February 7th, 2024
Britain is known around the world for its drinking culture. Brits typically associate summer, for example, with sunny days spent in beer gardens, a cold drink in hand. But for many, drinking is not only happy when it is sunny – nor does it only take place in social contexts. It’s recommended to drink no more than 14 units of alcohol a week. However, the average adult in the UK drinks around 18 units weekly, which amounts to 9.7 litres of pure alcohol each year.
Not all of these units are being consumed in social settings. Increasingly, people are deciding to drink whilst alone. It is also no longer rare for people to drink most – if not every – day of the week. 8% of males and 5% of females report drinking almost every day. Increasingly, the attitude to alcohol is changing. Drinking alcohol is increasingly being perceived not only as an activity but as a kind of solace.
But what is it that makes alcohol so desirable when we’re feeling low? What counts as ‘too much’ alcohol? How has drinking become so integrated into our emotional lives, and how do you know when you need urgent alcohol rehab?
Alcohol as a Coping Mechanism
We’ve all heard the phrase ‘drowning our sorrows.’ It’s not rare to reach for a beer or a glass of wine after a stressful week or a particularly bad day at work. Drinking to deal with stress is very prominent in popular culture, with many characters in films, TV shows and books depicted as drinking to deal with difficult life situations. This can be dangerous in its own way, as it can potentially trivialise drinking in response to stress.
As a rare happenstance, this is perhaps common. However, once drinking becomes a key coping strategy for dealing with stress, issues can potentially arise.
Once you start drinking to control stressful feelings, then it can quickly catalyse a descent into using alcohol to numb emotions. This is dangerous for a range of reasons:
- It can lead to repression of emotions – feelings are not addressed but rather temporarily numbed and obscured
- It can lead to levels of consumption that are dangerous for our physical and psychological health
- It can lead to the development of alcoholism
This is likely to happen in circumstances where individuals do not feel they have other coping skills available to them. This can then result in the frequent use of maladaptive behaviours such as binge drinking to cloak difficult emotions. This can all lead to a feedback loop. If we rely on alcohol to feel good, feeling worse when hungover and withdrawing. Those low periods can lead to cravings, which then lead to alcohol-seeking. We get trapped in a cycle of using alcohol to numb. But by doing so, we can unwittingly invite addiction into our lives. When addiction rears its head, emotional wellbeing can plummet further.
Symptoms of Alcohol Abuse
When we’re drinking regularly, it can be hard to get an idea of what a ‘normal’ drinking routine can look like. For this reason, it’s not uncommon for people to not realise that their alcohol consumption is tipping into addiction territory. The best way to protect against this is by informing ourselves about what alcoholism can look like. Signs of addiction are often present in three key areas: psychological, physical, and social. If you or a loved one are experiencing the following in connection with drinking behaviours, then it is possible you would benefit from alcohol help.
Psychological Signs of Alcoholism
- Guilt around drinking
- Feeling irritable
- Being defensive about drinking habits
- Finding it hard to stop thinking about alcohol
- Unstable mood
Physical Signs of Alcoholism
- Smelling of alcohol
- Common hangovers
- Feeling or being sick
- Generally appearing unwell
- Issues with liver function
- Change in weight
Social Signs of Alcoholism
- Regularly drinking more than was planned
- Struggling at work or school (due to absences or reduced performance)
- Drinking at ‘inappropriate’ times of day
- Conflict in relationships
- Financial difficulties
- Avoiding friends and family
- Change in social life (either withdrawal or being out of the house almost all the time)
- Being deceitful about drinking behaviours
In Britain, drinking has a prominent place on the social scene. With almost half (48%) of adults in England reporting at least once a week in 2019, alcohol consumption has become part of the fabric of our lives. Drinking is thought to be a given. The advent of schemes such as ‘Dry January’ indicates that not only is drinking very common in Brits – but that the drinking perhaps requires intervention.
Drinking is not only an activity but is often associated with coming of age. Going drinking at 18 can be considered a rite of passage. For that reason, there are multiple campaigns around peer pressure in young people, raising awareness that drinking is not necessary and can be a choice.
However, when a lot of our social environments revolve around drinking (pubs, restaurants, clubs, bars and parties), it can be hard to feel that rejecting alcohol is an option. We typically associate this kind of societal influence with young adults, but peer pressure and sways of the environment can be just as powerful on older individuals, too.
A study on peer pressure and alcohol consumption in adults found that there are 5 key ways that peer pressure can be felt:
- through direct experiences of peer pressure,
- through the consequences of peer pressure (such as isolation and embarrassment),
- not knowing how to address or respond to peer pressure,
- not being able to change the conditions that lead to peer pressure,
- ‘the wider social context’ within which instances of peer pressure exist
Humans are social animals. That means that it can be difficult to break from the mould and avoid drinking when others do not. This can mean that alcohol consumption is a regular occurrence; when we’re feeling both happy and sad. The risks of peer pressure can also work in a paradigmatic way; if we resist societal norms, we can potentially risk ostracization. That in itself can cause distressing emotions that could lead us to engage in drinking.
Alcohol as comfort: Biological & neurological impact
Alcohol is a drug. Just like other substances we put into our bodies – be they sugar, caffeine or cocaine – alcohol affects both our bodies and our brains. When we drink alcoholic beverages, they travel to our stomachs. When they are in our stomachs, they begin to be digested. This digestion then leads to the release of alcohol into the bloodstream. Once the alcohol hits the bloodstream, we will begin to feel its effects as it starts to travel around the body and arrives in the brain.
Alcohol’s depressant effects
Alcohol is a depressant. This means that it inhibits the action of the central nervous system. What this means in practice is that brain function begins to slow. Studies have found that in instances of high stress and anxiety, the brain acts very quickly, firing information at a higher rate than usual. This means that for people struggling emotionally, alcohol’s depressant effects can provide a welcome reduction in brain activity. This can be pleasurable, as it can reduce anxiety and make us feel more laid back and mellow. It can, therefore, serve as a behavioural and cognitive distraction for the duration of its effects.
Alcohol and neurotransmitters
Our brains work via the communication of a series of complex interactions between neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are brain chemicals that are all linked to specific roles, sensations or processes. Alcohol has been found to effect the function of several key neurotransmitters, including serotonin and dopamine.
Serotonin (often known as ‘the happy chemical’) is a mood stabiliser. It is associated with the regulation of ‘mood, memory, and gastrointestinal homeostasis.’ When exposed to alcohol, ‘several aspects of serotonergic signal transmission’ change. Researchers are able to measure levels of serotonin in urine. They have found that levels of serotonin increase after a single session of drinking. This is responsible for the euphoric mood boost that so many people seek from alcohol.
However, this boost can be negative in two key ways:
- It can lead to the desire to achieve the euphoria again (leading to repeat use)
- It can lead to serotonin syndrome
Serotonin syndrome (SS) happens when there is too much serotonin in the system. SS can be a potentially life-threatening condition. It can cause the following:
- Involuntary muscle movements
- Stiffness in the muscles
- Change in perceptions (including hallucinations and delusions)
There is an increased chance of developing serotonin syndrome if you drink alcohol whilst using antidepressants. As many people who use alcohol during periods of sadness may also be using these types of medications, there is a high risk of serotonin syndrome in people with a diagnosis of depression.
Whilst serotonin is linked with mood, dopamine is linked with pleasure and reward. When we drink alcohol, our dopamine receptors are stimulated. This means that our dopaminergic systems can be restructured to consider alcohol as a behaviour associated with reward. This can lead to the development of cravings due to the subsequent release of dopamine following alcohol consumption.
Food and drinks we can enjoy can activate dopamine transmission. Alcohol, however, has an especially profound effect on dopamine activity. This is because when we drink alcohol, our taste receptors are stimulated. This then increases dopamine activity in specific areas of the brain. As alcohol enters the bloodstream and travels to the brain, dopamine function can be altered a second time. This creates a cycle where alcohol acts as ‘a reinforcer’, which can then lead to repeat drinking in periods of sadness.
Continuing use and alcoholism
When we’re drinking, we might want to forget. People regularly cite alcohol as a way to forget difficult feelings, as a break from hard situations or difficult thoughts. The problem, however, is that our bodies cannot forget the effects of alcohol. Our bodies remember the effects of drinking all too well. They become embedded into our bodies and brains through the development of specific cycles. These cycles can then lead to addiction.
Addiction acts through a series of stages:
- Intoxication (initial use)
- Withdrawal (hangover or feeling unwell after the fact)
- Anticipation (the physical and psychological desire to drink again)
If we are feeling sad consistently, then the occasion for initial intoxication may present itself more frequently. This can then lead to anticipation. Without appropriate strategies for containment, this cycle can soon spiral into alcoholism. At this stage, alcoholism treatment may be needed to break the cycle.
Alcohol Addiction Treatment
Alcohol detox treatment can look different for everyone. UKAT offers a range of support options, all aimed at the treatment of alcoholism. These include a range of inpatient and outpatient sources of support so you can choose what is the best addiction treatment for you and your situation.
Our affordable alcohol rehab offers complete support by addressing the biological, emotional and social impacts of alcohol. Our rehab programmes hope to equip you with a healthier relationship with drinking by providing you with the opportunity to reflect in group and 1-1 therapy. By focusing on your emotional state, we hope to provide you with tools to tackle potential bouts of sadness whilst remaining alcohol-free.
(Click here to see works cited)