Why is it that some people will be able to stop at one drink, but others will stay for five or six more? And why does our off button sometimes work well, for example, when we are at work drinks, but less well when we’re at home in front of the TV?
The answer is a fascinating combination of individual genetics, life experience and environmental factors. These three factors intersect to determine our ability to moderate our drinking. And there is a fourth factor, which I will leave to the end: the icing on the cake of moderate drinking.
Personality traits like impulsivity and sensation seeking are fairly inbuilt, so we know that if there is a family history of addiction, we are somewhat more vulnerable. Of course, what we learn from family growing up is important, too. If we have been raised in an environment where drinking to excess is the norm, that is going to influence our relationship with alcohol.
Essentially, people who have been exposed to a lot of stress in their lives will generally be more reactive to things around them. Their fight-or-flight system has been activated so many times, and in so many situations, that it is primed to go off at any moment.
This just means that a person who has had a lot of SLEs (stressful life events), either recently or when growing up, carries this with them in the form of an altered cortisol, serotonin and dopamine reward system. This means that they might feel scattered or exhausted from being on high alert a lot of the time, and will be in much more need of ways to relax, which is where alcohol comes in.
The relaxing and disinhibiting effects of alcohol are much more profound for someone who is already feeling on edge, and so drinking is positively reinforced.
As health coaches, we talk a lot with people who describe living with an anxiety disorder, and also not having an off button. The neuroscience is too dense to go into here, but the relationship between the two is really strong. Have a look at our previous post, where we discuss the link between SLEs, anxiety and drinking.
Consider the process of having a glass of wine when you are out at dinner, knowing you need to drive home. The part of your brain that controls decision making and safety, your prefrontal cortex, is switched on and reminding you of the possible consequences of having more than one drink, including an accident, getting picked up by the police, and paying for a taxi home. That inner police is strong against the temptation to have another, and unless there is a really good reason, will usually win out.
Our prefrontal cortex is the part of us that gets us out of bed in the morning, tells us to buy vegetables instead of chocolate for dinner, and does our tax return. Sometimes, when we are out with friends, or at a birthday or special occasion, we feel comfortable putting the prefrontal cortex away for a bit. We consciously decide to ‘let our hair down’, and stop being adults for a while. This is great and definitely necessary, but it means that there is no inner police to gently remind us that we may have had enough.
With each drink we have, our cerebral cortex is affected. Our brain is pumping out dopamine, as well as a combination of neurotransmitters that relax and slow us down. Our decision-making abilities become less and less, and we are thinking less about what we need to do the next day and more about what our next drink will be.
So, think about a situation where the prefrontal cortex has been put to the side for the moment and our adult selves are not needed to pay bills, feed children or make a dentist appointment. It might be a special occasion, like a birthday or a holiday. We are in a great mood, and even if we were feeling a bit anxious to begin with, with each drink, the evening gets better and better. With each drink, we are thinking less and talking, dancing, taking photos, etc. The adult part of our brains is well and truly unplugged now and we are in the moment, having a great time … for now.
Or, perhaps you are at home, on a Saturday night. It is a night off and you’ve had a big week. So, you open a bottle of wine and start watching a movie or TV show. Perhaps you are listening to music and the time gets away from you. Before you realise it, you’ve almost finished two bottles of wine without even noticing. Your relaxing night in has somehow ended up as a big night, which you’ll feel the next day for sure.
A situation like either of these is a good example of when the off button might not work due to a combination of no boundaries, or an environment where others are drinking and there is a lot of available alcohol. Our environment is supporting us to drink more and more, and everywhere we look, others are doing the same.
Our initial experience is positive, and even if we have less positive experiences as the evening goes on, what we remember is the good stuff, the things that happen before the alcohol starts to affect our hippocampus, which is the part of our brain responsible for making memories.
These three factors–individual characteristics, life experiences and environment–all combine to determine your individual off button capacity. If you are having some issues with alcohol and being able to stop at one or two drinks, it will be really helpful to consider situations where this is happening and whether there are any situations where drinking in moderation is possible.
The good news is that it could be as simple as looking at your relationship with alcohol and understanding what role it plays for you. Am I drinking to stop feeling anxious at parties, but then forget to stop once I’m relaxed? Is my drinking more about switching off that critical voice that is telling me I’m not good enough? Am I using alcohol to help me get in the mood to party?
One thing that is good to remember is that in some situations, we are really no match for alcohol, even if we expect ourselves to be able to stay in control. It is like taking a sleeping tablet and asking you to stay awake, or eating a whole pizza and expecting to still be hungry afterwards. The reality is that alcohol is a drug, and just like any other drug, it affects our brain, our mood and our health. This is good to remember when we are setting our expectations of ourselves and our relationship with alcohol. The more we drink, the more we will be affected, and we know that in certain situations the opportunity to drink more and more will present itself.
Take a break – even if it is just for a week, it might be helpful to see what comes up during that time. Attending events sober and sticking to your plans can be a good way of understanding a bit more about the role that alcohol is playing for you, and how you might like to use it in the future.
Set goals – remember the pre-frontal cortex? Sometimes it can be good to keep it somewhat engaged, reminding you of your goal to have only one or two drinks. If we set ourselves a goal, we might not always stick to it, but at least we have some idea of what to aim for.
Know thyself – if, having reflected on your drinking, you realise that your off button goes missing when you are drinking at home by yourself, or when you are out on a Saturday night, take some measures to protect yourself. This could mean only having a small amount of alcohol at home, or bringing just enough cash for one drink when you go out. The best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour, and generally, there are situations that we can predict will result in excessive drinking.
Maintenance – a great way of exploring this issue is through the Daybreak feed, where others will be having similar conversations about what has worked for them. Reading through what others have shared, as well as sharing your own experiences, can be a valuable way of understanding what is going to work for you.
It may also help to talk to one of the Health Coaches at Daybreak about what is going to work for you. For some people, it may be a case of understanding that their off button is only broken in certain situations. For others, it may be a case of reflecting on when the button works perfectly. At the end of the day, our biological responses to alcohol are pre-determined by those three factors – individual characteristics, life experiences and environment, but our relationship with alcohol is something that we have a lot of control over. Just like with any relationship, it sometimes needs a bit of work, but the benefits will be significant.