Understanding Grief, Alcohol and Your Brain

Coping with Grief / Coping with Grief : Litsa Williams

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When the holidays roll around it is an especially painful time of year for those of us who are grieving.  Simultaneously alcohol (aka happy-juice) just so happens to be everywhere this time of year.  An open bar at the work holiday party, egg nog at the neighbor’s holiday party, wine and more wine at holiday dinners . . . I think you can see where we are going with this. It is no wonder that our alcohol consumption can increase dramatically at the holidays, especially when we're grieving.

Now, before you shut your browser thinking that I am going to get all judgey on you for drinking, let me say that I am an ‘everything in moderation’ kind of gal.  I love a glass of wine or a yummy IPA as much as much as the next person (heck, maybe even a little more than the next person).  But I also know that alcohol can become a fast friend --one of those friends that you love despite the fact that she encourages you to make bad decisions and tells you an outfit looks great when really it makes you look fat. So what is the deal with alcohol and your brain? 

Why do we turn to it when life is tough? What is it that keeps us coming back to alcohol, even when it has made us feel like crap?  Why is it that sometimes we plan to have one drink to take the edge off and before we know it we’ve polished off a bottle of wine?  We have already given you tips on how to moderate your drinking and gain a better self-awareness about alcohol, which you should check out if you missed it.  But today we want to give a better understanding of what is happening in our brains that makes alcohol such a tempting frenemy when we're grieving.  And don’t worry, we’ll keep it basic.

Flashback to 9th grade health class: neurons are the building block of our brains.  Billions and billions of neurons are responsible for our sensory experience, movement, thinking, emotions, and much more.   These neurons fire chemicals called neurotransmitters that activate receptors that ultimately control our behavior, thinking, and how we experience the world. This is super complex and there are many neurotransmitters that each do many different things. But for today’s purposes we are only going to talk about two: dopamine and GABA. Dopamine is the feel-good neurotransmitter that does many things in our brains, but what is important here is it’s role in the reward system of the brain.  

When dopamine is released in our brains it makes us feel really really good.  Back when we were hunter-gatherers and we killed a big animal and ate it, the dopamine in our reward system made us feel really really good so we would remember that we should do that again. Alcohol makes us feel good (at least in the short term) because it works on this same system.

Alcohol increases the dopamine that makes us feel really good and our brain knows that, so when we are feeling like crap (for example, when we are grieving), our brain’s reward system starts saying, “go ahead, pour a glass of wine, that’ll cheer you right up!” Over time, we build a tolerance to alcohol and other substances, so we need more and more to get the same feel-good response in the brain. Our brain keeps telling us to go back for more, despite the fact that the impact we want is no longer there.  

What can be really scary in the long-term is that our baseline levels of dopamine and other neurotransmitters can actually be depleted when we keep using substances that manipulate this neurotransmitter release. In addition to this whole reward system thing, it is important to understand how alcohol impacts the ‘thinking’ part of our brain.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of our brain that is responsible for thinking, reasoning, planning, etc. This is the part of our brain that keeps the feel-good parts of our brain in check.  So, instead of eating chocolate cake and having sex all day, this part of the brain helps us weigh the consequences of our actions and do the 'responsible' thing instead of just feel-good things.  

GABA is another neurotransmitter in our brain which calms anxiety in the thinking part of our brain.  In moderation this is a good thing - we don't want to be obsessively anxious and over-thinking everything.   The problem is, alcohol increases the effect of GABA, a lot.  

When we increase the effects of GABA, we inhibit all that healthy anxiety in the thinking part of our brain.  Without those ‘inhibitions’ we become more and more uninhibited – we stop worrying about things, we do things we wouldn’t normally do, we say things we wouldn’t normally say, etc. When we are grieving we often have a million things on our mind.  

Our thoughts are going a mile a minute thinking about the loss of our loved one. Our brain knows that having a drink will slow down that ‘thinking’ part of the brain, at least for a little while. Once that anxiety is reduced and those inhibitions are eased, that responsible plan we made in our prefrontal cortex to only have a drink or two starts to change. 

The part of our brain that made that plan is no longer operating at full capacity thanks to GABA, and suddenly we are saying yes to a third drink, then a fourth . . . you know where we’re going here. The reason we share this is because understanding what alcohol does to our brain can made it easier to understand our own behaviors and seek alternatives. 

Though alcohol impacts feel-good neurotransmitters, it is not the only way to impact the feel-good, reward system in your brain.  Everything from exercise, yoga, meditation, to listening to music can increase the dopamine response (ever gotten chills from listening to a song?  That is related to dopamine release!). 

Though alcohol can quiet our racing or negative thoughts, there are other behavioral alternatives that don’t carry the same risk for dependence or other side-effects.  You can check out some ideas for positive thinking and meditation techniques here. Alcohol will be abundant at the holidays, so try to build your awareness around your drinking to make sure it doesn’t get out of control or become a primary tool for coping.  Check out our other post on alcohol and grief for a lot more information on managing your drinking while grieving. We post some pretty interesting stuff around here.  Subscribe and we'll send posts straight to your email. 

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6 Comments on "Understanding Grief, Alcohol and Your Brain"

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  1. Fred  December 19, 2018 at 12:26 pm Reply

    Im going out on limb here and say i understand what your saying sort of , but cant see why a person cant stop once the brain build that tolerance ….. I just left a toxic relationship where my ex drinks EVERYDAY !!! she uses alcohol for every emotion …. at what point does the Brain just not prouduce either you would think after 6 years of drinking she would feel nothing …. hence i might have just answered my self ?

  2. Lorraine Dietel  June 20, 2016 at 6:39 pm Reply

    I too find that wine helps me get my gruef out. I found interesting, however, that the effects of GABA and how alcohol increases that effect.

  3. gloria  October 13, 2015 at 9:04 pm Reply

    dAlex, I agree, I am probably drinking more since losing my 28 year daughter, Laura, very suddenly only 3 months ago. Why??? to escape, forget, numb, yes, but sometimes I feel like it is then when I can really let my innermost feelings out. But Litsa is right, there are other ways, I know that. This wonderful site, with amazing articles and comments are helping me to find the ways. Thank you for WYG.

  4. Alex  September 23, 2015 at 7:04 am Reply

    Hi Lista. Thanks for your reply and all the very poignant posts here. What you said makes total sense. I think I misinterpreted part of the article in a way to say that drinking makes us STOP having anxious, sad, cyclical thoughts on our grief and makes us stop feeling the accompanying feelings. I’m sure this is true for some people. Alcohol has the opposite effect on me right now, just as you’ve explained here. (And as it were, I tend to write more when I’m drinking too.)

  5. Alex  September 22, 2015 at 6:44 pm Reply

    I know the science makes sense, but the described effects don’t quite line up for me (and for others, I’m guessing). Alcohols seems to be the liberator that finally lets me think about my lost baby after going through the motions of keeping my life running all day. The loss of inhibition, quieting the GABA neurotransmitters, opens me up to feeling him again—and by “feeling him,” I mean really experiencing the pain that’s been nagging me in the background all day. It’s pathetic, I’m sure, but being drunk-sad is the thing that brings me closest to him again because it’s the only thing that I can truly feel right now.

    • Litsa  September 22, 2015 at 10:01 pm Reply

      Hi Alex! I am not sure I understand what doesn’t line up, as what you describe makes total sense (I think?) with the science. We use our rational brain to keep our emotions in check, often because we have to to meet societal expectations, to get through the day, etc. This can feel restrictive and repressive, so alcohol allows us to let down that guard and feel those emotions can feel freeing, honest, make us feel close and connected, etc. Just because emotions like sadness and pain get a bum rap, it doesn’t mean we don’t want to feel them or value seeing them, especially while we are grieving. If we don’t feel comfortable letting go of our inhibitions to do that on our own alcohol can feel like the best option. I may be misunderstanding, but to me I think it makes perfect sense!

      That said, this can become a dangerous cycle if we can’t learn to feel feelings without a substance. There are a lot of ways to start working on losing the anxieties and hang up we have about feeling the depth of our emotions, though often it does take some effort and practice. Writing can actually be a great tool for this, though there are many others.

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