[EDITOR’S NOTE: Say hello to Dayna Mason. Bestselling author. Born and raised in Seattle. Loves the city and coffee. But most of all, loves people and is constantly looking for opportunities to help people recognize how amazing they are.]

Are you “sober curious?” Understanding the role of alcohol in our lives

By Dayna Mason

As we begin the new year many of us may ask, “What do I want to do differently this year? How do I want to improve my life?”

One possibility is to take a closer look at alcohol’s role in our lives. Maybe we join the growing trend and give it up for a set amount of time as an experiment, or maybe we just pay closer attention to what we say to ourselves about it and how it makes us feel. 

In recent years, “Dry January,” “Sober October,” or a month of sobriety for the physical and mental health benefits have gained popularity around the world. According to the British Medical Journal, “Although most people who participate in Dry January return to drinking, up to 8 percent stay dry six months later, and those who go back to drinking drink less.” 

New trends in drinking

A new trend labeled “sober curious”—the decision to abstain from alcohol temporarily—is gaining traction. The sober curious don’t stop drinking because they must; instead they stop because they are curious about what would happen if they didn’t consume alcohol for a while. According to a study by Nielson, “55% of consumers said they abstained from alcohol at some point during 2018, with 50% citing health as the primary motivator.”  Millennials are leading the mindful drinking trend, with 66% reducing their alcohol consumption in 2018.

As a growing percentage of consumers cut back on their alcohol consumption, demand for beverages with no and low-alcohol content is rising. Within bars and restaurants, no and low-alcohol beer is the fifth-fastest growing beer type in the U.S and “sober bars” are popping up all across the nation—establishments with the dark atmosphere and entertainment of a bar but serving strictly non-alcoholic beverages.

My alcohol experiment

In January of 2019, I wanted to understand the role of alcohol in my life, so I made the decision to eliminate it from my diet for one year as an experiment. I guess you could say I was “sober curious.” 

I didn’t quit because I had a “drinking problem.” I quit because I had a problem with drinking. I have always prided myself on my reasonable temperament and self-control. But I began to notice that two things were happening when I drank that seemed irrational and lacking in self-control.

First, I noticed that after approximately two glasses of wine, something I called my “tipping point” occurred and I lost the ability to stop drinking. I found myself wanting more alcohol to maintain the feeling that two glasses of wine had created. Second, in addition to the sometimes debilitating hangover from drinking, I would occasionally wake up to a memory of being overly emotional about something that, when sober, wasn’t even a big deal. 

I had also come to believe that I was more fun and had more fun when I was drinking and that I needed a glass of wine to “unwind” after a stressful day. I was curious to discover if these beliefs were in fact, true.

The truth about the chemical

Alcohol is pure poison to the body. Ethyl alcohol (ethanol) is the drinkable alcohol we find in our alcoholic beverages, and even though it’s drinkable it’s still toxic as demonstrated by the body’s attempt to eradicate it when we consume it.

Alcohol throws off the balance in the pleasure center of the brain. As we drink alcohol dopamine gets dumped into our system, creating that “buzzed” feeling and makes us want more of what gave us the pleasure. The brain then seeks to protect itself from the toxins in the alcohol, so it releases a chemical downer, dynorphin, a naturally occurring painkiller that has been linked to depression. Dynorphin numbs all pleasure equally, and drinking alcohol leads to a muted pleasure response to enjoyable life experiences. This explains why, with prolonged alcohol use, a person can no longer find happiness apart from drinking and with regular heavy drinking, dynorphin levels are so high that even the alcohol ceases to provide the illusion of pleasure.

As the effects of the first drink wears off, dynorphin suppresses our initial feeling of euphoria and our sense of well-being falls below where it was when we started drinking. The elevated dopamine levels then make us crave more of what made us feel good, what I called my “tipping point.” So, we have another glass of wine. 

The amount of alcohol it takes to feel that initial euphoria is different for everyone, and the more we drink regularly, the more alcohol it takes to get there, and once we are there it only lasts about 20 minutes. Then it’s gone. We spend the rest of the evening trying to get that feeling back. But, due to our body’s need for chemical balance, no matter how much we subsequently drink, that feeling will not return. In other words, whether we drink a glass or a bottle of wine, we are only going to experience approximately 20 minutes of artificial euphoria. 

Life without alcohol

A strange thing happened about three weeks into my experiment—I lost all desire for alcohol and knew I was done with drinking. In a short period of time I felt better physically, more balanced emotionally, and clearer mentally. I decided that the price of my short and long-term health and well-being wasn’t worth the occasional 20 minutes of manufactured euphoria. 

I’m not more fun with alcohol. I’m actually more irrationally emotional and annoying. I don’t have more fun with alcohol because my senses are so numbed that I’m not truly connecting with anyone. And although the initial euphoria of drinking can make me feel relaxed for about 20 minutes, the subsequent chemical battle in my body can actually cause greater anxiety—so, a glass of wine doesn’t help me to “unwind.” I’ve also learned that there is a new “tipping point” for me as a sober person—hanging out with people drinking alcohol can be fun, but hanging out with drunk people is not fun.  So, when the evening becomes a cacophony of voices competing loudly to tell the same story that was told five minutes ago, I slip out the back door. 

Your own experiment

If you answer yes to any of these questions, you may want to try your own experiment. 

    • Do you drink more than you plan to drink?
    • Have you wanted to cut back or stop drinking but found it harder than you expected?
    • Do you find yourself regretting the after-effects of drinking? (e.g. headache, hangover)

Whether you give up alcohol temporarily or simply pay closer attention to how you think and feel while drinking, embarking on your own experiment can inform you about the role of alcohol in your life.  Once informed, you can choose the role you want it to play in your future.

Resource:

The Alcohol Experiment – Annie Grace

A free 30-day guided experiment “where you examine your beliefs [about alcohol] and reconnect with the best version of you without ever feeling like you are missing out.”

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