Caroline Cranshaw: How to tell if your drinking is a problem and what to do about it

Photo / Getty

Photo / Getty

Does this sound familiar? You wake up early in the morning with a dry mouth, your head pounding and feeling terrible. You moan to yourself as embarrassing memories of last night’s drinking session come flooding back to you. "Oh no, what did I do?" You’re so tired but feel too sick and anxious to go back to sleep.

You say to yourself, with absolute conviction … "That’s it! I’ve had enough of it this. I need to get control of my drinking. Tonight, I’m not going to drink. I'm not going to drink for a week, no a month!" And this feeling of peace washes over you, and you know this is the right thing to do.

But you spend the rest of the day anxious, shaky, and stressed out. Feeling terrible, you pound back coffee, energy drinks, sugar or junk food hoping like hell something is going to make you feel better. By late afternoon, you are dying for a drink, just to take the edge off. The idea of stopping drinking for a while doesn't seem like such a good idea. You decide to have one drink, just this once. One turns into two and before you know it the whole bottle is gone. If this sounds familiar, you're not alone. I certainly can relate.

One in five (19 per cent) New Zealanders aged 15 years or more who drank alcohol in the past year has a potentially hazardous drinking pattern.[i]

The risks of what most people would consider normal drinking is way worse than we ever thought. According to the World Health Organisation, around 3.3 million deaths a year, or 5.9 per cent of all global deaths, are attributable to alcohol consumption.[ii] That’s one person dying every 10 seconds due to alcohol.

Alcohol is estimated to be a factor in:

  • 40 per cent to 50 per cent of traffic fatalities
  • 40 per cent of suicides and fatal falls
  • 50 per cent of sexual assaults and trauma injuries
  • 60 per cent of all fatal fires, drownings, and homicides[iii] 

Alcohol can cause at least seven types of cancer:

Breast cancer - just 3 drinks a week increases your risk of breast cancer by 15 per cent. Experts estimate that the risk of breast cancer goes up another 10 per cent for each additional drink women regularly have each day. One study showed that women who had two to four drinks a day increased their breast cancer risk by 41 per cent; another study showed that women who drank three or more drinks a day on average had a 69 per cent higher risk of getting breast cancer.[iv]

Alcohol is also linked to causing Bowel cancer (for every 2 units of alcohol you drink a day, your risk of bowel cancer goes up 8 per cent), Laryngeal cancer (voice box), Liver cancer, mouth cancer, Oesophageal cancer (food pipe), and Pharyngeal cancer (upper throat). One study has estimated that around 4 per cent of all cancers are due to alcohol consumption.

Alcohol also causes and worsens anxiety and depression.

The anxiety hangover, "hangxiety" or "boozanoia" is a common side effect of excessive drinking. Daily alcohol consumption can cause a chemical imbalance with your blood sugar and feel-good chemicals leading to depression. I had anxiety that plagued me for years and it wasn’t until I stopped drinking for a few months, that I realised alcohol was one of the main causes of it. I now never drink alcohol the night before any type of public speaking since I know it’s a guarantee that I will feel anxious as a result.

What is a safe amount of alcohol?

The Health Promotion Agency of New Zealand now advises for safe alcohol consumption to reduce your long-term health risks by drinking no more than:

  • 2 standard drinks a day for women and no more than 10 standard drinks (100 mls each) a week. Just to give you an idea, that’s the equivalent of 1 bottle of wine plus 1 glass a week!
  • 3 standard drinks a day for men and no more than 15 standard drinks a week.
  • AND at least 2 alcohol-free days every week.

Reduce your risk of injury on a single occasion of drinking, by consuming no more than:

  • 4 standard drinks for women on any single occasion.
  • 5 standard drinks for men on any single occasion.[v]

So how do you get control?

1. Admit you have a problem

If you don’t own your issues, your issues will own you. You can’t change what you are not willing to accept. I abused and was out of control with alcohol for years. It wasn’t until I admitted I had a problem, that I got self-control. For me, I used alcohol to deal with stress, feel confident, let loose and numb my pain. What I learned by cutting back, was I could do all of those even more effectively without alcohol.

I thought my drinking was a security blanket, keeping me safe. It actually was an insecurity blanket and once I stopped gripping it every night, I became less stressed, more confident and finally able to stop being a victim of my trauma and pain since my drinking had been getting in the way.

2. Commit to making a change

You won’t make a change unless you are 100 per cent committed to doing it. Like anything else, you won’t achieve your goal by trying it out for one day. You don’t get in shape by eating healthy and exercising for a few days or creating the career of your dreams by working hard for a week, you have to work every day for it. A good place to start is committing to stop drinking for 30 days. Commitment… This word doesn’t seem to hold as much weight anymore. We give up as soon as the going gets tough, on our marriages, our diets, our goals and making changes in our life. We have become weak, and as soon as something becomes uncomfortable, we panic and look for any way to make ourselves feel better and distract ourselves from what we are feeling. Food, sex, drugs, the internet, Instagram, Facebook, porn, TV, and alcohol are all ways we numb ourselves from anything we perceive is making us feel bad.

When I decided to get control of my drinking, I realised how much I used alcohol as a way of dealing with my emotions. Except, by drinking, I wasn’t dealing with them at all. I was numbing myself, instead of confronting and processing how I felt. By committing to reducing your alcohol consumption, you will initially have feelings that come up which may be uncomfortable. However, these feelings of discomfort pass. A helpful exercise is to write a and sign a contract with yourself to make changes that will support you in reducing your dependency on alcohol.

2. Get help

There are so many resources out there that can help you with gaining control with alcohol. Some people need to stop drinking permanently, others can become social drinkers. Some people need medical help to be weaned off of alcohol or they can die from the withdrawal symptoms. You don’t know which category you fall into until you do your research. alcohol.org.nz and alcholdrughelp.org.nz are good places to start. Find someone experienced with treating addiction who understands both the chemical, psychological and subconscious sides of it.

The books I recommend are The 30-Day Sobriety Solution: How to Cut Back or Quit Drinking in the Privacy of Your Own Home by Jack Canfield, How To Quit Without Feeling S**T: The Fast, Highly Effective Way To End Addiction To Caffeine, Sugar, Cigarettes, Alcohol, Illicit Or Prescription Drugs by Patrick Holford and This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol by Annie Grace.

3. Learn about GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) and its connection with alcohol and anxiety 

GABA is a neurotransmitter and works as your brain's natural valium. Alcohol increases GABA, which is why it helps you relax. If you’re high in GABA—you feel relaxed and stress-free. If you are low in GABA—you feel anxious, irritable, overwhelmed, stressed and wired.

Alcohol boosts GABA in the brain and body but also causes it to be low the next day, which can cause you to have anxiety attacks, carbohydrate and alcohol cravings, ringing in the ears, muscle tension (especially in the head, neck and back), trembling/twitching muscles, excessive sweating, heart palpitations and insomnia.

This is why a person who is deficient in GABA, which may be genetic, due to alcohol consumption, or acquired from stress and trauma, will turn to alcohol and is much more likely to become addicted.

This is part of the reason why people find it so hard to stop using alcohol when they know it’s not good for them. Once they stop, their GABA goes down and they feel anxious, overwhelmed and unable to sleep. Instead of feeling better, they feel worse.

How to boost GABA:

  • Vitamin B (Niacin or Niacinamide) is one of the most important supplements you can take when it comes to treating addiction. Vitamin B-3 was part of the original AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) protocol, and they had an 80 per cent success rate with helping people get sober when B-3 was recommended. (Speak doctor on whether this could be right for you).
  • L-Glutamine is amazing for alcohol, sugar and carb cravings. It also repairs the lining of the gut and is an all-around wonder amino acid. (Speak doctor on whether this could be right for you).
  • Yoga. A recent study followed two groups of healthy individuals over a 12-week period. One group practised yoga three times a week for one hour, while the remaining subjects walked for the same period of time. Those who practised yoga reported a greater decrease in anxiety and higher levels of GABA than those who walked.
  • Kudzu is another supplement gaining popularity for alcohol cravings that looks very promising. (Speak doctor on whether this could be right for you).
  • (Caution: Do not take GABA support if taking anti-epileptics, Benzodiazepines or other sleep meds. Or if you have been drinking heavily). Please check with your doctor before taking any supplements.

Address why you are drinking more than you should

I find a lot of us are drinking to numb our pain. Sometimes we are aware of what’s causing us pain, other times we know we’re not happy, but don’t know why. You may hide the pain and bury it. The problem is pain is not normal, and it won’t go away by pretending it’s not there, so we seek relief from our pain with alcohol, cigarettes, food, and drugs, etc.

Getting in touch with your pain and learning how to process it so you can let it go, will help release your need to numb yourself with unhealthy substances. There is no separation between our mind and body. The more aware we are of what’s affecting us and how to best deal with it, the more control we have over our behaviour, bodies and lives. There is no shame in getting help. It was the best decision I ever made and I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t addressed my issues with alcohol.

Where to get help:

References:

[i] alcohol.org.nz

[ii] who.int

[iii] verywell.com

[iv] Canfield, Jack; Andrews, Dave. The 30-Day Sobriety Solution: How to Cut Back or Quit Drinking in the Privacy of Your Own Home (p. 387). Atria Books.

[v] alcohol.org.nz

Caroline Cranshaw is a hypnotherapist, founder and trainer at the New Zealand Integrative Hypnotherapy Training Institute and the author of The Smoking Cure. Find out more about her at nzhypnotherapy.co.nz

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