Consider a typical scene in a movie: the lead character has had their heart broken, and they retreat to a bar to process the break-up. The camera pans over the scene and we see them seated in front of a sympathetic bartender, ordering shots of dark liquor …
Why do we turn to alcohol to manage a break-up?
All of us know that alcohol is something that we use to help deal with negative emotions; something that, in the moment, can temporarily shift our mind away from the pain and hurt that we are going through and towards more trivial matters such as talking to strangers in bars and dancing in nightclubs.
When our relationships aren’t going well, or we are dealing with the fall-out from a break-up, we often feel an uneasy combination of things like fear, sadness, grief, anxiety, anger, frustration and loneliness. None of these are positive emotions, and often they can trigger old memories and feelings from previous painful experiences in our lives.
Ironically, alcohol can be the one thing that stops us from processing the emotional pain of a break-up.
We know that when we drink, our brains are much less efficient at processing memories and emotions, and we can find ourselves stuck in a cycle of feeling down and wanting to avoid this at any cost. It makes sense that we will want to numb some of those feelings and distract ourselves. That dopamine rush that comes with the first drink of alcohol is probably a welcome relief from the emotional chaos that is brewing inside.
However, alcohol is also a depressant that can amplify those original feelings. It can also lower our level of inhibition, meaning that we can do and say things that we later regret, all the while being influenced by these strong, overwhelming emotions.
Remember some of the clichés that we see in movies, occasionally acted out in our own lives: drunken, angry phone calls; acts of aggression or violence; or just generally behaving in ways that we later really regret. The reality is that when we drink a lot of alcohol and are going through emotional pain, there is a real likelihood that the alcohol will expose and then amplify the pain, and we will not have the resources to deal with it.
We think that having a big night out will help us to process all of these feelings of hurt and sadness but we also know from past experience that these nights out can actually unlock more feelings or prolong negative emotional states.
How might we re-write this scene in our own lives, imagining that the hero of our story is feeling sad, down, lonely, frustrated or rejected?
We know what is likely to happen if we reach for the bottle (multiple shots, drunken conversations, risky behaviour, 3 am kebabs and an inevitable two-day hangover, punctuated by crippling anxiety and regret).
What might be an alternative that helps us deal with the very normal pain that we are feeling, while at the same time sets us up to move on with our lives?
Going from our past experiences, what might be the best way to care for our wounded emotions, that doesn’t necessarily involve switching off or numbing ourselves?
Three ways to process those emotions differently, without the hangover or regret
Mobilise your Group
One of the reasons we might be motivated to head out on the town is the social aspect. We know that being in a social environment, talking and interacting with people we are comfortable with can help to shift our mood and give us a great feeling of connectedness and enjoyment. Perhaps it is a good idea to schedule a games night or sleepover with some good friends, with lots of food and movies. Remember how fun that was in high school? This will give you a great opportunity to process what has happened, get in touch with your emotions in a way that you can remember, and receive unconditional support from your circle, as well as waking up the next day feeling energised and ready to face the world.
What does alcohol help us do best? Avoid our emotions! One idea that might turn this on its head is to schedule an evening to yourself when you have a go at connecting with some of those emotions that want to avoid. Whether it is staying in and watching a sad movie, or writing out your feelings about a certain person or certain part of your life, this gives us the space to process whatever is coming up for us, rather than numbing and avoiding it through going out. Doing this without the numbing effects of alcohol means that we are more likely to be able to ‘move on’ from the emotional content and into a much more comfortable space.
One of the things we often really like about alcohol is that dopamine rush we get with the first drink that can give us a boost of energy and purpose. The bad news is that this wears off pretty quickly, only to be replaced by those less helpful feelings of tiredness or low motivation. Sitting down and setting valued goals is going to tap into some of that purpose and get us producing and releasing dopamine as we imagine what our future is going to look like now. Even if it is a bit too early to start planning your new life, it is worth just considering some things that you might like to change or things you’d like to achieve. This kind of thinking is great when we are going through a tough time, as it encourages us to focus on the big picture, rather than the pain we are in at the present time.
Whatever your situation, it is great to reflect on how you might want to deal with things differently this time around and be guided by what has happened in the past. When our relationships aren’t going well, or we are dealing with loss, it is completely normal to feel overwhelmed and upset – and we also know that, while alcohol can help to make things a bit easier in the moment, it can also be something that intensifies and prolongs our emotional suffering. Taking a step back from this and considering what needs the alcohol is meeting can be incredibly helpful during times like this.