Spot the signs of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol

By Kai Conibear,
updated on Jan 20, 2023

Spot the signs of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol

After a long day, you might crave a glass of wine – it helps you relax, right? Wrong – in fact booze can have a negative impact on our mental wellbeing

Many of us enjoy a drink to unwind at the end of a hectic day. We might use some liquid courage at a party, or in a new situation. However, when drinking, or any substance use, masks an underlying problem, it can be habit-forming.

People often ‘self-medicate’ to help them sleep, feel better, or deal with difficult feelings. Alcohol can alleviate negative thoughts, anxiety, and other symptoms of mental illness – but it’s only a temporary fix. It’s like putting a plaster over a cut that needs stitches; it’s not going to last.

Andy Ryan, psychotherapist, and head of recovery services at the charity Changing Lives, says: “Alcohol has been described as ‘the UK’s favourite coping mechanism’, and many of us drink to help manage stress, anxiety, and depression – despite the fact that alcohol can aggravate depression, and negatively impact your mental wellbeing.”

Drinking is ingrained in our culture, so it’s difficult to avoid. Our social lives typically revolve around going to bars, pubs, and restaurants, so no wonder our friends and family often don’t realise we’re self-medicating, or having a difficult time. Even during the pandemic, Zoom pub quizzes and catch-ups have often been punctuated by a good tiple to lift our spirits. And on the flip side, if we’re feeling isolated and lonely, it can be easy to fall into the trap of drinking too much.

“Many people talk about how they link alcohol with feeling relaxed and more confident,” Andy Ryan explains, “and this myth has contributed to our nation’s unhealthy relationship with alcohol. In fact, the change in our emotional state as we drink alcohol is desensitising, and feeling less – not more. This is why people sometimes feel shame for what occurred while under the influence of alcohol.

“In recovery programmes, we often ask: ‘What was drinking doing for you that you could not do for yourself or with others?’ This question frames the bigger picture: when people feel like they can no longer cope, don’t seem to have the answers, feel unable to connect, and don’t believe they have the capacity within themselves, they begin to look externally for a solution, to help meet the world and regulate their emotional state.”

From my own experience, I went through a stage of drinking every day. I was masking symptoms of mental illness with alcohol, and using it as a coping mechanism. I didn’t want to face up to my own condition, bipolar disorder, and how it made me feel. With mania, my impulses took over, and I would binge drink. When I was depressed and anxious, I would drink to feel better, to silence the negative thoughts, and to be more sociable.

I was covering up the cracks, but not working on mending them. Instead of making me feel better, alcohol would leave me feeling even more depressed and anxious the next day. I realised that the pay off – numbing the emotional pain for an evening – was just not worth it.

I managed to cut back on my drinking by creating my own ‘rulebook’ – which includes never drinking alone or at home. This means I’ll only drink when I’m out with friends or family. I’ll keep to a maximum amount of alcohol, and then switch to soft drinks. It took discipline, but I now feel mentally healthier.

Healthy coping mechanisms you can adopt instead

There are warning signs to watch for: drinking alone, binge drinking, and relying on alcohol when stressed, depressed, or having intrusive thoughts.

Psychotherapist Andy Ryan says: “If you find yourself turning to alcohol, can you pay attention to your regulation, resilience, dissociation, and desensitisation? You can also try to identify other sources of support to turn to, instead of alcohol. For example, #TimeToTalk on Twitter is a great initiative, and beginning to talk about your concerns with trusted friends helps. Or if you’re further down the road of dependency, then reach out to your GP, or a treatment provider in your local authority, for support and advice.

Our social lives revolve around going to bars, pubs, and restaurants, so no wonder our friends often don’t realise we’re self-medicating

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can also help you review and reframe your behaviour, and there are some great apps to help motivate change and raise awareness,” says Andy.

Dependency on alcohol and other substances often masks a bigger problem. Therapy can help address these underlying issues, and help you to move forward. Realising that you’re using substances to cope with your current circumstances, past events, or mental health problems, is an important step.

You might decide to limit your drinking, or even give up entirely. There is a growing number of people who have turned to sobriety. Recently, I sent out a simple Tweet, explaining I was thinking of giving up drinking, and I was inundated with messages of support!

Make sure you’re not alone, and let people close to you know you’re limiting or giving up entirely – and why. The ‘why’ is important, because it can be turned into a positive. You’re giving something up so you can be a happier, healthier, more positive version of yourself.

Five tips for reducing your alcohol intake

• At first, try cutting down your intake, instead of giving up entirely. Going cold turkey makes it more difficult to give up in the long-term.

• If you want to continue drinking, use cash to limit the amount of drink you can buy, or change to a card with a spending limit.

• Don’t punish yourself for slipping up – it doesn’t mean you have to fall back into old habits.

• Come up with your own signature, go-to, non-alcoholic drink when you’re out. It can make you feel like you’re joining in, and allowing yourself a treat.

• It’s also an opportunity to explore new hobbies and interests. Joining book groups, hobby clubs, having game nights with your friends, can all show you there’s more to socialising than just drinking.

You can find out more about alcohol addiction and find counsellors near you at counselling-directory.org.uk

By Kai Conibear

Kai Conibear is a writer and mental health advocate. His first book, ‘Living at the Speed of Light’, about bipolar disorder, is out now.'

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