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.
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