We have some off the wall posts here at WYG, but with a title like this one you are probably thinking that we have totally lost it. Mindfulness and alcohol? Are you kidding? As usual, I am going to ask you to let me explain.
Alcohol is integrated into our lives and society so deeply it is hard to think of a time and place that alcohol isn’t acceptable – even expected. Life is good? Have a drink. Life is rough? Have a drink. Celebrating? Have a drink! Out to dinner? What pairs well with your meal? Staying in for dinner? You don’t have to drive – have a few. Sunday brunch? Bloody Marys before noon. Wedding? Open bar drinks! Stressful week? Have a glass of wine or three. Finished a big project at work? Drinks for the team. Girls night? Cocktails. The big game? Beer. Wooing clients? Rounds on the company. Funeral? You guessed it – drinks! Short of hidden in your desk drawer at work, there aren’t too many places alcohol isn’t around and accepted.
Though alcohol is everywhere, most of us can list the risks. Alcohol is a toxin. People can fall into the trap of using alcohol to numb, to self-medicate, and to avoid. There is a risk of becoming dependent on alcohol. We make bad decisions when we drink alcohol. Alcohol is generally not so good for our liver (or body in general). And yet, proving again that there is a HUGE gap between knowledge and behavior, we continue to drink it. Without too much thought, alcohol is often part of our daily life or social life or both. Even for those who eat organic, do yoga, and run marathons, alcohol is often a part of daily life-- set aside in another category where we don't choose to think about it too much.
If we do decide to stand nose to nose with our drinking, we often find a deep connection between rationalization and alcohol. For example, I have been known to tell myself I earned a drink. You know, for surviving the day. Or that Friday is a special occasion. Heck, I could rationalize alcohol as a form of grief self-care: I get a good night's rest? No problem- some wine will help me fall asleep (we won’t talk about the fact that it will be a restless sleep). I should get out and start doing things I enjoy? Happy hour with a friend sounds like a good place to start. I should talk with friends about my grief? Well, that will be easier and less awkward if we have some drinks. Have I mentioned I am a professional rationalizer?
What is the problem here? Though it seems like it goes without saying, alcohol is not a healthy coping skill. It is a tempting one, but not healthy. It addresses the symptoms of our grief, not the underlying problems. It makes real exploration of the underlying issues more difficult, masking them with a temporary “fix” and delaying us from addressing the feelings we must address. It puts us at risk for developing dependence. It puts a strain on our bodies. It puts us at risk of escalating to more dangerous substances.
I am not saying you need to cut all alcohol from your life -- really I am not. As a wine-drinking beer-lover, that would just be hypocritical. I am encouraging you to keep in mind that grief puts you at a higher risk for developing a problem with alcohol, so it is especially important to seek self-awareness and moderation. There are some things you can do to make sure your alcohol use is under control, that you aren’t using it to self-medicate or “cope” with your grief, and to assess whether you are in need of some changes to your behaviors or professional help. This is where mindfulness and increased awareness comes in.
Determine How Much You Are Drinking
Don’t guess or tell me you think you know, because you probably don’t. Don't feel bad about that. The reality is that most people don’t even know what a serving of alcohol is, much less have a good sense of how many servings they drink. Luckily your friends here at WYG are going to tell you. Why? Because this will allow you to tell yourself an honest story about how much you are drinking, whether you want to or not. You can't build awareness and consider change unless you start paying attention!
A serving size of beer is 12oz of a 4.5% beer. Think a pint glass is 12 oz? Think again. A pint glass is 16oz, so one pint of a 4.5% beer and you have already had 1.3 servings of alcohol. Eeek.
Do you like microbrews, IPAs, and those other fancy beers on the market? Many beers these days are 7% or 8% (sometimes even more). So even though the bartender may have only handed you one pint of beer, you may have actually had two+ servings of alcohol if it was 8%. I know, this is just like when you realized that a snack-size bag of chips is actually 2 servings. Sorry to burst your bubble.
A serving size of wine is 5oz. What does that mean in your wine glass? To make life especially tricky, wine glasses can range in size from 6oz to 20+oz. If you have a large wine glass it can be very difficult to gauge if you poured a 5oz serving or an 8oz serving or even more. Let's say you poured two 8oz glasses of wine after a long day of work. That is actually more than three servings of alcohol when you thought you only had two. Not to mention those occasions that you have a bottle with dinner and your friend, your date, or your waitress keeps refilling your glass before it was ever empty. You were busy chatting and suddenly the bottle is empty, yet you never once saw the bottom of your glass.
A serving of liquor is 1.5oz. That doesn't look like much if you pour it in a rocks glass, juice glass, water glass, or pint glass. Most waitresses and bartenders will tell you they have had patrons send back cocktails made with only 1.5oz of liquor claiming it had no alcohol in it! Your bartender wants a good tip, so he often isn’t giving you a 1.5oz pour. He knows patrons are looking for a heavy pour. If you are pouring for yourself at home, don’t be surprised to find that you are pouring yourself at least 3oz (two servings) of alcohol in each drink you make. Start paying attention. Measure it out. Ask your bartender to measure it out.
Track It (Don't worry, there's an app for that)
Determining how much we are actually drinking is important because it reveals ways we rationalizing or are unrealistic about how much we drink. It is easy to say, Oh, I'll just have a drink or two after work to unwind. Well, if my first drink is a 16oz beer that has 7% alcohol and my second drink is a martini with 4oz of liquor I had over 4 drinks. We can’t assess the role alcohol plays in our lives until we know how much we are actually drinking -even when that number isn’t pretty. Of course there is an app to track this if you enter all the details. It is called DrinkControl and may be a helpful tool to help you build awareness.
Become Aware of Why You Drink
When alcohol is everywhere, it is easy to grab a drink without giving a thought as to why we are drinking. Your mission, should you choose to accept it: think about why you are drinking. What is the emotion causing you to reach for a drink? Consider your specific feeling and experience in the moment. Are you lonely? Bored? Feeling socially anxious? In pain? Celebrating? Stressed? Feel you have earned it or deserve it? Trying to escape? Feeling social pressure? The list is endless. In order to understand and assess whether we are using alcohol to cope with difficult emotions, we have to build an awareness about the emotions behind our drinks.
Sometimes triggers are emotions, as described above, but sometimes they are external, sensory factors. Begin becoming more aware of external, physical things that impact your drinking. These can be anything from the football game coming on TV, a specific restaurant or bar, eating a specific food, hot weather, cold weather, a friend, family member, significant other, place you love, place you hate, or any number of other things. If you know who, what, and where your triggers are you can begin making a plan for how you will manage them. If I know my bestie from college is a trigger I can make a plan for when I see her. If I know I can't go into my favorite bar without having six drinks I can make a plan to avoid my favorite bar, at least while I am getting comfortable with my new-found awareness and moderation.
Keep a Chart
For all of the above, consider making a simple chart to build your awareness. Begin tracking when you drink, how much, what the emotion was behind your decision to drink, and if there was an external trigger. This will help you become more mindful about the when, why, and how much or your drinking. Because knowing is half the battle.
Take a Break
Though we at WYG have been known to have a drink now and again, it is important to know you have control over your decision to drink. Take a month off from alcohol, to make sure you are in control of your drinking. This is especially important while you are grieving, when you are at a higher risk for developing a dependence on alcohol. Tell a friend, family member, or therapist and check in with them to stay accountable. If you find you are struggling with an emotion that makes you want to drink, or you experience a physical trigger, increase your awareness and make note of it. Journal about the circumstances and emotion. Once you have identified the emotion, use some of the techniques below to put space between you and the drink.
Make a Plan and Concrete Alternatives
If you find you have control over your drinking but want to lessen your use of alcohol, especially if you are using it to cope with grief or other difficult emotions, there are some simple steps you can take. Start by looking at your emotion list. Make a new chart, where you list the thoughts, feelings, and emotions in one column. In the second column make a list of alternatives for managing each emotion. Don’t do this in your head. You want to get it on paper, so you can reference it when you need it. For example, if you want a drink because you are stressed or tense, exercise is a natural stress reliever that is a good alternative. So on your list, you might include going to the gym, walking the dog, or doing yoga. If you are inclined to have a drink because you have had a bad day, bad week, or otherwise “deserve” it because life just sucks, make a list of other ways you can reward yourself – get a manicure, buy something small you have been wanting, or have your favorite food for dinner. Wanting a drink because you are lonely or bored? Make a list of friends you can call. If you did our Support System Superlatives activity this might be the perfect time to pull it out and see who you can turn to. Wanting a drink because you are sad, angry, or otherwise in a general funk. Create a self-care list of things (other than drinking!) that cheer you up and keep it with you. You may find some inspiration in our Self-Care For the Rest of Us Post.
When you notice your inclination to have a drink arise, take a deep breath and do a self-assessment of what you are experiencing. Pull out your list and make a commitment to trying at least two things on it before you pour that drink. This will get you some space between the emotion or trigger and your inclination to have that glass of wine.
Commit to Mindful Awareness
Now you just have to commit to paying attention! It isn't always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes it means facing the fact that we are using alcohol more than we think we are. It often means pushing ourselves beyond what is comfortable. Alcohol can feel like an old friend and an easy answer when life seems impossible. But I promise you will feel much better knowing that your decision to have a drink is your own, you are doing it mindfully, and you are not using alcohol as a friend or a coping tool.
When Do I Have a “Problem”
Finally, it is important to note that, when it comes to alcohol, mindfulness and moderation is not a possibility for everyone. People will often ask how much alcohol is “normal”, “non-problem” or “social” use and how much is a problem. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this, as there are many factors that come into play. If you find that you are using alcohol to cope with difficult emotions, like anxiety, stress, despair, boredom, or isolation this is a sign you should look to develop alternative, helping coping skills. If you can't, seek help. If you find that you are drinking on a very regular basis, you are unable to take a break from alcohol, are drinking more often or larger quantities than you planned, that you feel guilty about your use or things you do while drinking, are experiencing any problems at work, school, or in your home life due to drinking, you should seek professional help. Ultimately some people realize their alcohol use is a major problem and that mindfulness, moderation, and self-awareness are just not an option - it is all or nothing. If you think you may have a problem or have given thought to cutting back, seek some help. As we have said many times before, a little therapy never hurt anyone! There are plenty of options, from AA to substance abuse counselors. Find an AA meeting here or find a substance abuse counselor here.
Learn more about how alcohol effects our brain and mood here.
To learn more about how alcohol and grief intersect, check out Understanding Grief, Alcohol and Your Brain.
Share your experience with grief, mindfulness, and alcohol with us -- leave a comment!
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What’s Your Grief? Lists to Help you Through Any Loss is for people experiencing any type of loss. This book discusses some of the most common grief experiences and breaks down psychological concepts to help you understand your thoughts and emotions. It also shares useful coping tools, and helps the reader reflect on their unique relationship with grief and loss.
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