Rewriting your relationship with alcohol: Improving mental health

We often dismiss the occasional glass of wine or pint of beer as harmless indulgences. And, in moderation, that's true. However, it's crucial to understand that alcohol isn't just a social facilitator or stress reliever. Research paints a much more intricate picture of its impact on our mental well-being.


An intimate connection: Alcohol and mental health

Alcohol can act like a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it can offer a temporary reprieve from stress, anxiety, and unpleasant feelings, causing a release of endorphins that can make you feel happier, more relaxed, or less inhibited.

However, these effects are transient. Once the euphoria fades, the body experiences a rebound effect, leading to heightened anxiety, low mood and, in extreme cases, withdrawal symptoms. This can create a vicious cycle where individuals resort to more alcohol to combat these negative feelings.

Several studies have highlighted the increased risk of mental health disorders in those with problematic alcohol use. Anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and even more severe conditions such as psychosis have been linked to excessive alcohol use. It's, therefore, vital to recognise the signs of unhealthy drinking habits - not just for our physical health but our mental well-being, too.

Signs may include:

  • using alcohol to cope with stress or sadness
  • neglecting responsibilities due to drinking
  • experiencing withdrawal symptoms when not drinking
  • having persistent desires to cut down on alcohol but finding it difficult to do so

Understanding these signs is a crucial step toward addressing unhealthy alcohol consumption and enhancing mental health.

A cognitive approach: Identifying triggers and patterns

You're at a family gathering, and you feel a sudden urge to grab a drink. Or perhaps you're dealing with a stressful situation at work, and the idea of a glass of wine seems particularly appealing. These scenarios or 'triggers' can kick-start a chain reaction that leads to alcohol use. But how can we make sense of these triggers and disrupt the chain?

Enter cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

CBT is a form of psychotherapy that emphasises the interconnectedness of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. In other words, how we think about a situation influences how we feel and how we act. Therefore, identifying triggers - the thoughts or situations that lead to the urge to drink - is a core aspect of this therapy.

Your triggers might be stress, feelings of loneliness, certain social environments or even specific people. Paying close attention to when you experience the urge to drink can help reveal underlying patterns, which are critical to understanding your relationship with alcohol. You can start by keeping a simple 'drinking diary' - noting down when, where, and why you drink, and how it makes you feel. This simple act of self-observation can often reveal surprising insights and is the first step towards making positive changes.

Toolbox for change: Developing healthy coping strategies

Once we've identified the triggers and patterns associated with drinking, we're in a better position to manage them. One effective strategy in the CBT toolbox is mindfulness.

In the context of alcohol use, mindfulness involves staying present and fully experiencing your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judgement. So, when you're hit with a wave of cravings or trigger scenarios arise, mindfulness can allow you to ride out the urge without giving in. This can be as simple as taking a few deep breaths, grounding yourself in the present moment, and observing your cravings as if they were clouds passing in the sky.

In addition to mindfulness, CBT encourages the exploration of other healthy coping mechanisms. This might include regular physical exercise - which has been shown to reduce cravings and improve mood - engaging in hobbies that distract from drinking, or even taking up relaxation techniques like yoga or meditation.

These alternative coping mechanisms can provide a healthy and productive way to deal with the triggers and feelings that might otherwise lead to drinking.

Leaning on others: Building a support system

Reducing alcohol consumption is seldom a solo mission. Building a robust support system can often be the make-or-break factor in managing alcohol use. This support can come in many forms: family, friends, support groups, and professional help.

Encouragement and understanding from loved ones can go a long way in fostering resilience and maintaining motivation. However, it's also important to set boundaries and communicate your needs clearly to ensure your loved ones can support you in a way that's helpful and respectful.

Support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), can also provide a platform for shared experiences, understanding, and mutual encouragement. Connecting with others who are on the same journey can often ease feelings of isolation and provide practical tips and strategies.

For some, engaging with a qualified therapist who specialises in CBT and substance use disorders can provide essential guidance and support. A therapist can help identify unhealthy thought patterns, guide the development of new coping mechanisms, and provide a safe and non-judgemental space to discuss progress and challenges.

Cultivating growth: Embracing positive change

Change, as they say, is the only constant. And when it comes to alcohol, embracing positive change often begins with setting achievable, realistic goals. Perhaps it's deciding to have two alcohol-free days a week, or reducing the number of drinks per night. Starting small and gradually building up can make the task less daunting and increase the chances of success.

CBT also teaches us to challenge the negative thought patterns that might stand in our way. For instance, you might find yourself thinking, "I can't do this," or "I'll never be able to change." CBT helps us recognise these self-defeating thoughts, challenge them, and replace them with positive affirmations like "I am capable of change," or "Each step I take is a step towards a healthier me."

Reducing alcohol consumption is a journey with its fair share of challenges. But it's a journey that can lead to improved mental health, better physical well-being, and overall enhanced quality of life. Remember, the key lies in understanding your unique patterns, developing personal coping strategies, leaning on your support system, and embracing the positive changes along the way.

With these steps, you can rewrite your relationship with alcohol, fostering healthier habits and enhancing mental well-being.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Birmingham, West Midlands, B15
Written by Michael Swift, Integrative Psychotherapist | BSc(Hon), MSc, MBACP
Birmingham, West Midlands, B15

Michael is an award-winning integrative Psychotherapist specialising in the treatment of Anxiety Disorders, OCD, Long-Term Health, and Acute Mental Health Conditions. He has over 10 years of experience working in private healthcare organisations and holds advanced dual qualifications in both Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Health Psychology.

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