Consuming alcohol has been long-thought to enhance happiness, foster connection and cool off anxiety. Even though I knew the cons of drinking, the thought of its redeeming features held me back. When I learned about the neurochemistry behind alcohol I learned a different story.
Alcohol simultaneously excites and depresses through its effects on your brain chemistry. It surges ‘feel-good hormones’ dopamine and serotonin through your body and at the same time it has depressive effects by decreasing glutamate (which slows down your “brain’s highways”) and increasing GABA (which has a sedative effect).
“By jacking up dopamine levels in your brain, alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making you feel great… while at the same time altering other neurochemicals which enhance feelings of depression.” ~ David DiSalvo | Neuroscientist
Although you might feel less anxious when you sip your first drink, alcohol also fuels the release of stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline which means you can end up feeling more anxious and agitated than before drinking.
The next day — as the level of serotonin and dopamine decrease — you’re left being deficient in these important ‘feel-good’ hormones and so it’s likely you will feel very down. You will also have lower GABA levels and higher glutamate levels than usual, which can cause a feeling of anxiety. Long-term heavy drinking leads to sustained lower levels of dopamine and serotonin, and increased cortisol, which means overall you’re more likely to feel depressed and experience chronic anxiety in the long run.
“For so long, I thought alcohol had helped me relieve anxiety — that’s what it promises, right? But somewhere along the line, I realized the equation was actually reversed: drinking alcohol was like pouring gasoline on my anxiety. Maybe I’d feel some relief for a little while, but then — boom — I was spinning like a top. Each morning after was worse than the last.”
~ Laura Mckowen
I used to think that drinking smoothed out interactions and fostered connection, and it was unthinkable for me to give up all the social benefits of drinking. But you can’t selectively numb emotions. When you drink, you end up dulling down your compassion and intelligence too. You have a more limited emotional bandwidth. And within this limited range of emotions, you experience elation, depression and anger more intensely. Your feelings aren’t fully authentic.
“Drinking gave me the illusion of connection, though, so when I was drinking with people… I felt like we were getting closer. I felt like alcohol allowed us to break down barriers, to slide closer to our truer selves and to each other, closer than we could ever get without it. But when the buzz wore off, the separateness returned, and often it was intensely magnified.”
~ Laura Mckowen
Going alcohol-free doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy bars or parties, in fact alcohol-free socialising can be see as ‘HD socialising’ in the words of Catherine Gray. I remember the first time I set eyes on a HD screen: the unimaginable amount of detail, vividness and sharpness. Everything felt more real… even if a bit too clear. That’s the same experience being sober: there’s no blurriness to smooth over blemishes. But Gray explains that only reason alcohol smooths things over is because it inebriates, dulling your brain. Alcohol-free socialising requires us to embrace vulnerability, but in turn it allows us to foster more authentic connection. After all, as Brené Brown found in her research “vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy courage, empathy, and creativity.”
“It takes a while to acclimatise to socialising in HD, but once you do, you wouldn’t go back to the old blurry picture. You start to forget that the new picture is HD at all.”
~ Catherine Gray
Going alcohol-free, whether temporarily or long-term, is becoming increasingly enticing. It’s healthful. It’s vulnerable. It’s disruptive. I don’t think alcohol offers any true benefits, so it’s not ‘giving up’ anything. You might think alcohol is what you need to be social, but you can be social without drinking at all. You might think alcohol tempers anxiety, but it fuels it. You might think alcohol connects us with others, but it only hinders true vulnerable intimacy. Alcohol-free life offers incredible gains in not only health, energy and money but also in confidence, self-respect and freedom. And, I believe, it unlocks a happier life. It has for me.