Is it time to take a closer look at our drinking habits?
This week I read a news article entitled ‘Soaring alcohol misuse could overwhelm the service’, the warning comes from the Royal College of Psychiatrists & it references that lockdown has seen people drinking significantly more than normal.
Alcohol is an interesting topic to me because my relationship with it over the years has been changeable.
In my late teens and 20s I was a party drinker, big nights out followed by hours spent sleeping it off the following day. Binge drinking at University continued when I started my career. I had good jobs with great colleagues and boozy nights out were the norm, my social life with my friends was also alcohol fueled. I worked hard and I played hard too. I was young, free & single and having a ball.
As I entered my early 30s my career progressed and I had more pressured roles. Latterly I was in a senior Human Resources position in a business that was downsizing, working silly hours under a serious amount of pressure and getting home to a few glasses of wine was the light at the end of the tunnel.
In my mid 30s myself & my husband had a complete life overhaul. We moved to rural France to escape the rat race, in search of a slower pace of life and so that I could fulfill the lifelong ambition of having my horses at home. It was the best decision that we made and our quality of life hugely improved.
Wine in France is cheap; in the UK a decent tasting bottle might cost you £8-10, in France you can get very drinkable wine for under 3 euros. Lots of Brits drink a lot more when they move to France and I suspect that this is one of the reasons.
Myself & my husband would drink on average 3-4 bottles of wine a week. We went through phases where we only drank at weekends, but more often than not we’d get to Thursday and have a drink. One of our favourite meals is baked camembert, that would naturally be accompanied by red wine, so it wasn’t unusual to have wine with camembert on a Monday night. I’d often justify it by saying that life was too short to deprive ourselves.
Whilst I didn’t feel like I was drinking to excess, I could always find a reason to have a drink. In the sun it was lovely to sit in the garden with a glass of rosé, in the colder months it was nice to be by the fire with a glass of red. I didn’t need alcohol to enjoy either of those things, but it was a habit and it was always a case of when we’d open some wine rather than if.
I’d felt like I wanted to change my relationship with alcohol for a while. I mixed things up a bit, drinking less, having a few weeks of not drinking at all, but ultimately I returned to the habit of having a few glasses a few times a week. Then it changed, about a year from when I first thought about making that change to actually taking sustainable action.
My husband went on to some medication in October 2018 and he wasn’t allowed to drink at all, it was completely non negotiable so that made it easy for him. I carried on having a couple of glasses of wine over the weekend to start with, so I was probably drinking a bottle of wine a week. I regularly woke up feeling refreshed and thinking that I was glad that I hadn’t drunk the night before. I’ve always loved my sleep, I need 8 hours and waking up feeling well rested was a really nice feeling. It wasn’t that I woke up feeling awful after a few glasses of wine, but I felt more sluggish, lacking energy and enthusiasm. I’m not naturally a morning person and the wine hadn’t helped.
I’m a horse rider and I compete regularly during the competition season. Coming out of winter 2018 I felt heavier and more unfit than was normal for me. That was despite riding all winter to keep my competition horse fit. I’m 5,5, I weigh 10 stone 3 with a BMI (body mass index) of 23.8, which puts me in the healthy weight range. By most people’s standards I’m slim but I didn’t feel good. I carry my weight around my tummy, my riding breeches felt tight and I felt lethargic just as the season was starting.
Horse shows can be a very social affair, we’d go away for a few days at a time, so a few bottles of wine was high on the to-pack list. Having looked at my diet and recognised that we didn’t eat much that I could easily cut out, I decided that I wanted to cut right back on alcohol and I’d start with not taking any to shows. I told myself that I need to be well rested to perform well so it made sense. With Simon not drinking it wasn’t a hardship and again I appreciated waking up feeling refreshed.
I went to my first international show in May 2019, there was a group of us and based on the company I knew that the drink would be flowing. My goal with alcohol wasn’t to be teetotal, but to drink less and break my habit of drinking for the sake of it – it’s what I call mindful drinking. At that show I had a few glasses of wine but a lot less than I would have had 6 months earlier, and on an evening when we all went out for dinner I drank soft drinks. In part because the show was a big deal to me, so I didn’t want my senses fuddled by alcohol, but also because I felt good about drinking less in general and I wanted to continue.
Whilst I was there with a bit of downtime I clicked on a Facebook advert about drinking less and found some useful tips. It mentioned ‘the witching hour’, that time, usually between 6-8pm, where you might waiver in your willpower not to have a drink, and it had some helpful suggestions about how to successfully navigate that. The one that I found the most helpful was to have a tasty soft drink (or some food) at the time when you’re craving alcohol. Our body often craves sugar when we’re tired and as wine is sugar loaded it satiates that need. I’m not really a fan of soft drinks, I nearly always drink water, but I do like the occasional Orangina, so I got some in and when I felt like I might fancy a glass of wine I had that instead. I only ever want one so I’m not at risk of swapping alcohol for fizzy pop, and it worked brilliantly.
On my birthday we went for lunch with some good friends. I hadn’t had a drink for a few weeks, so I decided to have a couple of glasses of wine and I enjoyed them. The big difference was though, I didn’t have any more when we got home, not even a glass with dinner. It wasn’t that I deprived myself, I just recognised that I’d had enough. Every other birthday for the last 15+ years would have involved champagne and multiple bottles of wine, but I didn’t miss it at all. It was a bit of a surprise to be honest, but a really good one.
When I reflect back on my drinking now I can see that to a degree it was controlling me. I’d got into the habit of having a drink to relax/unwind/switch off, but the reality was that it was making me feel worse than not drinking would. It’s hard to explain just how much better I feel as a result of being an occasional drinker. In the first 12 months I said ‘I’m so glad we don’t drink’ multiple times a week to my husband and he agreed.
Since feeling so good having changed my relationship with alcohol I’ve looked into why that’s the case. Here are some reasons why life without alcohol is such a revelation:
SLEEP – our bodies can’t go into REM sleep when we’ve drunk alcohol; REM sleep is when your brain takes out the rubbish. Your brain feels heavy and cluttered after drinking because it hasn’t got rid of what it doesn’t need. REM sleep is when your brain beds in new memories & new things that you’ve learnt that day so it has a crucial role to play and alcohol stops it undertaking that vital role.
Not having the crucial REM sleep makes us much more susceptible to anxious thoughts and feelings. This is the reason that it’s so common to experience an anxiety hangover. When the brain isn’t able to perform its’ taking out the rubbish’ function, that rubbish remains in our system & we naturally veer towards negative feelings. The link between alcohol and anxiety is very clear. I know that a lot of people drink to relax but where anxiety is concerned it unfortunately makes it so much worse.
We’re much more likely to eat food that doesn’t nourish us – I loved a takeaway pizza for a hangover, which is pretty much the worst thing to feed a sleep deprived & dehydrated body. We can’t make good decisions for ourselves when we’re lacking in REM sleep, we’ll always choose the thing that we crave and this ultimately keeps us in the negative spiral.
The addictive nature of alcohol isn’t acknowledged in the same way as it is with smoking. It’s proven that it’s a lot easier to have no alcohol than one glass, due to the addictive nature. So it’s exceptionally hard to moderate our drinking & it’s why many people who try the ‘I’ll just have one’ find cutting down consistently so hard.
Before lockdown the average Brit drank 26 units a week, which is 2.5 bottles of wine – the recommended amount is 14 units, which is 1.5 bottles. It’s also reported that, even before lockdown, people were reported as feeling less happy than was the case 20-30 years ago & based on my experience I wouldn’t mind betting that the increase in drinking is playing a fairly big part in it.
As a result of marketing & what people post online, there’s a societal view that not drinking equals boring, interestingly though the list of people who don’t drink include Bradley Cooper, Brad Pitt, Fearne Cotton, JLO, Elton John, Kate Moss & lots more – not people who I think most people would consider to be boring.
Lots of people use alcohol to numb their feelings after a hard day at work/a break up/difficult conversation with friend/spouse. The problem is that it numbs out the good things too and as a result we miss out on so much of life. This is possibly the biggest revelation to me, the sense of contentment I have and general ease in myself. I have suffered from anxious thoughts at times and I’ve certainly experienced bouts of negative thinking. They’re in the past since changing my relationship with alcohol, I don’t know if it’s the only reason but I’m not about to head back to drinking a few times a week to find out!
I wouldn’t describe myself as teetotal and I’m not aiming to be. If I wanted a drink then I’d have one, but since changing the habit & becoming an occasional drinker I just don’t feel the urge & it feels great. It was our 10 year wedding anniversary in December & we didn’t have a drink! That would have been unthinkable not so long ago.
For me the best thing about being an occasional drinker is it has enabled calm in my mind & determination in my soul. Without alcohol holding me back I know that I have the ability to achieve anything that I want to and I have big plans. I think so many people believe that life without alcohol must be dull, I would have thought so too once upon a time, but my life is more exciting than it’s ever been & I feel great as a result. The opportunities are literally endless!
As a result of my experience I help clients to change their relationship with alcohol too. Many clients come to me as a result of anxiety, changing their relationship with alcohol makes a big difference very quickly. One client decided to change her relationship with alcohol right before a 2 week holiday with a big group of friends who like to drink. I’m delighted to report that she kept to her plan and told me only last week that she feels better than ever. We both agreed that if mindful drinking is boring then boring is the new cool!
If you’ve ever thought about changing your relationship with alcohol and you’d like some support then get in touch and we’ll make it happen. Once you choose you might just be surprised at how easy it can be.
Do something today that your future self will thank you for.