This Naked Mind

I recently read This Naked Mind by Annie Grace. There are many points in there that work very well with Alcohol Explained and some in particular that I think are worth specifically mentioning.

Firstly is the question of why it is difficult to limit our intake during any particular drinking session. In Alcohol Explained I explain how the relaxing effect of the alcohol does not dissipate leaving you feeling as you did before, but leaves behind it a corresponding feeling of anxiety that needs another drink to replace it. So the tendency, when you take a drink, is to keep drinking. I also explain that due to the discrepancy between the time it takes for the relaxing effect to wear off as opposed to the intoxicating effect, the tendency is to become increasingly drunk (the Chapters 2 and 5 that deal with these points can be found here).

This Naked Mind adds an additional layer to this. It points out the alcohol also affects our ability to make well thought out, rational decisions, specifically:

“The final change in your brain occurs within your prefrontal cortex. This is the part of your brain responsible for decision-making. It allows you to make well-thought-out decisions, exhibits self-control and prevent the more reptilian parts of your brain from running the show.”

So, to put it colloquially, when we are drinking we are far more likely to say “sod moderation I am just going to drink and ‘enjoy’ myself” as we are simply less able to make a decision based on rationality rather than base instinct. It is also the case that alcohol dulls our fear of the following day and our fear of the adverse effects of our drinking generally.

Secondly in Alcohol Explained I deal with why the concept of drinking to relieve stress is based on a fallacy. Essentially although the alcohol may dull down the stress in the short term, the effect of the drink very quickly wears off and so you end up not only back to where you were before you took the drink, but in fact worse off as you then have the alcohol withdrawal to contend with in addition to the original stress, so you then need another drink, and another, and another to keep relieving both the withdrawal and the original stress. So the net result is the original stress, alcohol withdrawal, a ruined night’s sleep, and most likely an actual hangover.

Again This Naked Mind adds an additional layer by pointing out that addiction overall is a much bigger stressor that the stressors you drank to remove. Addiction causes a mental divide in your mind (where part of you wants to drink and part of you wants to stop). This internal divide is known as ‘cognitive dissonance’ and is a major and ongoing cause of frustration and agitation.

Thirdly, in Alcohol Explained I deal with why the disease theory of alcoholism is harmful. By suggesting that if you are not ‘alcoholic’ you can drink with impunity and never have a problem, it gives free licence to partake in irresponsible drinking which then accelerates the process of addiction. This Naked Mind again adds another layer to this by pointing out that this concept also stigmatises ‘alcoholism’. No one wants to admit that there is something inherently wrong with them, such that they are incapable of controlling themselves when others can, so the natural tendency is for people to resist admitting they have a problem for as long as they possibly can. We, as a society, should not be in a position of saying ‘drink unless you admit you are one of the poor benighted few who are different to everyone else and have no self-control where alcohol is conerned’ but rather ‘you are on a road that becomes increasingly unpleasant as the illusions of pleasure are one by one exploded, feel free to do the wise thing and get off it as soon as you come to your senses’.

At what stage do we become ‘Alcohol Reliant’?

You hear some extraordinary things in an open plan office. I’ve just overheard a holiday conversation between three of my colleagues. One of the ladies has two children, aged 18 and 20 (clearly not ‘children’ but I shall use the word because ‘issue’ or ‘offspring’ sounds a bit odd). Both children are still living at home but as you would expect they are starting to spread their wings, ready to fly the nest, and are becoming more and more independent.

Anyway what her and her husband have said to their children now they are growing (grown) up is that they are more than welcome to go on holiday with them (which they will pay for) but equally if they no longer want to go on holiday with their Mum and Dad then they don’t have to go along. I thought that was all very nice and sensible; no point forcing your children to go on holiday with you if they don’t want to, but equally it is very nice (if you can afford it) to keep inviting them along.

Anyway this year they are off on a cruise, so really pushing the boat out (ha ha). However neither of the two children are going along. Why? Because it is an American cruise ship, and they apply the American age restriction on serving alcohol, which is 21. So neither of them would be able to drink on board.

The conversation then centred about their decision not to go along as they wouldn’t be able to drink, with everyone agreeing that it is understandable, and the mother herself taking this position. I resisted making any comment.

To get things into perspective though this is a possible once in a lifetime holiday, fully paid for, and the reasons they wanted to stay at home was not to have the house to themselves, or arrange parties, but simply because they couldn’t drink on the holiday. And these weren’t two grizzled, three bottles of spirits a day drinkers, these are two young, up and coming students. There of course may have been other influencing factors in their decision not to go (such as having the house to themselves or having a party) but the point is that it was considered perfectly reasonable for them to refuse to go on the basis that they wouldn’t be able to drink.

Now I am assuming that these two ‘children’ do not have a problem with alcohol (or the conversation would have taken a very different turn) but it highlights the role alcohol plays in our society. It also, I think, demonstrates the age at which we become dependent on alcohol. They may not be dependent on alcohol to get out of bed in the morning or to deal with every aspect of their lives, but they are clearly dependant on alcohol to get them through certain situations, to such an extent that what should be very enjoyable once in a lifetime experience is missed out on because the drug they need to enjoy that situation is missing.

I remember doing a similar thing when I was younger. I can’t remember exactly how old I was but it was between 14 (because I had started drinking and smoking) and 16 (as I was still at school) and our parents took myself and my sisters to Disney World. I absolutely loved it. In fact there was only one occasion when I was miserable. We went to one of the few places you could drink alcohol (I doubt it exists anymore, it seems alcohol is now virtually unobtainable in Disneyland, but this was 25 odd years ago). It was an amazing place. It was done up like an old colonial gentleman’s club but many of the exhibits moved or did odd things if you watched them long enough. My Mum and Dad had a drink but I was too young, so I sat there miserable all evening. What an obnoxious little brat I was.

Societies’ view is that it takes several years to become addicted to drinking, however this is not how we should be looking at it. It is not a question of not-addicted / addicted, with a grey area in between. Rather it is a case of becoming addicted from the start, but only in respect of a very limited number of situations (like socialising) with the later stages being addicted to a far wider array of situations (like every weekend, evening, lunchtime, morning, second of consciousness, argument, setback, meal, etc). The earlier stage drinker is simply addicted or reliant on alcohol on far fewer situations, whereas the later stage drinker is reliant on alcohol on a far greater number of situations.

Alcohol and Our Emotions

Whilst I have tried to keep Alcohol Explained as short as concise as I can, sometimes I think I have dealt with some important points too quickly, and perhaps I ought perhaps have dwelled on them a bit longer to emphasise them. In particular the there is a key part of the Chapter on ‘Alcohol’s Effects on Emotions’ which I think could do with some amplification.

To summarise briefly alcohol is a chemical depressant, which means that it depresses or inhibits nerve activity. So if we are upset, angry, or sad, then a drink will depress these feelings with the result that, after a drink, we will feel slightly better.

However the depressant effect also acts on the limbic system which is a set of six inner structures in the human brain which is believed to be the emotional centre of the brain. It is believed that the function of the limbic system is to control our emotions and behaviour (and interestingly also believed to be responsible for forming long-term memories). When alcohol depresses the function of the limbic system its ability to regulate our emotions decreases, with the result that our emotions tend to run unchecked. This is why drunks tend to be overly emotional, be it angry, aggressive, sad, self-pitying, argumentative or regretful.

So let’s now leave the science behind and look at a practical example. You have an argument with your partner and feel angry. You take a drink and feel better. The initial ‘boost’ (ie the deadening of the negative feeling of anger) is quickly countered by the brain which releases stimulants and stress hormones to counter the depressive effects of the alcohol. So you very quickly end up just as angry as before and need another drink to dampen the anger. And so the drinking continues.

You can probably already see the problem with taking a drink to relieve anger, stress, misery etc. The drinking has to continue for the relief to continue. However there are three additional problems that we need to factor in.

Firstly, due to the brain releasing a stimulant to counter the depressive effect of the alcohol, when the mental relaxation caused by the alcohol wears off we are not back to where we started. The stimulant’s remain with the effect that we are more uptight and stressed than before we started.

Secondly the mental deadening effect which provides relief from the anger dissipates far quicker than the physical intoxication. This is dealt with in the Chapter on ‘The Relaxing Effects of Alcohol’ which can be found in the 1st 5 Chapters (here) but suffice to say that we become increasingly intoxicated as we chase the fleeting feeling of mental relaxation.

The third problem is that the physical intoxication affects the limbic system, with the result that as we continue to drink our brains become increasingly unable to regulate our emotions (in this case anger).

The overall result of this is that we end up far angrier than we ever would have had we not drunk, which is a key point given that we only started drinking to alleviate the anger in the first place.

It helps to think about it with figures. Let’s say that your anger ranges from zero to one hundred, with zero being no anger and a hundred being as angry as you could possibly be. Let’s say your argument result in you being 10 points angry. One drink relieves 7 of those points so now you are only 3 points angry. However that drink also has an effect on the limbic system which prevents any anger being properly regulated, so although it removes 7 anger points due to it depressing the actual emotion, it adds 2 anger points as the limbic system is affected. So the net gain is that you are actually 5 points less angry than you were. At this stage you have gone from 10 anger points to 5.

Of course the mental relaxation effect of the drink (which has the immediate effect of dampening down the anger) all too soon wears off, so you quickly regain the 7 points of anger you have lost, however the physical intoxication effect on the limbic system does not wear off. So you are now 12 points angry (the original 10 plus the 2 you have gained as a result of the decline in the effect of the limbic system). So you take another drink and the same process occurs; you get a short terms relief of the 7 but a long term gain of the 2, so the short term effect of the second drink is to take you from 12 (the start) to 5, with the long term effect of you ending up at 14 points of anger. It is easier to see on the graph below. The height measurement is how angry we are, with it being the higher the angrier. The horizontal line is time passing. The even numbers are our taking a drink and obtaining some relief, with the relaxing effect of that drinking wearing off at the odd number, so the dips are when we have a drink and the peaks are the mental relaxation effect of the drink wearing off.

Each drink does provide us with an actual boost, but this is outweighed entirely by the effect on the limbic system with the effect that very soon we are far angrier then we were to begin with, even while we are actually ‘enjoying’ the ‘relief’ provided by the drink.

This actually makes perfect sense if you think about it, if you think that alcohol relieves anger, misery, frustration, etc, then alcoholics (who drink the most) would surely be the happiest people on the planet. Drunks would be the most calm and happy people, and those least likely to get into a fight. This is clearly not the case.

There is a very big difference between people drinking to relieve negative emotions (which they clearly do) and alcohol actually relieving negative emotions (which is clearly does not, in fact it does completely the opposite by greatly exaggerating them).

If you want to consider further the very important implications of this then you should re-read Chapter 3 (The Subconscious) which can be found here and consider it in relation to the workings of the subconscious. In particular consider the implications of the following:

Your subconscious mind will recognise that an alcoholic drink will relieve the feelings of anxiety and depression because the drink and the relief will be close together chronologically. You will take a drink and very shortly after this you will experience the relief. However, it will not associate the alcoholic drink with the cause of the anxiety and depression in the first place as it takes far longer for the anxiety and depression to accumulate after the final alcoholic drink has been drunk.

Exactly the same applies to alcohol’s effects on our emotions. The subconscious will only recognise the effect of alcohol relieving our anger, stress, upset etc and will not recognise the overall increase in these emotions accumulates far more slowly. This is how we can end up in this very strange situation where we all know that alcohol makes people far more emotionally unstable, yet we still all ‘instinctively’ reach for a drink to relieve our anger, stress, upset, etc.