The main focus of my coaching practice is helping people drink less. My typical client is not someone who is 'hitting rock bottom', or facing catastrophic results from their drinking. Rather they are functioning well in their lives, but they are consistently drinking more than they want and they’re tired of the results this is creating.
The outcome of coaching is to get them to where they have a take-it-or-leave it attitude towards alcohol that makes it easy to drink appropriately (as defined by them) and that doesn't leave them relying on pure willpower and feeling like they're missing out on something important.
In this post I'm going to explain how alcohol affects our psychology and physiology, and in particular talk about habits. Having this understanding is a necessary prerequisite to making effective use of the specific tools and techniques that are used in my coaching work.
Two Types of Drinking
We can think about our behavior, drinking or otherwise, in two broad categories:
- flexible, adaptable
- takes mental effort and energy
- Can be challenging or unwelcome in the moment.
- Managed by the most human part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex
- rigid, automatic
- feels 'right' in the moment
- handle by primitive parts of our brain
Drinking starts out as a goal-directed activity.
The goal might be to satisfy your curiosity, or to fit-in with a group, to demonstrate your sophistication or ‘adultness’ or to feel different.
You perform the action of drinking.
You achieve the goal.
Building a Habit
When you achieve a goal, a part of your brain gives the rest of your brain a shot of the neurotransmitter dopamine. And while you get a little bit of dopamine from achieving any goal, alcohol gets you a big shot of it. Your brain mistakenly thinks that alcohol is important to survival and is therefore primed to help you get more of it.
Dopamine does two things:
- accentuates the pleasure of the goal or reward.
- Causes you to subconsciously notice the conditions that were present when you obtained the reward.
You can think of dopamine in this context as a learning drug. It helps you 'learn' how to get the reward again in the future. It causes you to be sensitive to the conditions that signal the availability of the reward, and it helps you learn the skills involved in getting the reward.
Those conditions present when you drink might include things like:
- where you are – at home, at a bar, at a party
- people you're with
- time of day
- emotional state (especially negative emotion like anxiety, sadness, boredom)
With the help of that dopamine hit, your brain makes an association between those conditions and the reward. The set of conditions is called the 'cue'.
When you encounter the cue at some later date, part of your brain subconsciously notices, and again it issues a shot of dopamine. In this context, even before you have obtained the reward, the dopamine acts as a motivator. It arouses your WANT for the reward and energizes you to take action to obtain it.
The word 'habit' describes the behavior that results from this association between the cue and a reward. There are 4 steps in the habit cycle:
- You encounter the cues.
- Dopamine is released and you experience WANTING. I refer to this as an Urge.
- You respond to the urge, by drinking.
- You experience the reward, and the association to the cues is further enhanced.
Wanting vs Liking
It's useful to distinguish between WANTING and LIKING. In normal usage these words seem to have similar meanings, but in relation to habits and especially to alcohol and other drugs, they are very different.
WANTING and LIKING are actually separate experiences that are processed in separate parts of our brains.
The LIKING part of the brain is in fact much smaller than the WANTING part. And over time in response to some repeated reward, the degree of LIKE can reduce, even while the degree of WANT increases.
Goals AND Habits
Anyone who has been drinking for any length of time is having a combination of goal-directed and habitual behavior in relation to alcohol.
The goals generally fall into two categories.
- I like the taste
- I want to fit in
- I want to be uninhibited
- I want a buzz
- I’m tired
- I’m bored
- I need to take the edge off
- I deserve a break
The solution to drinking less and liking it - not relying on willpower, and not feeling like you’re missing out - involves first getting an awareness of what’s going on in your brain.
- Identify your pro-drinking thoughts.
- Understand the feelings that you use alcohol to avoid.
- Become aware of how you experience the difference between Wanting and Liking.
Having this awareness makes it possible to implement the solution.
- Create new goals, around which you can build new habit cycles.
- Manage your thinking regarding pro-drinking thoughts. Cultivate new thoughts that are neutral or even negative about alcohol. You don’t have to become anti-alcohol, but some negative thoughts to balance out your internal propaganda can be useful.
- Repeatedly Interrupt the habit cycle so that you break the association between the cues and reward.
- Develop the willingness and ability to experience negative emotion without believing that you need to get away from it.
- Make your drinking decisions with your prefrontal cortex according to your goals, instead of with your primitive brain according to your habits.
The techniques for doing this are pretty simple. It just takes a decision to do them and a willingness to do them badly and learn from the failure.
My role as a coach is to help you take your awareness to sufficient depth, to troubleshoot your efforts, and to gently remind you of your commitment to change. They way to start your transformation is with a no-obligation free call with me.