is certainly a stereotypical idea about what an alcohol problem looks like and how it presents itself, but the reality is that problematic or detrimental drinking – drinking to cope – is much more prevalent and less generalisable than what society would have us believe. This pervasive idea about what an alcohol problem looks like can hinder us from examining our own attitudes and behaviours around alcohol, making them easy to explain away because we can tell ourselves “I’m young, I work hard, I’m just having fun, drinking alcohol is completely normal, everybody drinks a little too much sometimes, right?” Maybe you don’t fit the stereotypical profile of somebody who might have an issue with drinking, but you’re aware that your drinking habits are not serving you and are getting in the way of feeling fulfilled and in control of your life. It could be affecting your energy levels, your sleep quality, your memory, your general mood and anxiety levels. Maybe you’re trying not to think about it at all. Personal responsibility around alcohol consumption can become incredibly fuzzy in the context of our own society’s attitude towards drinking, with so much pressure to “loosen up”, “have fun” and “relax”, and it seems as though there is a large-scale diffusion of responsibility where we (generally speaking) excuse or explain away each other’s habits in order to avoid looking at our own.
On a personal, individual level, it is evident that using alcohol as a coping mechanism is particularly common – unsurprisingly – at the moment as we whether the storm of a worldwide pandemic. A press release from the organisation Alcohol Change UK (which you can read about here) has revealed that over half of UK drinkers have turned to alcohol for mental health reasons during the pandemic. Since March 2020, we have found ourselves confined to our homes around 98% of the time, with routines turned upside down, distractions and general life experiences massively restricted and our worlds have shrunk down to the bare minimum. The words “unprecedented” and “new normal” are everywhere and conjure up instant panic and uncertainty. Some of us might be isolated in difficult or tumultuous home environments, have strained relationships with parents, children, partners or siblings that are only amplified by the stress and uncertainty of the pandemic, or have lost loved ones due to or during the virus which has made the whole process even harder and stranger. Anxiety, stress, worry, depression, hopelessness, grief, and difficulty sleeping are all issues for which alcohol seemingly presents a temporary oasis.
With the allure of escape often leading our decision-making, it’s easy to forget that alcohol is a depressant, and we could be making the process of recognising and dealing with our emotions a lot more convoluted and getting us stuck in a cycle of drinking to cope with difficult feelings > feeling worse > drinking to cope with difficult feelings. In short, alcohol does not help in the long term.
There is a fundamental connection between alcohol and mental health and it is important to examine that relationship on both a social and personal level. This is not an easy feat given that both of these issues still carry the weight of social stigma, but it is an extremely important message to project that examining and recognising your emotions and behaviour surrounding alcohol consumption is incredibly worthwhile, constructive and nothing to feel ashamed about. At the end of the day, we can only control of our own actions, thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and taking necessary measures to protect our minds, bodies and future happiness is only ever going to help us feel empowered and positive about ourselves. Whatever may have happened in our past does not have to define or dictate our future. If your mental health struggles have manifested a complicated or detrimental relationship with alcohol, you are not alone and you are completely deserving of help and support in order to draw a line underneath it and move forward.
I thought I would include a couple of useful tips for approaching your mental health and self-care in an alcohol-conscious way, to emphasize alternative ways of invoking those relaxed and carefree emotions that alcohol initially offers:
- An alcohol-free spa night! – I recently published a blog post on ideas for a “spa night at home” to recreate that special feeling of pampering and relaxation including a bath, spa music and face masks; check it out and give it a go!
- Try a games night – they have the potential to be absolutely hilarious and so much fun without the aid of alcohol! If you live alone, you could always try a couple over Zoom
- Along similar lines – quiz nights! Zoom quizzes were all the rage during the early stages of lockdown back in March and provided some much needed light-hearted relief from the doom and gloom, and helped us to stay connected to our loved ones
- Have a movie night – what better distraction than being completely absorbed in another world sitting in the dark for a couple of hours? The longer the better!
- Read a good book – similar to the one above, but without the screens!
- Stick on a podcast or your favourite album and go for a walk around your neighbourhood – or better yet, ditch the headphones and take notice of the natural sounds and ambience to really help yourself feel grounded
If you’re actively trying to cut down on your alcohol consumption, I’d also recommend:
- Keeping a journal to track your units to stay within your personal limit
- Read books or listen to podcasts that explicitly discuss the relationship between alcohol and mental health – knowledge is power, and understanding how our brains, thoughts and actions are working behind the scenes can help us to feel empowered in the choices we make
- Talk to somebody about how you’re feeling! I can’t stress this one enough – keeping it all inside will make the alcohol-shaped allure of escapism and relief even stronger
Useful organisations locally and nationally:
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If this is something your struggling with I would love to help you. If you would like to discuss further, feel free to book in a discovery call with me here and we can talk it through! I offer 121 consultations and I would truly be more than happy to discuss whatever is on your mind and help you on your journey to reaching a more positive and empowered state of emotional well-being. It’s important to be aware and conscious about the choices we make and the reasons and emotions informing our behaviour, but it is equally as important to be able to share, explore and work through difficult feelings or behaviours in a safe, empathetic, non-judgemental and constructive environment. That’s what Inspire You is all about, so don’t hesitate to get in touch if you feel you do need the extra support.
Thank you for taking the time to read – stay safe and stay tuned!