Think Alcohol Sets You Free? It Might Be Time to Think Again
Alcohol is often thought of as a disinhibitor, something that helps people be 'more themselves'
Therapist Emily Hilton explores why this might be a misunderstanding that is harmful to mental health
If you are struggling with your relationship to alcohol, we have therapists and counsellors available here
January is often not an ideal month. The weather can be pretty awful, the days are short, and the post-Christmas slump culminates in the ‘worst day of the year’, charmingly named ‘Blue Monday’. However, for a lot of people, January represents one further thing: ‘Dry January’, a month without alcohol.
Many advocates of ‘Dry January’ decide to undertake the challenge of sobriety in order to redress their physical or financial health balance after Christmas, and certainly, going alcohol-free can enable change in these areas. However, these aren’t the only aspects of our health that are impacted by sobriety: although it is perhaps less frequently cited as an aim of Dry January, abstaining from alcohol can have a significant positive influence on our mental health.
Increasingly, we are beginning to acknowledge the detrimental effects of alcohol consumption on our mental health. For many people, the Covid pandemic put their relationship with alcohol under the microscope, giving fresh insight into the role and effect of alcohol in their life.
In both the therapy room and in conversations with friends, our discussions about alcohol and mental health are moving beyond throwaway references to ‘hangxiety’: more and more, we’re understanding that alcohol and anxiety are pretty close bedfellows.
Alcohol has long enjoyed a reputation as an essential ingredient for fun and for ‘leaving your troubles behind’. It’s frequently touted as a cure for anxiety, rather than a cause of it. This reputation can be linked to a common conception of alcohol: that its influence helps you shed inhibitions, and perhaps to be more of yourself - you, but with the handbrake off; or you without your self-consciousness about your capabilities on the dance floor. However, my experience is that there is now more widespread questioning of how alcohol impacts on who we are while under its influence.
While the ‘alcohol as disinhibitor’ concept still predominates, as far back as 1990 an alternate theory of the mindset alcohol induces was coined: alcohol myopia (Steele, C. M., & Josephs, R. A (1990). This theory posits that alcohol puts us into a state of ‘tunnel vision’, in which we become unable to see beyond what’s happening right in that moment.
A classic example of this might be our response to someone asking us to stay out for ‘one more drink’: in the myopic mindset, we’ll think, ‘I’m having a great time, I’ll definitely stay’ – forgetting that we have to work early the next day, or that we’d planned a long morning run tomorrow, or that our cat is at home waiting to be fed, etc.
In the myopic model, we actually become less of ourselves, because we become that thin slice of what we’re feeling in the moment: we’re unable to access the wider parts of ourselves that actually make us who we are. According to this theory, it’s not specifically our inhibitions or worries that alcohol cuts off: it’s everything of us except what we’re feeling right then and there.
Spending time in the myopic mindset can lead to lots of challenges, as in it we often will make decisions and act in ways that don’t reflect who we are. We can be left dealing with consequences that we weren’t able to take into account when acting while under the influence. And perhaps there’s a nagging sense of discomfort with having not been fully ourselves while we were drinking. That, combined with the physiological effects of exposure to a chemical depressant, can pack quite an impactful punch to our mental health.
Not drinking – whether just for January, or whether for longer than that – can be a challenge. The ways in which it is challenging are both universal and unique to the individual, because we all have our own relationship with alcohol and our drinking selves.
The benefits of not drinking are also universal and unique, but among them may be clear-headedness, reduced anxiety, better sleep, increased energy and self-confidence. It is an opportunity to get to know your sober self – who you are when all of you is present. Or, it’s a chance to give your brain a break from regular exposure to a depressant.
When it comes to not drinking and mental health, it’s you taking charge, and making it whatever you want it to be.
[i] Steele, C. M., & Josephs, R. A. (1990). Alcohol myopia: Its prized and dangerous effects. American Psychologist, 45, 921-933.