For many people, the last six months have been challenging, to say the least. As humans, we don’t respond well to change at the best of times, and when it happens suddenly and with limited information available, things can be even more difficult. One thing that we’re aware of at Hello Sunday Morning is the role that stress plays in alcohol use for our members, and is fair to say that stress levels have increased in the past few months.
One of the things that we know about stress is that – in small amounts and for short periods of time – it can actually be adaptive. Stress can make us perform better, think faster and consume less physical and emotional resources. Back when life was much more dangerous, our responses to stress helped to protect us and keep us alive. Modern life, however, poses new challenges, in that while we’re generally much safer, we are also exposed to sources of stress that are longer term, or even permanent.
Our systems aren’t well equipped to cope with ongoing and chronic stress, and we end up being in an almost permanent state of stress response – leading us to feel worn down, exhausted but also anxious, struggling physically and feeling emotionally flat or on edge.
Enter alcohol – as a temporary mood booster that has more of an impact on us when we are stressed or anxious, we know that it is regularly used to help ‘take the edge off’ or ‘lift our spirits’. Over time we have learned that alcohol is effective in shifting our mood state, providing almost instant effects to our emotional and physical state. When an individual is under ongoing and constant stress, alcohol might become the only thing that reliably picks them up and restores a sense of comfort and wellbeing – even if this is only really a chemical reaction that is going on in their brains. As our level of stress increases, so does our need for something to balance it out – and alcohol is there in the wings, waiting to take centre stage.
With that in mind – what are some warning signs that your alcohol use might be starting to become an issue?
1. You’re thinking about drinking earlier in the day
We all know the saying – ‘Its 5pm somewhere!’ – and this has never been truer than in WFH lockdown. For some people who would regularly have an after-work drink, this might occur earlier in the day since schedules and routines have less of a meaning. Unfortunately our brains begin to associate certain times of day and events with alcohol, meaning that each time you have a drink after lunch, for example, that association has been formed, and you are likely to want to do this again at some point. Our brains love routine and habit, so they are quick to learn something like this, and remind you of it the next day.
2. You’re feeling irritable if you aren’t able to have a drink
One of the warning signs of alcohol dependence is irritability if you’re not able to drink. This might be running out of your favourite drink at home, or having to drive – whatever the reason, if you are feeling agitated or restless if you can’t drink, it is likely a sign of either physical or psychological withdrawal. This is useful to pay attention to, since it is a sign that you’re beginning to become dependent on alcohol.
3.You’re choosing to have a drink instead of doing the things you normally did
When we think about one of the most harmful parts of alcohol dependence, its that it slowly takes over the rest of our lives. What starts as something that is just a part of our daily routine, can slowly claim more and more space – firstly with time spent drinking (meaning we can’t drive places), time spent recovering from alcohol (and all those late starts where you could have gotten up and exercised before work), and all the other bits and pieces such as buying and disposing of alcohol. If you’ve noticed that alcohol is starting to edge out other things like exercise, learning or hobbies, it might be a sign that something is going on.
4. You’re having health issues as a result of your drinking
We know that alcohol has long term health impacts, increasing our risk of developing cancer, diabetes and heart disease. But i’m talking about the shorter term health impacts that you might be noticing right now. This might be gastrointestinal issues from regular drinking, weight gain, changes in your mood, issues with energy and sleep. Even in the short term we can usually notice the effect alcohol is having on our wellbeing. If you’ve been feeling a bit rubbish lately, it might be good to reflect on this.
5. You’re feeling guilty about your drinking
Finally, a major sign that something is going on is that you are feeling guilty or self conscious about your alcohol use. This might be a sign that part of you is aware that things need to change, but you’re not quite there yet in terms of taking action. And thats understandable – change is hard as as we’ve discussed, things like stress can make it really difficult to take action. !
If any of these warning signs sounds like what you’re experiencing, the good news is that being aware of the issue is half the battle. Once you’ve reached the conclusion that your alcohol use is starting to be an issue, you’re then free to focus on what you can actually do about it – rather than grappling with the question ‘am I ready to change?’. The good news is that there are a lot of small steps that we can take to change our relationship with alcohol – and not all of them involve stopping drinking altogether, or making major changes to our day to day lives. Hello Sunday Morning’s app ‘Daybreak’ is a great place to start if you’re wanting to explore what kinds of changes are possible for you – you can access professional advice as well as peer support, from a community of people who are working towards similar goals.