For further articles on these topics:
We’ve talked in the past about how some people grieving intensely will use alcohol to help them avoid the pain or to numb their feelings. Needless to say, that’s nothing revolutionary. Alcohol becoming a potentially problematic tool for numbing and avoiding is risk that is fairly common knowledge. Of course knowing it’s possible and recognizing that you’re engaging in that behavior can be two very different things! To help you spot it and cope, we’ve written articles about why we as humans love alcohol so much and why that can be especially risky in grief. We also wrote an article about increasing mindfulness around alcohol while grieving. And we’ve talked about sobriety and grief, specifically the relapse risk for those in recovery. So if any of those sound relevant to you, go ahead and give them a read now.
Today we’re going to talk about another aspect of alcohol use and grief. It is one that I fear we’ve been a bit remiss in not raising sooner. With all the hype about using alcohol to numb pain, what gets lost is that it can also be used in exactly the opposite way. Sometimes people use alcohol to avoid feelings, other times people use it to feel feelings. Wild, right? Okay actually it isn’t that wild or surprising. You probably know that when people are drinking that sometimes their emotions start coming out differently. Suddenly someone is expressing their rage or gushing to their friends about how much the love them. Or, and especially relevant to grief, someone may suddenly find themselves weeping when they usually never cry.
Why Does Alcohol Make You Feel Things More Deeply (or Less Deeply)
I’ll spare you the full 101 of alcohol and neurochemistry. You can find general details in this article about alcohol and the brain. If you want to do a deeper dive, check out this more in depth video.
When we drink alcohol, we slow down dull down that activity in the front part of the brain, where both complex thought and anxiety live. This is why your inhibitions drop when you’re drinking. Once you’ve started drinking, you’re often suddenly far less worried about what’s on your calendar tomorrow or those financial issues that felt pressing just three hours ago. At the same time, alcohol cranks up the release of feel-good neurotransmitters in the back part of the brain. These increase a sense of pleasure and connection. If you don’t want to feel your feelings, it is pretty easy to see why alcohol (in the moment) helps with that. Less anxiety + slowing down complex and difficult + releasing feel good chemicals = a mental reprieve.
Where things get complicated is that our anxiety and complex thought are also involved in how we manage our emotions. Our worry about the consequences of allowing others to see our sadness or rage is a major factor in working to manage the way we respond to those emotions. Our fear of feeling our own feelings can keep those feelings compartmentalized. When we drink and our anxiety drops, we’re more open to feeling our emotions and less likely to filter or compartmentalize them. Though some people really dislike this effect of alcohol, other people intentionally begin to use alcohol to feel feelings.
Sure, but Why Would Anyone WANT to Feel Emotions More While Grieving?
It’s a fair question. Often when grieving people are overwhelming by intense and distressing emotions. When drinking, their hope is often to quiet things down and pump up those feel good neurotransmitters. But it turns out that a smaller, but still significant, subset of people grieving don’t experience those intense emotions. If you fall in this latter category, you may feel numb, detached, and even dissociated from yourself and your loss. We’ve written here about the surprisingly common experience of feeling nothing while grieving.
The reason for this sort of numbness or detachment varies from person to person. It can be anything from a trauma response to a (conscious or unconscious) fear of emotions to a long-term socially conditioned response. Regardless of the reason, it is often incredibly disconcerting when it happens. When someone you love so deeply has died and you can’t seem to cry or access any of the grief emotions that you would expect, it can leave you worrying something is wrong with you. It is common for people to feel desperate to feel something, sometimes looking at photos or accessing memories just trying to feel, only to come up empty. It is in this moments that some people find themselves turning to alcohol to feel emotions.
Is Using Alcohol to Feel Feelings Always a Bad Thing?
Now, you might be thinking, what’s the harm in using alcohol to access your emotions if you’re struggling to do it on your own. As people who believe the list of behaviors that are exclusively good or exclusively bad is small, we’re with you. As long as you don’t have an existing problem with addiction, having a couple of glasses of wine with the hope that it might allow you to have a good cry in rare and specific circumstances is not necessarily a problem. Some people report that once they have that one good, breakthrough cry, they are then able to continue accessing and feeling those emotions in an ongoing way, without alcohol.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. In many instances you might realize that you can feel those feelings deeply while drinking, but that when you’re not drinking you’re again disconnected from those emotions. This is a problem for two reasons. First, you’re back in that place of discomfort that comes from feeling numb or disconnected from you’re grief. Next, and most risky, this can create a situation in which you’re tempted to go back to alcohol again and again to access those emotions rather than finding a healthy alternative way to connect with them.
Yikes, This Sounds Like Me. What Do I Do?
First and foremost, if you don’t feel in control of your alcohol use and you need support cutting back or quitting, get help. The easiest place to start is to speak with you therapist, if you have one. If you don’t have a therapist, call your primary care doctor to discuss support options in your area. You can also go to an AA meeting or a SMART recovery meeting, which offers not only peer support, but are often a community who are familiar with the professional support available in your area and can give you suggestions.
As for accessing your feelings, this is a place where you can start on your own but, if you find you’re not making progress, support from a therapist can go a long way. We have an article with concrete ideas to get you started, so check that out:
We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.