I’m currently moving house, writing a book, have manic deadlines at work and also, because I don’t have enough to do, decided to start running yoga retreats on my weekends. Life, to say the least, is stressful right now. I really don’t have anything to complain about – all these opportunities that are keeping me busy are great – there’s just perhaps one too many of them. And on Monday night, after running a retreat all weekend and then packing all night, and the next day, it was the first time in six months that I’ve actually wanted, craved and really, seriously contemplated having a drink.
And this surprised me. When I went alcohol free, I thought it would be the fun times I’d be tempted by – the weddings, the parties, the holidays. But I found them easier to navigate that I thought, and I can see now that what I felt then, was the feeling of missing out, rather than actually wanting a drink, and they are not the same thing.
What do I choose?
In those situations, I’d remind myself that it was my decision, and if I wanted to have a glass of bubbles then I could. And strangely, the feeling of missing out faded as I realised I was only missing out if I told myself I was. The secret was in reminding myself that I owned my choices. But, tired, stressed and depleted, with so much work done and yet still more writing, deadlines, and packing to do, my brain fried and feeling like I was beginning to come apart at the seams… I badly wanted a glass of wine.
To be honest? The only thing stopping me was that I’d been alcohol free for six months and I didn’t want to break my record. Not an entirely bad reason, but for me, it didn’t take into account any of my reasons for stopping in the first place; my physical health, mental wellbeing – my desire for creating a fuller, more creative and meaningful life. It had never been about time for me. So why was I craving that large glass of white during a highly stressful time? Societal conditioning perhaps; I still associate drinking with those relaxing, social times, and so when I felt a desperate need to feel relaxed, old habits told me that drinking = being happy and relaxed.
I decided to take myself back to my reasons for cutting out alcohol in the first place to help me refocus on whether I wanted to have that glass of wine or not; my health. So, what is alcohol’s real effect on our mental and physical wellness when it comes to stress and anxiety?
Alcohol disrupts our sleep patterns and interrupts the deep sleep we need to feel rested, repair and restore our bodies, and feel ready to take on the day ahead. Lack of quality sleep is also linked to our overall mental wellbeing and feelings of depression and anxiety. Physically tired from teaching all weekend and hauling boxes around, and mentally exhausted from my huge to-do list, that glass of wine wasn’t going to help me the next day, in fact it would leave me more tired! Reason one not to reach for the glass of wine.
Alcohol can change our brains ability to stay balanced and run smoothly. It also disrupts the balance of chemicals in our brains that affect our mood. So that feeling of coming apart at the seams I’ve been having? A glass of wine or two might help distract me from it for an evening, but isn’t going to help me tomorrow when things begin to get on top of me again.
Drinking narrows our perception of the situations in our lives, and prevents us from seeing the whole picture – which, if we are suffering from feelings of anxiety, or currently find ourselves in a stressful period, can push us towards perceiving those situations with a negative bias, shifting us to constantly interpreting threats in our environment and miss the neutral or positive information that sits alongside it. This means I could interpret an email from my boss tomorrow asking me to ‘keep my eye on the ball and not take too much on’ as threatening and become defensive and upset, making me more stressed and anxious rather than seeing it more neutrally as her simply acknowledging that I have a lot on my plate.
That massive to do list that seems to be ever growing? Again, I’m not doing myself any favours reaching for the wine. Very soon after drinking alcohol, our memory can be impaired as brain processes begin to slow down. Heavy drinking can even cause the brain to stop recording information into its ‘memory bank’, and while glass of wine or two won’t cause this issue, it reminds me that alcohol won’t do my brain any favours when it comes to keeping on top of everything I have to do tomorrow.
So what is the answer? As a yoga teacher I know that simply the way in which we breath can have a profound effect on soothing the nervous system, switching us from the Sympathetic Nervous system of flight/fight/freeze reactions to the Parasympathetic Nervous System and into our rest and digest state, where we can find the space to respond to situations rather than react.
Try this on waking, going to bed and at stressful points in your day:
- Close your eyes. Breath in for the count of four, drawing the breath deep into your belly, allowing it to expand like a balloon.
- Hold at the top for a count of four.
- Exhale slowly for a count of four then pause at the bottom before breathing into the belly for four again and repeating the cycle.
- Try for a few minutes – set a timer, or for a quick timeout, just do five breath cycles like this.
Stress can be a powerful trigger for many, but the benefits of approaching stressful situations with a clear head far outweigh the short term relief alcohol may provide. Stay calm, and carry on.