If you find yourself reaching for a bottle or sighing with relief at a well-deserved glass of wine at the end of a stressful day, then you are not alone.
Far more people than you can imagine do the same thing, and many of them feel ashamed that they do.
Those same people are often baffled to learn that alcohol causes the very feeling that they are drinking to alleviate. Most busy professionals who drink regularly do so to relieve stress.
When I was a busy executive, I drank nightly to relieve stress, reward myself, and relax. Unbeknownst to me, drinking was causing me huge amounts of stress and anxiety, and not just from waking up at 3 a.m. wracked with regret and shame.
I now work with professional women who want to break free from the daily cycle of misery caused by alcohol. When these women first enter my world, I ask them a question, “Do you drink alcohol to alleviate stress?” I have asked over 15,000 professional women that same question in the last two years, and 97 percent of them have said, “yes.”
You may therefore be excused from concluding that alcohol does actually help alleviate stress. After all, it’s one of the main reasons people drink it.
Only alcohol doesn’t relieve stress. Alcohol causes stress, and I’m here to share with you the scientific evidence for that.
Alcohol works as both a stimulant and a depressant, and it is primarily a depressant, which means that it slows down the function of the central nervous system.
One basic feature of us as human beings is that the body always seeks balance. This is called homeostasis. And so, in response to the depressant effects of alcohol, approximately five hours after the last drink was consumed, there is a rush of adrenaline and cortisol in the body as the body tries to speed things back up.
Adrenaline increases heart rate and increases blood pressure, and cortisol is the primary stress hormone. This means that alcohol triggers the human stress response. This is why you wake up feeling anxious after drinking. Apart from anything you may have said or done after a few drinks that makes you feel stressed, your body has gone into a fight or flight stress response. This is where hangover anxiety comes from. It’s real!
But it’s what happens next that is really significant in this remarkable con that has fooled the intelligent world of drinkers.
We wake up feeling awful and promising ourselves that it’s all over. We’re breaking up with alcohol, and today is the day we’re going to crack it! We start off full of resolve and determination. We use the same strength of will that enabled us to become high-achieving, successful people. But it doesn’t work in the alcohol world!
As the day wears on, often supported by caffein because alcohol plays havoc with our REM sleep, the adrenalin and cortisol in our system start to make us feel jittery.
You can think of it like a car alarm going off outside the window. At first, you don’t notice it. A little while later it’s mildly irritating, but you’re busy, so you carry on with what you are doing. By mid-afternoon, it’s really getting on your nerves. When you get home you realize that the car alarm has come with you, and now it’s really irritating. In fact, it’s driving you up the wall. Will it just stop?!
You go straight to the fridge with your coat on, all willpower gone, pour a glass, and as it touches your lips, the car alarm goes off. There is peace. There is a huge sigh of relief, and you feel calmer than you have all day. Who wouldn’t?
But alcohol is a con. You are the mark, and it’s making its play. The alcohol temporarily turns off the car alarm only to simultaneously set a timer to turn it back on again five hours later, and this time it makes it slightly louder.
Make no mistake here. Alcohol causes the stress that you seek to relieve.
Apart from the “car alarm” cycle, alcohol causes stress by making us feel guilt and shame and occupying our thoughts and taking up space.
This is especially true when we try to moderate and cut down, and to control our drinking. Let me give you an analogy. Imagine a pie. We’ll call it the Stress Pie.
Your day has challenges. All our days do.
When you finish work you may well have a full Stress Pie: traffic, clients, colleagues, children, and partners. Many things contribute to the pie.
When we drink alcohol, two things happen. Firstly, the pie gets bigger, and secondly, it never gets eaten! We can’t manage stress when we are causing ourselves daily stress. It’s not possible, and no amount of mindfulness or working out can do that.
The pie grows because after we start to become concerned about alcohol, we start feeling guilty and inauthentic. We upset our loved ones at home. We find it all exhausting. We think there’s something wrong with us (there isn’t), and we get more stressed.
Stress is just part of the alcohol con trick. And the truth is that every benefit we have ever imagined alcohol giving us it doesn’t. It is a drug, and it works the same way as all other drugs.
Many of my clients are doctors and nurses, and some are in the role of advisor for alcohol issues, and yet are themselves caught in the alcohol trap. This shows how endemic the problems are and how little is understood.
The great news here is that when you start waking up to the truth, you are beginning to get wise, and that gives you the power to get wiser still.
Michaela Weaver is an alcohol coach.
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