Alcohol Awareness Week: Are you ready for a change?

This article was published on the Wellbeing online magazine as a contribution to the Alcohol Awareness Week UK 2022. You can find the link here.

Alcohol Awareness Week this year falls on the week of 18th November. Every year there is a theme, and this year’s is Change. Change can be scary, let’s admit it. Many people steer away from change for as long as they can, even when they hear it knocking on their door.

Change can bring a sense of fear and uncertainty because we may be leaving behind our life as we know it. Even if it affects only an area of it, change can create reverberations in other spheres as well. Change pushes us to move away from the comfortable spot we had occupied for some time, and moves us somewhere where there might not be another well-worn armchair to sit on. Maybe even where we will have to build one from scratch.

When change involves our alcohol consumption the adjustments are likely to be much harder. They won’t just involve addressing our personal habits but also the reasons why we drink, which are usually varied and layered. Adjusting to this change also means driving against social norms that we have been absorbing since we were born, and which make alcohol an omnipresent companion from the cradle to the grave, literally.

Drinking alcohol is the accepted behaviour in every social occasion that doesn’t involve breakfast; unless, of course you are on holiday, because then the beer pic at the airport is something that would be rude not to have. Whether it’s a baptism, wedding or funeral, alcohol is there. Baby showers, birthdays, parties, leaving dos, winter festivities, graduations, dinners, holidays, networking events, walks with alpacas, alcohol is that thing that you take for granted being there; and when it’s not, there’s something missing or wrong with the picture. It just doesn’t feel right.

UK Drinking Guidelines

The 2016 UK ‘drinking guidelines’ put at 14 units of alcohol a week the recommended threshold for this substance, and stress the importance of having free-drinking days in the week and abstaining from binge drinking to ensure that the harm made from alcohol is kept low. To make it clear, 14 units of alcohol is the equivalent of 6 pints of a 4% ABV beer or a bottle and a small glass of wine of 13% ABV. The NHS defines “binge drinking” as consuming more than 8 units in a single session for males and more than 6 units for females, which roughly equal slightly more than 3 pints of 5% ABV beer for men and just over 2 pints of 5% ABV beer for women.

Just how helpful are these ‘drinking guidelines’?

It is worth noting that these units do not constitute a threshold for healthy or safe drinking. Research has widely documented that there is no safe level of alcohol and what the above limits do is just cut the health risks. When people think about the health dangers linked to alcohol, their mind goes straight to the cirrhosis of the liver. But as well as the multiple physical maladies that alcohol causes or contributes to, research studies have shown that it is linked to at least 7 different kinds of cancer: mouth, throat, voice box (larynx), oesophagus, colon and rectum, liver and breast (for women). It’s not really that good for mental health either, as it disrupts the normal function of some neurotransmitters in the brain and, among many things, it dysregulates the nervous system by causing anxiety and depression. Also, if you have any mental health issue, adding alcohol to the mix, even in small doses, can really be a recipe for disaster.

The drinking spectrum

Drinking problematically is unfortunately accepted in British society and sometimes even encouraged. On the other hand, being sober, teetotal or alcohol-free, whichever “label” you prefer, is almost treated like a weird thing and associated with the consequence of being an “alcoholic”. Fortunately this term is gradually becoming archaic, because it erroneously creates a divide between “normal drinkers” and “problem drinkers”.

In reality, the landscape is not that clear-cut at all, but with many nuances in-between. Drinking is a spectrum, where there is abstinence on one end and severe Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD) at the farthest end of it. And we are all there, scattered across this spectrum, where we can move backwards or forwards according to how much our drinking use changes.

As the renowned addiction and trauma expert Gabor Maté stated, “The addiction is neither a choice nor a disease, but originates in a human being’s desperate attempt to solve a problem: the problem of emotional pain, of overwhelming stress, of lost connection, of loss of control, of a deep discomfort with the self.”

Nobody is born an “addict”. Addiction develops in the same way habits do, and the earlier we catch it, the easier it is to avoid. When we go to a party and our first instinct is to go and get a drink to calm our social anxiety of being around people we don’t know, we are self-medicating. When we drink a bit more to gain some confidence to sing at the Karaoke at our local pub, we are in fact weakening our abilities to build that confidence. When we can’t have fun on a night out without getting drunk, we are telling our brain to stop producing endorphins and dopamine naturally, because alcohol will release them in quantities that are far richer than what our brain would produce. And by doing so, we are in fact programming our brain to only have pleasant sensations associated with alcohol and not with the people that we are going out with, or with the activities that we engage in.

Changing perceptions

Change on how alcohol is perceived, though, is happening and it’s there to stay and spread. “Quit-Lit” books telling the stories of successful men and women who chose sobriety over a life of depression, misery and hangovers are multiplying. Facebook groups supporting people to quit or moderate are proliferating. Websites offering courses on how to change the attitude towards drinking habits are growing in numbers. Sober bars are opening. There are only a handful, but they exist.

The supermarkets have now dedicated sections full of alcohol-free options that us sober people could have only dreamt about just a few years ago. Most spirits, wines and beers have now their alcohol-free counterparts, and every pub now offers an alcohol-free alternative, sometimes even on draught. We are not relegated anymore to being treated as children having our options limited to juices and fizzy drinks when going out. We are being treated like adults who have made a choice to look after our bodies and minds and we are reclaiming our space in a world that we do not want to be kept out of.

Discovering ourselves again

Thanks to all of this, people find the encouragement and the strength to stop before it’s too late. They can find the strength in the numbers of all those people who have defeated the “wine o’clock”. And when they stop, they discover themselves again. They realise they can do so much more with the time they now have, and they can now do it because the hangovers are not draining away their energy like vampires. You don’t have to see yourself as a problem drinker to start thinking about changing your drinking habits. A pounding head one too many times is enough.

Yes, change can be scary, but it can be done, and it all starts with being aware of the impact that alcohol has on our overall wellbeing. It’s about replacing the FOMO with JOMO, the Joy of Missing Out because of everything that you can gain instead. So many people are doing it right now and there are many different kinds of resources around like never before. And we can use some of them, or all, try them out and pick and mix as we like. There isn’t one way, there are many, and it’s up to you, and only you, to decide how to get there.