Where does sensitivity fit into drinking?

Are you someone who has heightened sensitivity to your environment? Do you react instantly to a change in temperature, a certain food, or even smell? Is it painful to be around people who are loud, or in the same room as people who are giving each other the silent treatment?

We all exist somewhere along a spectrum of sensitivity, from those who are highly reactive to their environment, to those who seem bulletproof to the goings-on around them. There are so many things that determine this, but, like most other things, we know that it is a combination of genetics and environment; the epigenetics that switch on sensitivity. Having a sensitive temperament can be a wonderful gift. Just ask the people around you. But it can also mean that you are much more vulnerable to the things that life throws your way.

The research into this area is slowly coming together to form an understanding of a ‘spectrum’ of sensitivity. This covers how our brains process information, and whether we perceive things as threatening, beautiful, exciting, or boring.

We all know someone with an artistic temperament and can talk for hours about their love of music. We also know the more solid, engineer types who would like nothing more than to sit in front of a computer screen and code for hours on end.

Sensitivity is aligned a lot with empathy. These are not necessarily the same thing, but it is understandable that if someone is quite sensitive to their environment, they may also be more conscious of the inner states of people around them.

Sensitivity is also associated with anxiety. Receiving a lot of signals from your environment means that you are often in a state of high alert. Sensitive people are also more likely to be affected by life events. This increases the likelihood of trauma and traumatic memories, which contribute to challenges in your daily life.

An analogy that researchers use is the orchid and the daisy. If you are an orchid, you will need a very stable environment when growing. You need to be in a climate-controlled greenhouse, watered daily, and protected from storms and wind. If you are a daisy, you can grow anywhere from the cracks of a pavement to a garden. If a storm comes along, you are likely to remain intact and undamaged afterwards. Meanwhile, an orchid will be damaged and need a bit of time to recover, and might have lasting effects.

We generally exist along a spectrum from the orchid to the daisy. From very sensitive, to very hardy. It is not about which is better, as both of these flowers were this way from birth. Nor is it a matter of choosing whether to be an orchid or daisy. This is something that is pre-determined from the moment of fertilisation.

So how does sensitivity relate to drinking?

A lot of research indicates that those with a sensitive temperament are more vulnerable to developing issues with alcohol. This is simply because alcohol sometimes makes the world easier to deal with. If you have a lot of emotions close to the surface, experiences of rejection, sadness, criticism, loneliness or anxiety can feel incredibly intense. When we think about alcohol, it can have the effect of taking away some of the intensity of these experiences.

Dulling the feelings

The numbing effect of alcohol, while not necessarily pleasant, can feel like a welcome escape from sesnsitivity. Switching off from feeling overwhelmed is important; unfortunately, alcohol is among the fastest ways to do this.

One of the ways that alcohol works is by causing our brains to release GABA. GABA is a chemical that causes us to relax and lower our inhibitions. This allows a sensitive person to switch off from a lot of the information that is coming in. They can be slightly more affected by alcohol as well, meaning that the dopamine rush is more significant and pronounced.

Some members of the Hello Sunday Morning program, Daybreak, admit that they are feeling overwhelmed by life. Alcohol is one of those things that makes it better in the moment when it feels as if things are getting to be too much. Life can be a heartbreaking, sad, and overwhelming experience. If you are highly sensitive to your environment, it is likely that when things are bad, they will feel really bad. The plus side is that when things are good, it will feel really good. But that isn’t much help during times of stress, loss, poor health and conflict.

What is a solution to this?

If you have identified that you fall somewhere on the sensitive side of the spectrum and your drinking is a part of this, there are some things that might be helpful for you:

Remember, it’s a positive thing if you are on the sensitive side. This is particularly true in terms of having good relationships with those around you and as a part of society. Many highly successful and happy people describe themselves as having sensitive and empathic temperaments. It is a case of finding what works for you.

Retaining the capacity to reflect, wonder, express joy and support those around you, without being overwhelmed by them, is often a work in progress. We know that drinking can be part of managing this sensitivity, and often it is about finding ways to change that relationship. Move from numbing towards something more deliberate and mindful.

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