You wake up. You feel rubbish. How much did you drink last night? Can’t remember exactly? The only thing you are sure of is that it was far more then you intended. Again.
So why is there this tendency to drink too much? Is it just that you get carried away in the moment and lose count? Or that you are weak-willed and just can’t say no? Is it just you? Is there something wrong with you? Isn’t this a symptom of alcoholism?
In fact there are two very specific reasons why people tend to drink too much and find they have to exercise willpower to limit what they drink, and they apply to everyone. You can rest assured that there is nothing wrong with you, and it certainly doesn’t necessarily mean you are alcoholic! The first reason is to do with the differing time it takes two specific effects of alcohol to run their course; the mental relaxation and the physical intoxication. The second is to do with the bodies physiological reaction to alcohol. Let’s consider them both in order.
Mental Relaxation vs Physical Intoxication
The most common reason people reach for a drink is for the relaxing, comforting effect. Alcohol is an anaesthetic; it anaesthetises certain feelings (such as tiredness, stress, pain, and discomfort) and the effect of this is that we tend to feel more mentally relaxed after a drink. Of course the depressant/anaesthetising effects don’t just work on our mind, causing us to feel relaxed, they also affect the rest of our body, leaving us slightly uncoordinated and slow.
Most people assume that the relaxing mental effect and the physical impairment or intoxication go hand in hand, that they are part and parcel of the same process. However, this is not the case. The physical intoxication and the mental relaxation run their course at different times.
To give an example of this, where many people encounter problems with drink driving laws is that after a night of heavy drinking they can be over the limit when driving the following morning. It takes the average human one hour to process one unit of alcohol (a unit being approximately half a pint of beer or a single measure of spirits), so you can quite easily see how you could be over the limit for driving the following day, particularly if you have drunk a lot the night before and if you live in a country with a zero tolerance rule (i.e. where you are allowed no alcohol in your system at all while driving).
But the vast majority of people caught drink driving the following day do not feel drunk, this is why it is such an area of concern. People who still have alcohol in their system the morning after drinking will be physically intoxicated but will not have any corresponding feeling of alcohol-induced mental relaxation.
This is a very obvious example of how physical intoxication and a feeling of mental relaxation run their course at different speeds, with the intoxicating effect outlasting the relaxing effect. It is obvious because it is exaggerated by several hours’ abstention from alcohol in the form of a night’s sleep. However, the same effect occurs whilst we are actually drinking.
Let’s assume you are going out for the evening on a social occasion. Socialising is fun, but it can also be slightly nerve racking. You take a drink, and that anaesthetises the nerves with the result that you feel much happier and more relaxed. So now you are one drink relaxed, and one drink intoxicated. However very soon the relaxing effect disappears and you feel nervous again. No problem, take another drink. But although the relaxing effect has worn off, the intoxication hasn’t, so now you are one drink relaxed but two drinks intoxicated. Again soon the relaxing effect wears off and the nervous feeling resurfaces, so you take another drink. Now you’re three intoxicated but still one relaxed. As the evening wears on the intoxication just keeps increasing as you continue to chase the feeling of relaxation.
The Physiological Reaction to Alcohol
The human body requires a relatively steady internal state. This delicate balance of biochemical and physiological function is controlled by the brain which has its own store of drugs and hormones which it uses as and when required (such as adrenaline). Alcohol is a depressant (i.e. a drug that reduces functional or nervous activity) which disturbs this internal physiological balance with the result that the brain seeks to counter it by releasing stimulants which counter the depressive effects of the alcohol. The alcohol then starts to wear off but the stimulants remain, which leaves us feeling nervous and anxious.
So when you drink alcohol, you do not go from mental relaxation then back to normal, there is an intervening period of corresponding worry and anxiety before the return to normal. This is why so many people find that their sleep is disturbed after drinking, even if they only have one or two drinks. It is the resultant stimulants that cause this sleep disturbance.
So the short answer to the question of why people so often drink more than they intend is that every drink creates a feeling of anxiety as it wears off, and it needs another drink to replace this feeling of anxiety with another feeling of relaxation, and as you constantly chase this feeling of relaxation you become increasingly intoxicated.
For more information on this and other aspects of alcohol consumption, please go to www.alcoholexplained.com.