Mindful drinking: the brain connection

Mindful drinking: the brain connection

If you plan to not drink but end up imbibing anyway and then berate yourself the morning after, you are not alone. Even if it’s just one glass of wine you didn’t plan on consuming, it irks. Well, it’s time to stop beating yourself up because it’s not your fault

Words Carolyn Enting. Artwork Lisa Lodge

The benefits of reducing alcohol are compelling – weight loss, brain clarity, better skin and sleep, improved bank balance – so why is it so hard to say no when a glass of wine is presented to us? Or to resist opening a bottle of wine while preparing dinner after a busy day?

The answer is mind-numbingly simple, and the insight it brings is totally liberating. It has now been scientifically proven that drinking alcohol helps silence our inner critic and that, coupled with our strong drinking culture, means you never stood a chance. 

To put that more simply, we’ve been programmed to reach for a drink when the going gets tough, or to celebrate, commiserate, relax, reward, lower social inhibitions, and as a medicinal treatment. It’s an omnipresent factor that threads through the fabric of Western culture, making it nearly impossible to avoid, and, as statistics prove, even harder to not imbibe. In the past year, 85 per cent of Kiwis aged 16-64 had an alcoholic drink.

“The trouble with alcohol being so ingrained in our culture is that we often don’t even realise the real reasons why we’re drinking. But identifying these is a big part of being fully aware of the problem,” says Rosamund Dean, author of the recently released Mindful Drinking: How Cutting Down Can Change Your Life. “It’s perfectly natural that you want to reach for a bottle of wine after a bad day at work, but this process is all about spotting the feeling, and understanding it before we can tackle it head on.”

Demand for Dean’s book, and a duo by internationally renowned hypnotherapist Georgia Foster called The Drink Less Mind and Drink Less in 7 Days, attest to how thirsty people are for knowledge on how to drink less.

Dean and Foster show there is a way to cultivate a new, healthy and more mindful relationship with alcohol that doesn’t mean giving up alcohol completely. Or does it? Many find that a side effect of becoming a more mindful drinker is the decision to cut out alcohol completely, like Evolu founder Kati Kasza did because she thought she “might as well keep on enjoying her new-found wellness” (read her story on P42). Giving up drinking is one of the steps she’s taken on her health and wellness journey, and what surprises her is that when she shares this with other women their first question is: “How?”

The stats

  • 85% of Kiwis aged 16-64 had an alcohol drink in the past year
  • 1 in 6 adults (aged 15+) have a potentially hazardous drinking pattern - Ministry of Health 2009 
  • High-risk drinking in women has surged by 58% in 10 years - US report 

    Emotional rescue

    The emotional pull of alcohol is strong. The fact it has now been scientifically proven that drinking alcohol also helps to silence our inner critic helps explain its appeal. It’s a way to escape our negative self-talk – until the hangover kicks in.

    “One of the easiest ways to suppress the inner critic’s voice is to drink alcohol and this is why people over-drink,” explains Foster. “The aim of The Drink Less Mind is to assist people to train their mind to deal with their inner critic without having to over-drink. Through doing this, you can enjoy a drink without the emotional consequences the next day of anxiety, guilt and fear. What people don’t understand is that the drink is not the problem, it’s the emotional conditioning before the consumption of alcohol that needs to be focused on.

    “There’s this part of the brain, behind the ears, the amygdala. What neuroscientists have said is that when the brain is feeling vulnerable – it could be the slightest bit of stirring, a bit of fear, it could be anticipation, it could be feeling lonely, or bored, the slightest feeling of vulnerability – in a nanosecond, the amygdala will fire off adrenaline, cortisol, all of those stress chemicals. It will send those chemicals to the body and then the body says ‘get me out of here this isn’t feeling good’ and then in a nanosecond the brain will look at the history and ask ‘what did we do last time to suppress it, to get rid of it?’ and if it’s beer, wine, alcohol, it will demand it. Not because you’re a failure, but because your mind is looking for a result quickly to calm yourself down, to go back to a sense of safety. This is not my evidence, this has been scientifically proven.”

    It doesn’t help that alcohol also increases the release of dopamine in your brain’s ‘reward centres’, tricking you into thinking that it’s actually making you feel great. Over time, with more drinking, the dopamine effect diminishes until it’s almost nonexistent. But at this stage, a drinker is often ‘hooked’ on the feeling of dopamine release, even if they’re no longer getting it. 

    How hypnosis can help

    Hypnosis is a fast and effective way to create behaviour modification. We naturally drift in and out of the hypnotic state during our waking hours. Hypnosis is just like a daydreaming state, where you are not totally consciously aware, explains Foster. The unconscious mind is like a muscle. When you work with it over a period of time it starts to build itself up and it becomes stronger and stronger. Using this underestimated part of the mind will allow you, emotionally and physically, to de-programme and re-programme yourself from old issues about your drinking habits.

    Foster uses hypnosis and behaviour modification techniques to help people manage their alcohol, rather than being managed by it, by building coping strategies that stop the chemical reaction taking place in our brains that tells us we want another drink.

    “It can be challenging for some but clinical hypnosis is an easier method to make emotional change,” says Foster. “The goal is to help you move on from these familiar brain patterns in a certain way. Get your mind to be in the pre-frontal cortex before you have your first drink and when you are feeling the slightest bit of anxiety, fear or self-doubt, your mind goes straight to the pre-frontal cortex to calm down before drinking starts.

    “I believe that we have incredible minds that can move on. At this point in time, your drinking is your history. When you go into hypnosis, your mind actually thinks that you’re there, with your imagination and all the senses you’re working with, and it stores those moments as the references. The more positive feelings we train your mind to feel in hypnosis, the more your mind will use these references rather than the old ones when you go out in the reality of your drinking life.”

    The past is not your truth, your drinking past is your habit and there is nothing set in stone, says Foster. “There’s nothing wrong with you if you drink every night. You are a normal person who has a habit. It’s not complicated. The media and doctors make it seem like it’s something wrong with you. We’ve become so used to drinking. A client will say to me they’re chopping vegetables, getting the kids ready for bed, and they look over and say ‘where did that bottle of wine go?’ This is emotional conditioning. It’s because your brain has become familiar with it but you can train your brain to be familiar with drinking in a more healthy way.”

    When Foster first pitched her book idea to publishers 13 years ago their reaction was ‘you’ve got to be joking’. Foster wrote the book anyway, self-published on Amazon and printed 2000 copies. Within three months she had to do a reprint, confirming what she already knew from her work as a clinical hypnotherapist in London – people wanted to learn how to drink less. The Drink Less Mind has gone on to sell more than 25,000 copies.

    Dean, who interviews Foster for her book, says we often joke about being addicted to cheese but most of us don’t like to think of ourselves as having a ‘problem’ with drinking. “You might reassure yourself that you don’t have a physical dependency on alcohol. It isn’t damaging your relationships or career. You’re not gulping straight vodka from that water bottle on your desk all day. So what’s the problem?” says Dean. “Well, I used to think the same thing. Until I realised that daily drinking, while not affecting my life in any dramatic way, was slowly disrupting everything from my skin to my mood, all while storing up health problems for the future. 

    Price of consumption on a nation

    As a nation, how we consume is definitely an issue. Three in five (61.6 per cent) past-year drinkers consumed more than the recommended guidelines for a single drinking occasion at least once during the last year, and one in six (17.7 per cent) adults (aged15+) have a potentially hazardous drinking pattern according to the Ministry of Health 2009. 

    Alcohol consumption has been identified as an important risk factor for more than 60 different disorders, according to WHO. An estimated 3.8 per cent of all global deaths are attributed to alcohol.

    In New Zealand, estimates indicate between 600 and 1000 people die each year from alcohol-related causes. The New Zealand Police estimate that approximately one third of all apprehensions involve alcohol and that half of all serious crimes are related to alcohol. In 2008, alcohol was a contributing factor in 103 fatal crashes, 441 serious injury crashes and 1156 minor crashes (Ministry of Transport). 

    A new study, published in The New Zealand Medical Journal, found 23 per cent of women who took part in the ‘Growing Up in New Zealand’ study continued to drink in their first trimester – when the risk of damage to nerve tissue was the highest – despite knowing they were pregnant. Thirteen per cent continued drinking after the first three months.

    Women are drinking more than ever, says Dean, whether that’s throwing ourselves into work, with client dinners and drinks with colleagues, or compulsively reaching for the wine as soon as the kids are in bed. One study showed British women are twice as likely to become problem drinkers if they’ve been to university. However, it is not only professional women who are drinking too much. The majority of Foster’s clients are women in their 30s and 40s, and it’s a mix of those focused on careers and stay-at-home mums. Drinking can be triggered by loneliness, or when life is suddenly more restrictive. 

    Women now buy eight out of 10 bottles of the wine that is drunk at home in the UK, and in the US, a recent report showed that high-risk drinking in women has surged by 58 per cent in 10 years.

    Foster says her courses are not designed for those with alcoholism but for people who recognise their drinking behaviour interferes with their lives in a negative way.

    “The goal of my work is to mindfully reduce by half what a person generally drinks. Even if they drink a lot, this is still very inspiring. All of us can learn to manage alcohol and retrain our habits rather than give it up entirely. It’s about drinking to enjoy, rather than to escape our lives,” says Foster. “We need to calm down our emotional over-drinking behaviour. 

    “I used to be overweight and a very heavy, regular drinker who used food and alcohol as a way to escape my insecurities. I successfully retrained my mind and body to feel better about myself through the power of self-hypnosis techniques, which I am happy to share with others. My approach is progressive rather than regressive. In other words, I believe that it is important to understand a little bit of history but, more importantly, to train the mind to move on.”

    Find out how Irma got sober at irmaschutte.com

    Irma’s story – in her words

    A recovered alcoholic, Irma Schutte speaks openly about her experience with alcohol with the intention to support other women who feel stuck, trapped and ashamed about their drinking.

    I lived and breathed a holistic and healthy lifestyle… all except for one thing: alcohol. I was quick to listen to the health benefits of drinking. I’d look for any excuse to justify my intake. On the outside it seemed like I was the poster child for natural medicine. On the inside I was barely keeping it together. Wine time was my downtime. I knew I needed it to relax and feel better about myself. This awareness concerned me. 

    I drank daily. I’d try and fool myself into thinking that I was in control by swallowing a handful of supplements and homeopathic remedies before I passed out at night. In the morning I was all over it with a fuzzy head, good intentions and a green smoothie. My hangover would get better as the day passed, but my guilt and shame would remain. I’d get to 5pm, give in to the cravings, listen to my justifications and grab a bottle after work. I’d finish the bottle before dinner, hide the evidence from my boyfriend, try my best to not look too tipsy when he got home, eat, have a shower, pass out for a few hours, wake up at 3am with a dry mouth, anxious mind, heavy heart and repeat the ongoing cycle the next day. Throughout the weekends I would drink even more and spend most of my day on the couch recovering. This became the longest guilt-trip of my life. I felt lost without alcohol. The idea of not having it was overwhelming and yet wanting to stop was all I could think about. 

    In the end, all it took for me to go from this high-functioning ‘take-the-edge-off-alcoholic’ drinking pattern to a hardcore 24/7 drinker was the experience of grief and loss. In 2015 my boozy snowball had gotten so big and out of control that I was unable to function. In the final six weeks of my drinking life I drank from morning to night...  just to survive and feel ‘normal’.

    In July 2015 I let go of alcohol. I had to. It was destroying me and everyone around me. With ongoing support, commitment and effort I’ve shifted my relationship with booze. Not drinking is the single most important thing I’ve done to enhance the quality of my life. 

    My story is not unique. So many other men and women silently struggle with their intake.

    Listen to Kati's podcast interview with Lotta Dann here

    Breaking a habit

    A year ago Evolu Skincare founder Kati Kasza gave up alcohol. It has also inspired her to produce and present the ‘Keys to Selfcare’ podcast series on evolu.com

    Why did you stop drinking?

    I started paying attention and realised that I was almost robotic in my own drinking habits. I’d come home from work and have a glass of wine – not for any reason other than that I thought I deserved it or it was a nice way to wind down. But it started to be there, as a regular presence, instead of an occasional glass of wine. I was aware of the connection between alcohol and breast cancer too, so more and more, I was thinking about taking the step to stop drinking.

    Was it hard?

    Initially yes – habits take a bit of time to break. Part of it is to think about why it’s a habit in the first place. I had to consciously think about my actions and be in the moment of what I was doing and found this really helped. First it was one week, then a month, and then after three months, I pretty well stopped counting the days. Special occasions became interesting, as it was the occasion that became special, not the occasion being a good opportunity to have a couple of glasses of wine!

    What strategies did you put in place to help you achieve this?

    To break the habit, I filled up the ‘wine o’clock’ time with other things I find enjoyable. I’d take the dog for a walk and listen to my meditation app. Other times, I’d simply take a long shower as I find water to be very therapeutic. Swapping the wine with some other drink I love was another strategy. I found delicious cordials and mixed them with soda water. I love herbal teas, so I started to spend more time savouring the flavour and benefits of the teas. Not only was I ridding my body of alcohol, but I was instigating some amazing self-care principles that I now practise regularly.

    Why did you decide to stop completely, and not just have the odd glass of wine?

    Once I stopped drinking, I found a new respect for my body and how it functions. I wasn’t getting drunk on a regular basis – it was more a case of always having alcohol in my system and looking at why. In the end, I decided that I didn’t want alcohol in my system anymore. I’m pretty in tune with my body, and instantly felt so much brighter and was sleeping so well that I thought I might as well keep on enjoying this new-found wellness. My skin also benefitted as it wasn’t nearly as dry. I was hydrating my skin from within as opposed to dehydrating it. 

    What has been the reaction when people hear you’ve cut out alcohol?

    It’s been amazing the number of people who share they would like to either stop or moderate their drinking. People get lulled into believing it makes socialising so much easier. Yet, deep down, people know if they should be observing their drinking behaviours and doing something about it, if need be. It’s certainly a social lubricant, but when you don’t drink and see people’s behaviour when they’re drunk, you see why it might be worthwhile for people to look at their relationship with alcohol. The first step is recognising the desire to stop drinking the way you are drinking and then to understand why. The next steps will follow on from there. There are plenty of places to go to get support. Some of these are as easy as going online and reading what others are going through. One website is livingsober.org.nz

    You’re the daughter of a winemaker. How has that influenced you?

    As a child, I loved spending time in my father’s laboratory. It was there he taught me the beauty of quality ingredients and how crafting something with love turns a wine into a product of integrity. So it wasn’t about the wine, it was about the fine quality of the ingredients and I’ve taken these teachings of the appreciation of beauty into my personal life and my own business, Evolu Skincare. 


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