17 Mar Why do we like alcohol and what do you do when you like it too much?
Why do we drink?
There are several reasons for us to drink. First and foremost because we like it. It makes us cheerful and happy. It makes you forget some of your worries and it has a strong social function. We enjoy the taste and the symbolism of it. Champagne when we have something to celebrate, a cold beer with your teammates after a game or a classic aperitif cocktail before a fancy dinner. Downside is that if you drink too much, you will have a hangover. And a potential risk on the long term is that you like the effects of alcohol a bit too much. Alcohol can be addictive.
Being educated as a cognitive therapist, I support Marlatts’ (1978) taxonomy of risk situations to develop problematic drinking behavior. Marlatt identifies four main categories. First reason for people to drink is out of anger or frustration. This can be both on the longterm and the shortterm. When you have had a bad day, you log for a drink to make you forget it. When you want to forget every day, you drink every day. This is often the case with depressed or lonely people. This is the second category, negative emotions.
The third reason is peer pressure. Often people drink because their friends drink, they want to fit in or they feel pressured. Peer pressure is a big reason to drink for younger people. You can read more about peer pressure in my blog here.
The fourth reason is called interpersonal temptation. You drink just because you want to have a drink. You wake up every morning wanting a drink, because you can’t stop your craving, because it is your daily routine? That is when you are alcohol addicted or in the worst case, alcohol dependent.
But why exactly do we like to drink alcohol so much?
To answer this question, we look at the effects alcohol has on your brains. If we drink alcohol, a neurotransmitter called dopamine is released in the brain. To be precise, in the nucleus accumbens. Dopamine makes us feel happy and gives us feelings of joy and relaxation. Dopamine is often called the ‘happiness hormone’. These effects of dopamine are addictive to us.
The nucleus accumbens is an important part of the brain when it comes to activities important for us to survive and to reproduce: eating, drinking and sex. With all these activities, the concentration of dopamice rices in the nucleus accumbens. The effects of alcohol on the dopamine concentration in the nucleus accumbens are many times stronger than the natural effects of eating, drinking and sex and last longer than the effects of the natural effects of eating drinking and sex (Volkow, Fowler, Wang, Swanson and Telang, 2007).
This makes alcohol many times more addictive than eating, drinking and sex. We crave for this happy feeling, this feeling of joy that dopamine gives us. By experience we know that alcohol gives us this feeling, so we crave for alcohol. When you are alcohol addicted or – dependent your ‘natural’ dopamine concentration when sober is even lower than non-alcohol addictive or alcohol dependent people (Volkow et al., 2002). Meaning, you will need more alcohol to get the same effects of happiness.
What to do when you like alcohol too much?
This depends on your motivation to drink. Do you have difficulties saying no to your friends? Working on your coping skills can be the answer. If you want to know how to do that? Click here.
Resisting the urge to drink might be more difficult in the other three situations Marlatt (1978) describes. When you are angry, depressed or when you are alcohol dependent, when you wake up in the morning with a craving for a drink, when your drinking habbits influence your day to day functioning? This is when things are no longer in your control and looking for help is the answer.
Working in a bar might cloud the problem a bit. You work at night, so you have plenty of time to sober up, and we work in the nightlife and barscene and people consider it to be normal that you like a drink and a party. Often the drinking has a function. Forgetting or feeling better. Admitting that you have a problem and changing that, might mean facing those problems and that can be scary. A pattern and a system has been developed that works at the short term, namely drinking. On the long term this solution is not sustainable though.
Where to look for help?
First of all, you got to admit to yourself that there is a problem. Look yourself in the eye and don’t make excuses. Only of you see that you need help, you will have the strength to actually look for it. Unfortunately, admitting that you have an alcohol problem in the bar scene, is still not really accepted. There is a sort of taboo on it. This makes it less easy to speak out and seek for help. You have to be strong to change this.
When you have admitted to yourself, and to your colleagues, friends and family that you have a problem, you can take the next step. What this step is, is different per country or region even.
In the Netherlands, we have a good health care system where there are several government institutions that help you when you seek help. This is free of charge and anonymous. If you prefer not to tell anybody that you are looking for help, that is possible. Though having a supporting environment increases the chances of successfully changing your drinking behavior.
As a first step, I would advise to talk to your doctor (GP). He or she can advise you where to go next. As mentioned, I am a believer in cognitive behavioural therapy.
A good friend of mine, Tim Ethrington-Judge has started a non-profit organisation that focus on the mental and physical well-being of hospitality professional called ‘healthy hops’. Are you looking to reach out for help in your region? healthyhospo.com is a website that might help.
Marlatt, G. A. (1978). Craving for alcohol, loss of control, and relapse: A cognitive- behavioral analysis. In P. E. Nathan, G. A. Marlatt, & T. Loberg (Eds.), New di- rections in behavioral research and treatment (pp. 271–314). New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies.
Volkow, N.D., Fowler, J.S., Wang, G., Swanson J.M., & Telang, F. (2007). Dopamine in drug abuse. Results of imaging studies and treatment implications. Seen on 02 april 2018 at https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamaneurology/fullarticle/794743.
Volkow, N.D., Wang, G., Maynard, L., Fowler, J.S., Jayne, B., Telang, F., Logan, J., Ding, Y.S., Gatley, S.J., Hitzemann, R., Wong, C. & Pappas, N. (2002). Effects of alcohol detoxification on dopamine D2 receptors in alcoholics: a preliminary study, Psychiatry Research, Neuroimaging 16-3 (pp. 163-172).