The premise of this approach to moderation is that unwanted drinking takes place because drinking is an effective solution - in the short term anyway - to the problem of discomfort.
DISCOMFORT -> DRINK
If you try to ‘solve’ a drinking issue by focusing on only the action of drinking, without addressing the root cause, you’re going to have a hard time. Therefore much of this process is dedicated to understanding, managing, and reducing the discomfort that you’re trying to avoid.
This discomfort comes in two main flavors
1 - Unfulfilled desire - Maybe you genuinely like and enjoy alcohol - the taste, the buzz, the camaraderie and connection you feel when drinking with other people. Perhaps you’re a connoisseur with a deep appreciation for craft beer or fine wine or rare scotch. Maybe you just have a deeply embedded habit and your brain and body expects its ration of booze at a regular time.
Any of these situations will create pure desire. And desire, when unfulfilled, is uncomfortable. If the object of the desire is available, your default reaction will be to satisfy the desire.
2 - Uncomfortable emotion. The phrase ‘take the edge off’ epitomizes this. What is that ‘edge’ that’s being smoothed over with a drink - generally it will be a cloud of feelings such as:
- Anxiety about work
- Irritation at traffic
- Self-doubt related to your sense of competence as an employee, spouse, or parent
- Money worries
- Resentment of other people
- Dismay over the ‘state of the world’ - politics, the economy, crime, the pandemic
- Lack of purpose or meaning in your life
- Generalized or specific self-loathing
- Regret or resentment of the past
- Worry about the future
- Stress response to trauma
You may experience many of these things simultaneously at a low level such that there’s a generalized indistinct cloud of uncomfortable emotion. Or you may have specific and intense emotions in one or more of these areas.
The first step in the moderation process is to understand exactly the types of discomfort that you are facing and that you’re using alcohol to solve. The way to do this is to become an observer of yourself. Through this self-observation you’ll get a clear understanding of the discomfort that drives your drinking.
The discomfort has two parts.
The first is cognitive, in your head - the sentences in your brain, about drinking, life, other people, yourself.
And the second is emotional, which is visceral, and in your body more than your head.
Most of us spend most of our time ‘inside’ our thinking and feeling. The thoughts come (from where?) and we generally accept and believe them as truth, but often without really noticing them. Our emotional experience is usually even more hidden.
The observation process is simply a matter of stepping outside of yourself, just for short periods at a time, and while you continue to ‘do life’, watch the thoughts and feelings that you experience. It’s important to bring an attitude of curiosity to this effort, and to notice when judgement comes up and do your best to drop the judgement.
When I say thoughts, I’m talking about the sentences in your brain, expressed in language.
Emotions happen in the body, and if you pay attention can be perceived as physical sensations. They can be specific - a pit in the stomach, full or empty feelings, tightness in the chest or shoulders or neck or jaw, extra saliva in the mouth. There may be generalized sensations, such as feeling heavy and weighed down, or urgent and rushed.
These sensations are the result of changes in our physiology that our autonomic nervous system is making to keep us prepared for action. As you’ll notice as you start to look for them, they are quite subtle, usually much lower intensity than something like the uncomfortable sensations you might get from really hard exercise.
Given how mild they are, it’s surprising to realize that most of our undesirable behavior is driven by sensations like these. They’re nearly always present but we are mostly oblivious to them, and this is when they have so much power to influence our actions.
It’s generally not practical or necessary to be in this self-observing mode all the time, so I’m going to tell you when you need to be most attentive to your internal dialog and emotional experience in order to get the most mileage out of your efforts.
- If you think about drinking completely outside of a time that you would normally drink, what are the thoughts - what are the sentences that come up.
- Many times decisions about drinking are taken long before any drinking actually happens. Let’s say you normally would have your first drink at 6:00 pm. Lets say you woke up on a Tuesday and said ‘not drinking today’, but you ended up drinking after all. When do you make the decision to drink? Does it happen at 5:59, or at some earlier time? When you make the decision, what are you thinking? What are you feeling?
- Just before you have the first drink - what are you thinking, and especially what are you feeling? Do a scan of your body and look for the strongest sensation. Where is it? - belly, chest, mouth?
- As you make the decision to drink - what is the main thought that rationalizes the decision? Examples:
I just want it, fuck it, it’s no big deal, I was good yesterday, I’ll be good tomorrow, I’ll stop at just one…
- As you drink - how do the sensations in your body change? Whether you're drinking for pure pleasure, stress relief, or social lubrication - at what point does the desired effect kick in? Could you stop then? If you keep drinking, why?
That’s it for Step 1. Start with this for now, in an open-ended way without trying to change your behavior. You're practicing the skill of paying attention and being the observer, and you’re collecting data that you'll use later.