In this episode of the Feel Good Effect, we’re talking all about our relationship to alcohol with Annie Grace.
Listen to the episode or read the article to learn the science behind our alcohol habits!
3 simple habits to change your relationship with alcohol with annie grace
I’ve been asked for months to do an episode about how to feel good effect our relationship to alcohol. So I’m so thrilled we finally get to have this highly-requested conversation with Annie Grace, author of The Alcohol Experiment.
Rather than teach people to be sober, Annie focuses on a judgment-free & knowledge-based approach. Join us as we unpack the question “if you’re using this to feel better, is it really having the effect you want?”. The science behind our alcohol habits may surprise you!
“Beating ourselves up is the antithesis to effective change”
looking at reasons why we drink
There has been a growing interest in mindful alcohol consumption during the past year. People are looking for ways to feel better, and alcohol is an accessible way, but as people drink more they often realize that it doesn’t really work. We are all trying to feel good or feel better.
Usually, when people are approaching changing their drinking behavior, they might actually feel like they want to be drinking and at the same time have decided that they can’t keep doing it anymore. One thing we know about habit change is that it is really tough to do something long term if we don’t really want to do it.
starting with knowledge vs. action
There are three key things involved in changing a behavior: knowledge, emotion, and action.
In general, we tend to start with the action (e.g., “day one, I’m going to stop drinking”, “tomorrow, I am going to start exercising”) and skip over the other steps. Annie highlights the importance of starting by building knowledge first about alcohol. Specifically, understanding why it doesn’t make you feel better, how it doesn’t help you have a good time, and that it doesn’t actually help you destress.
Through that knowledge, the emotion or feeling that you don’t really want to be doing it anymore naturally follows. Then using that feeling, you can make the action of changing your behaviors almost effortlessly. Behavior change feels so easy this way and really comes down to changing the way you feel about a behavior by building knowledge before taking action.
understanding the limits of willpower & self-discipline
There is so much science that supports this idea: that beating ourselves up is not helpful to effective change.
So many of us hold the idea that if we don’t shame and blame ourselves, we’ll never be able to change a behavior. Yet, the short-term changes we are able to make through a shame-based approach are entirely willpower-based. Efforting our way through it, without changing the way we feel about a behavior or even the knowledge we have behind that decision.
We set unrealistic ultimatums for ourselves powered by guilt or shame. And when that approach doesn’t work, all it does is breed even more guilt, shame, blame, and self-loathing. When we feel those emotions, we are programmed to cope with the behaviors that allow us to escape our pain (like with alcohol) and the cycle continues.
One of the first things Annie helps people do is pause, stop trying to stop drinking, and stop trying to change with willpower. She directs people to information, encourages curiosity, and mindfulness. And through that, seek change through how they feel.
If you spent your whole day trying to not yell at your kids, trying to be patient, or trying to willpower through other things, you’re not going to have the willpower when it comes to trying to say no to a drink at the end of the day. To blame yourself for that very natural phenomenon in the brain and blame yourself for the proven ways that willpower fatigues, isn’t logical.
“Willpower is like a muscle and muscles wear out and fatigue”
What is it that people need to know to help them start to change the way they feel about alcohol?
Alcohol is a unique substance in that it is both a stimulant and a depressant.
It is a stimulant when it first enters the body and your blood alcohol content is rising. Blood alcohol levels rise for about 20-25 minutes following a drink. The feeling of the blood alcohol rising is what creates the positive feelings around a drink – making you a little dizzy, slightly out of touch with reality, feeling energized, and generally feeling somewhat nice. That feeling is what hooks us. But shortly after, the brain realizes that the alcohol is a toxin and it wants to purge the alcohol. In fact, the body will actually stop digesting food if alcohol is present in the system, in order to process the alcohol.
To counter the stimulating effects of alcohol, the body releases counter-chemicals, which elicits the depressive effects. After 20-25 minutes of the up, the blood alcohol content starts falling. You start feeling uneasy, feeling not good in your own skin, tired, anxious, and restless, which lasts 2-3 hours (this compounds per drink). We trick ourselves by getting another drink 20 minutes after the first to keep the stimulating feeling lasting a little long, but it never feels as good as the first drink.
During the depressant phase, the body tries to counterbalance again. It releases counter chemicals like cortisol and adrenaline, in order to bring you back to baseline. Cortisol is one of the main hormones associated with stress; one drink will create a cortisol release in the body and brain. The idea of drinking for stress relief doesn’t make a lot of sense through that lens. Most don’t know this about alcohol, and knowing makes it harder to look at a glass of wine at the end of the day as a way to unwind.
We don’t want to be intentionally ingesting something that creates a stress response, it’s opposite to feeling good. And when you talk to people who have suffered from anxiety and depression about their experience with changing their drinking behavior, they comment on how peaceful and stable they realized they could feel. When it comes down to it, neurochemically, pouring alcohol on anxiety is like pouring gasoline on fire.
understanding alcohol habits without judgment
No one wants advice they didn’t ask for. To give anyone an ultimatum is counterproductive. Framing the solution as needing to stop drinking forever is unhelpful, shames people, and ignores that many may believe that alcohol is key to many of their social belongings. No one will engage in the conversation about not drinking again when judgment is present.
Annie suggests looking at it, instead, as asking oneself, “what can I do to honor myself and make myself feel better?”
If it turns out that it’s not drinking anymore, fine. If it turns out that it’s drinking less, also fine. We make choices all the time that we know have risks. It might just be about drinking with knowledge of the risks. So many of us know more about the side effects of things like ibuprofen than we do of alcohol. If we have the information, we can make a mindful choice that’s right for us – instead of anyone giving us an ultimatum or seeing it in black & white thinking.
“There is so much agency, freedom, and choice when you remove black and white, dichotomous thinking”
Robyn Conley Downs
does this approach really work?
It really works if you are willing to allow for curiosity and put down self-blame. We don’t realize that we are fighting inside our minds all the time and when we do, we discount it because it is so normal. But in actuality, we have constant inner dialogue and constant inner fighting. The only way through that fight is to be curious without judgment.
You can ask yourself these questions
Why am I doing this? Why do I think alcohol is so important? Why am I using this tool to this degree? Why am I allowing myself to be torn in my own heart around this substance?
You’ve been doing the best you can with the tools you have. Alcohol is one of the main tools that has been given to us, especially to women, to navigate our lives. It’s important to remember that nothing is wrong with you. You are doing the best you can with the tools you have. But you can investigate whether the tools you have are doing the job you want them to. In the mindset of experimentation, see how good alcohol actually makes you feel. try having a drink and not having another for an hour, just noticing how you feel.
why has there been so much work done around mindful eating but not mindful alcohol consumption?
We have protected ourselves with this idea that only a certain percentage of the population is susceptible to problematic drinking. The dichotomy that you either are part of the percentage of people who can’t drink responsibly versus the rest of us prevents us from thinking about whether we might be happier if we drank a little less. Even asking the question, “should I be drinking less”, is a loaded question that presupposes this dichotomy of alcoholism vs. non alcoholism as an either-or situation.
Importantly, the term “alcoholic” is not even medically or scientifically supported. The correctly used term would be “alcohol use disorder”, which is a whole spectrum of use & abuse. The dichotomous thinking keeps us from having meaningful conversations about mindful alcohol consumption.
what is one habit someone can start with?
Start by paying attention on purpose without judgment and allowing yourself to hold that you aren’t broken. If you are wondering about your drinking, feeling like you have been drinking too much, that it has gotten out of control during the past year, there’s nothing wrong with you. Your brain is doing exactly what it was created to do. Neurologically, the brain is responding to alcohol with overstimulation of dopamine, dopamine is a learning molecule and the neurotransmitter released when we have sex, eat good food, and all of the other things that are survival behaviors. So when we drink, the brain gets confused and thinks that we need to do that again in order to survive. How can we compete with that?
You aren’t a broken or flawed human simply because you pause & question your drinking habits. But you can use that feeling to make different choices in a way that isn’t filled with blame or shame.
how is your 30-day challenge, the Alcohol Experiment, different from other 30-day challenges like dry January?
Many 30-day challenges, including dry January, are focused only on the action. “Let’s just stop” and “I don’t really want to, but let’s do this so I can prove to myself that I am fine and go back to it on February 1st”. There’s no knowledge.
The Alcohol Experiment, however, includes several prework videos to set the stage about why you might even want to do this challenge, how to be curious, what to look at in your life. There is a daily email and video through the 30-day challenge to offer compassionate education about what alcohol is and does to help you be more mindful about it.
being mindful while you drink
Start by really noticing how you feel right before the drink, how you feel pouring the drink, how you feel drinking the drink, and then how you feel for the next hour. Become very mindful of this.
When Annie started this for herself, she noticed that she felt better just pouring the drink, like it was a signal that she was transitioning from her work day to the relaxing part of the day. So much of the relief or pleasure that comes from addictive substances is just scratching the itch that was created by the withdrawal from the last time it was used. And if it’s not pleasurable to scratch, then there isn’t an itch.
Annie suggests very mindfully having a drink after the 30-day challenge to see how it feels. When you have removed the itch from the previous drink, and you just drink without having any physical withdrawal or residual alcohol in your system, it doesn’t feel as good. If you are drinking everyday, you are creating a perpetual withdrawal in your body. If you interrupt that, you can realize it.
what does it really mean to be healthy?
“How I feel from an energetic perspective affects everything else. If I am more peaceful, I am able to handle anything that comes my way, I am much more resourceful. When I get loaded, stressed, or overwhelmed, I am so much less resourceful and less healthy… for me it really comes to being very present and peaceful in my body. From that place, which I maintain through meditation and exercise, everything else becomes so much more manageable and health comes naturally… because I am more mindful of everything happening”
Annie Grace is the author of This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life and The Alcohol Experiment: A 30-day, Alcohol-Free Challenge to Interrupt Your Habits and Help You Take Control. She grew up outside Aspen, Colorado, in a one-room log cabin without running water or electricity. Having discovered a passion for marketing, Annie Grace earned a Masters of Science (Marketing) and dove into corporate life. As the youngest vice president in a multinational company at the age of 26, her drinking career began in earnest. At 35, in a global C-level marketing role, she was responsible for marketing in 28 countries; she was drinking almost two bottles of wine a night. Knowing she needed a change but unwilling to submit to a life of deprivation and stigma, Annie Grace embarked on a journey to painlessly gain control of alcohol — for her that process resulted in no longer wanting to drink. Never happier, she left her executive role to write and share This Naked Mind with the world. In her free time, she loves to ski, travel (26 countries and counting), and enjoy her beautiful family. Annie Grace lives with her husband and three children in the Colorado mountains.
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