Using Alcohol to Feel Feelings

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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:

4 Ways To Get In Touch With Your Grief

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

We invite you to share your experiences, questions, and resource suggestions with the WYG community in the discussion section below.

Let’s be grief friends.

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One Comment on "Using Alcohol to Feel Feelings"

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  1. Katherine  December 22, 2021 at 4:47 am Reply

    I lost my husband of 33 years on September 24th 2021.
    It started as any other day we both went off to work, At 12pm I received a message at work from him through the office to say your husband thinks he has covid, where are the tests. I was teaching a class at the time, and told her to tell him I will ring him at 12.30.
    I picked up my phone and there were 2 messages from him just saying help me. I rang him, and he said he could not move.

    I grabbed my bag and drove home. On arrival he clearly was unwell, he wanted to go to bed, so I helped him upstairs to bed.
    I said I was ringing an ambulance and he refused. He hated hospitals, he agreed that I should take his Sats every half hour, they were all over the place.
    I said I don’t care love I’m calling the ambulance, I was told the wait was 90 minutes.
    He had real difficulty breathing so we assumed it was his asthma. I sat him on the edge of the bed and sat between his legs gently rubbing his arms and legs to slow his breathing down and comfort him, he looked me in the face and said I think I’m dying, katherine I think I’m dying.
    I replied don’t be silly your not . You always say I fall down I get up again.
    He then became worse with chest pain, so I called the ambulance again, 90 minutes as per your first call was the reply.
    Eventually a paramedic arrived shortly followed by the ambulance.
    He could not stand or walk on his own so they helped him down the stairs where they put him on the trolly, they tried oxygen and nebulizers on him, nothing worked.
    At that point they said they were taking him, I asked could I go with him, the reply was no. Heart breaking for me as we had never really been apart. I got in the ambulance kissed him goodby and said I love you, he kissed me back and said I love you too.
    I never spoke to my husband or saw him alive again.
    I received a call about 5pm, to come to the hospital and bring his CPAP machine as he was not tolerating theirs, and you can sit with him, I said thank you because he will be so scared,
    I was escorted into a relatives room in re sus, was told they were just making him comfortable, copious amounts of tea brought in, and you can see him soon were just making him comfortable.
    Eventually a intensive care doctor cam in, asked me about Nigels day, he said he was very poorly he had a heart rate of 255 if we can get it down we can get him to intensive care, and sort of his other problems, as he has fluid on his heart and lungs and they are fighting against each other.
    I asked if he was going to die but he would not commit, I asked if I could see him and again we are making him comfortable.
    More tea and the same comment.
    At some point 2 members of staff came in introduced themselves and and asked about Nigels day, I started to explain again, at which point she said, I’m sorry to tell you that Nigel passed away an hour ago.
    My world fell apart at that moment my heart broke, why had they not come to get me.
    They took me through, he looked so asleep, but he had a tracki tube in his neck and various ivs in arms and legs.
    My baby my beloved husband had passed, apparently his heart had just stopped.
    I cried and cried, held him kissed him,touched him, I just wanted him to wake up.
    I then had to phone our 6 children and break the news, all came at once, but poor David had to drive all the way from Oxford.
    We all cried, hugged, each of the children taking their turn to be with their beloved dad. It was the most painful thing I have ever had to do. They all drifted off home, but I stayed until 4 am, holding cuddling, kissing this man who I have had 33 wonderful years with.
    To make it worse they said there needed to be a PM, they were going to cut him up how could they.
    I saw him twice in the chapel of rest, I was allowed to be alone with him, I absolutely sobbed for the entire half hour both days.
    Because of the PM we had to book the funeral for a much later date than normal, we booked the 26th October
    After the PM they took him to the funeral home.
    I wanted ownership of his last 10 days with us, I did not want him in his suit until the last day nor did I want him in his coffin until the last day.
    I had him put in his favorite furry freak brothers t shirt wear and a pair of shorts with his yellow submarine socks, he would usually wear something like that around the house.
    They placed him on a trolly, so each day I went to see him, I lowered it down and sat on the chair laying my head on his chest, I kissed my husband,rubbed my fingers through his hair, held his hand, stroked his legs, he was still with me for that time together and we had every single one of those 10 days like that.
    The children each came to say their goodbys.
    I had a hand cast made while he was at the funeral home and it is beautiful, I have his hand print and thumb print.I have a photo of me holding his hand.
    On the last day I saw him in his suit, and laid with him a while, then I waited while they put him in his coffin.
    I went back in, and at that point I knew he was gone and he was at peace. I gave him one final kiss, put pictures of the family and the pictures and letters from the grandchildren in the coffin, said goodby and came away.
    The funeral that afternoon had been planned so carefully, the cremation was booked for an hour as we did not want to be rushed, there were no hymns, just songs he had requested and songs we loved to listen too together, the boys carried in their dad, to all you need is love.
    The celebrant was excellent, I had sent him an email with my thoughts and feelings on and about our life, the idea was that he just took bits, but he could not do that he read it all.
    One of Nigels friends did a story about Nigel and his love of fire works, ending when its our turn to go, and you want to find him, just follow the fire works. Sam our youngest did a really moving reading, about his love and all that dad had taught him, David our eldest read a poem He is gone. It was a beautiful funny moving service. I chose 4 songs in all, Horizons by Genesis, God watch over you by Prefab sprout, High the lighthouse family, Sierra and we were always sweethearts by Boz Scaggs.
    Donations were made to the special needs school Nigel drove for, and we had a celebration of his life afterwards where the Grandchildren all let off balloons to Grandad.
    So today is the 22nd December, he is still with me, I can feel him, and he has shown in many ways that he is still with me, some amazing things have been happening.
    I am still trying to come to terms with what has happened and cry often, sometimes really sobbing, but I do feel better once I have had a cry.
    Now that christmas is approaching it is getting harder though, even though as a family we will be together over this period.
    I have his ashes here with me in a beautiful heart shaped urn, and a smaller tub, I take every where, like to the grandchildrens parties, twice I have left him there, much to the amusement of the kids.
    NIgel was my one true love my best friend and love of my life, he will always be.
    Someone said to me the other day you will find someone else your young.
    Those words hurt, I had made a promise to him I would never want to be with anyone else, but if I went first and he got with anyone, I would come back and haunt him, we would laugh. But I meant it.
    I have just got to find a new way of life for me, and our family, and we will together.
    Love you my little love wait for me.

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