Day 20: Brain Lesson #3-Alcohol Doesn’t Take the Edge Off

During Dryuary, as you take a 31-day break from drinking, you’ll discover (or rediscover) Moderation Management’s fundamental strategies. Taking an extended break from drinking is beneficial for many physical reasons which you will automatically experience by not drinking. To encourage long-term, sustainable change, you can also use this break to change your thinking around alcohol–which only happens if you work at it. 
Look for a new Brain Lesson every Thursday to help.

“Our anxiety does not empty tomorrow of its sorrows, but only empties today of its strengths.” ~ C.H. Spurgeon

For thirty years, I 100% believed that I needed to drink to help ease my stress and take the edge off my anxiety. In my journey to change my drinking habits, learning and accepting the science about alcohol helped me change this belief.  Changing that belief was key to changing my relationship with alcohol. 

My mother was always anxious. Back in the 1970’s, when her drinking habits really became established, mental health was nowhere near as “mainstream” as it is today. She likely suffered from undiagnosed anxiety disorder, and she certainly wasn’t alone there. Anxiety disorders were only recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980. Before this recognition, people experiencing one of these disorders usually received a generic diagnosis of ‘stress’ or ‘nerves’. As there was no understanding of the disorders by health professionals, very few people received effective treatment.  

Like many people then and today, my mother turned to alcohol to relieve her stress and calm her nerves. Unfortunately that habit and psychological dependence eventually became a physical dependence which ultimately cost my mother her life. She died just after her 81st birthday as the result of an alcoholic binge. 

I share this part of my mother’s story only because I think it’s important to understand that long before the physical dependence she created a psychological dependence that was fueled by her belief that alcohol helped her take the edge off. It’s the same belief I held on to that fueled my feeling of desire to drink. 

Here’s the scientific truth about alcohol. Alcohol provides a very limited therapeutic benefit in terms of helping you relax and unwind and this is because of it’s “biphasic” effect.  

Generally speaking, people tend to feel better as their blood alcohol concentration (BAC) rises to about 0.05.  Specifically, it’s 0.055 to be exact. That is the first phase or part of the biphasic curve. If people drink more and their BAC rises above .055, the negative effects of drinking increase and hangovers become worse. Once you go over a BAC of 0.055, the negative effects of alcohol on your brain’s neurochemistry greatly outweigh any positive effects.

In the short term, alcohol depresses brain function by altering the balance of our brain’s neurotransmitters. To regain balance, the brain begins to upregulate our excitatory neurotransmitters. This effect is negligible during the first phase of the biphasic curve, but if we keep drinking and our BAC goes higher, our brains keep trying to balance out the depressant effect. As alcohol is dissipating from our system, the chemicals that were sent out to compensate for its effect leave us in a state of hypersensitivity which we feel as heightened stress and anxiety. 

Instead of providing relief for stress and anxiety, when we drink more than one or two drinks, we’re actually increasing the feelings of anxiety we’re trying to relieve. 

Use the science of alcohol to retrain your brain. Question the things that you believe about alcohol and whether or not they increase your desire to overdrink. When your thoughts turn to “I just need a drink to take the edge off”–ask yourself, is that really true? 

Molly Watts is the host of the Alcohol Minimalist Podcast, author of Breaking the Bottle Legacy, a wife, a mom and an MM member. Find out more at https://www.mollywatts.com/