Many of us rely on substances to talk about our feelings, but we should aim to feel secure sober too
image Euphoria, HBO
words Rhys Thomas
It’s been a long day. Things haven’t been quite going your way. Perhaps something upset you, or stressed you; or maybe these moods and thoughts have been bubbling up for a while. Either way, today it’s all a bit too much. You’ve sent your friend a DM: “Been a shit day, fancy a drink later?”
We’ve all seen this play out. You meet up, you catch up generally, you perhaps allude to why you're not feeling great: Your boss sucks, you're having problems with your partner. But you skirt around the topic for the first hour. Then, a couple drinks in, things start coming out. You open up on the issues that are bringing you down. The conversation get deep. But it’s always only after a couple of drinks.
The evening progresses and the drinks flow, you smash through a vape or make a sizeable dent in a pack of cigarettes. Maybe some other packets are involved too (we don’t mean crisps). You open up further, now you’re retrospective. Now, those feelings you have been feeling are finally coming out, you are opening up and it is nice and safe. Your friend is listening and being honest, some truths are said, some things you definitely hope nobody overhears are also said.
Then the bartender rings the bell to say last orders have been taken. You get home, you forget to drink water and eat food, you go to bed. The next day you’re groggy, and though you put the world to rights last night, you don’t feel as weightless as you'd hoped, nor do you quite remember what was said. Sound familiar?
Often, using alcohol in order to open up isn't a completely conscious idea, at least not to begin with. Drinking culture is as ingrained into British culture as Sunday dinners and sarcasm. Where can we catch up after work that allows us to speak candidly, that doesn't serve alcohol? Exactly. At the same time, we know it's easier to speak freely after a couple cold ones. There's science to back it up. “The dopamine released when we drink alcohol can provide us with a mask. It allows us to take emotions that we've buried deeply and bring them to the surface in a less vulnerable way.” Says Emma McDermott, a counsellor and psychotherapist.
“Humans are built to survive. If you're uncomfortable with expressing yourself, the idea of verbalising how you feel, is threatening. Threat triggers our nervous system, we kick into survival mode. Adrenaline, cortisol, and other hormones flood the brain. This manifests as us getting defensive, closing up, freezing up, being angry, or walking away.” Adds James Hartley, also a counsellor and psychotherapist.
If we look at how we might normally be afraid to speak about our issues in depth, and that alcohol allows us to do that with less insecurity, it becomes clear why this is a go-to situation for many people. It’s especially prevalent in men. A 2010 study published in Biological Psychiatry suggests that alcohol consumption causes a greater dopamine release in men than in women.
Not seeking help and using alcohol as a coping mechanism can also have devastating consequences. In 2016, statistics from mentalhealth.org show that “72% of people who died by suicide between 2002 and 2012 had not been in contact with their GP or a health professional about these feelings in the year before their suicide.” As of 2020, men are more than three times more likely to end their lives than women. These statistics in combination show men are very bad at seeking help for their mental health, which is why you may know plenty of men who use alcohol in order to alleviate stress.
JP, service operations and research manager at Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), a mental health charity and helpline confirms that to this day a lot of their "callers come to us after a few drinks, as they feel they can open up more”. Most of their callers are men at the time of writing too. So how can we learn to open up without alcohol (which is a depressant, by the way)?
It’s all about practice. “Emotional language is a bit like a muscle, and things like therapy work as a starting point.” McDermott says. In many ways, analysing and considering our emotional abilities is like having a personal trainer who can tell us how to improve form in order to become stronger or work a certain muscle group more effectively. To keep with the exercise analogy for a little, being able to articulate how we feel is difficult if you've spent most of your life being quiet about issues. Just as trying to do a pull up, if you've never done one before, can seem ridiculous. But with time, the ability can come. Alcohol may loosen you up to access the expressiveness, but it is an artificial boost to your ability. As a result, there are negatives as well as the immediate positives.
Fortunately, we can practise opening up while sober, and it'll only become easier the more we do so. Of course, a great environment for this is therapy, which both counsellors recommended. But it is of course, pretty expensive, and other methods can be effective too, such as journaling. We’re working on the same part of the brain that makes men notoriously bad at texting, finding the right words and self-disclosing information. It just involves writing down how you feel in as much detail as feels necessary, a couple minutes a day works just fine. From there, it can allow you to more clearly see what is on your mind, and even provide you with the mindset needed to prioritise the stresses.
Journaling has been shown to help with stress, anxiety, and depression management. McDermott suggests making the exercise as fun as possible and to tie it into other hobbies where appropriate. This might mean drawing a comic strip, or writing the thoughts into a song, whatever you want! You might not get results immediately, but it’s something you’re meant to work on (like anything you want to be good at). Any start is a good start.
In terms of speaking with other people, “research has shown that if we're walking side by side with somebody we feel less intimidated, and are more likely to open up.” Says McDermott. It makes sense. Think of those moments where you’re in a car looking at the road ahead and chatting about personal things. How main character. The fact that we’re looking at something that isn’t the person we’re talking to helps, it's a distraction of sorts, but a healthy one. Going for a walk works wonderfully too (and has a better carbon footprint, wahey). If we need to be indoors, then a good strategy can be to meet at places where we enjoy ourselves away from alcohol, or at least where it isn't the focal point. Say you and your friend like going to the cinema, why not get some food and walk to the film together? Same with the football (you don’t have to drink, you’re there to watch the football). You could even ask your friend if they want to come over, get some food, watch some good telly. Perfect.
Of course, the most obvious and general health tips are worth remembering too. “Cliche, yes, but exercising, eating well and sleeping well can help you here. If you are putting yourself in a better place, it's easier to take on difficult tasks such as speaking about your feelings,” says Hartley.
So there’s a few things you can do. Practice, think about you, and take yourself out of situations where alcohol is the focal point (or sole distraction from your conversation) and perhaps it’ll help you to be more in tune with the conversation and your feelings when you do open up sober. Because, as Hartley explains, while liquid courage is a real thing “alcohol really increases mindlessness, which is quite the opposite to mindfulness."