Understanding Your Social and Emotional Relationship with Alcohol

Lately, I’ve been spending a good deal of time chatting with my autoimmune clients about alcohol and how it affects their healing process. It’s common among the autoimmune community to limit alcohol consumption because of its connection to inflammation (and the impact of booze on gut health in particular), but it can be one of the hardest things to actively restrict or eliminate. This is because alcohol also has powerful emotional repercussions on our well being—that’s where I really started to get curious about my own relationship with drinking, and what I want to explore in this article.

I recently wrote about how having knowledge or information is not enough to enact lasting change in our lives, because we also need to address the emotional side of change. The personal example I used was all about drinking. My pattern with alcohol was clear, and it repeated again and again:

  • Feel nervous and insecure socially
  • Drink to numb my anxiety
  • Feel anxious about how I’d behaved the next day
  • Vow not to drink at the next party
    …rinse and repeat.

I kept this cycle up until I began really looking at WHY I was using the alcohol the way I was, and it revealed some powerful take-aways!

Before we dive in, it’s important for me to make a distinction around drinking and alcoholism (long-term addiction to alcohol). There are lots of folks working to change this conversation right now and illuminate the fact that you don’t have to be an alcoholic to have an unhealthy relationship with drinking. I’m going to operate under the assumption that there’s a way for most of us to have a healthy relationship with alcohol, where it doesn’t actively diminish our lives—but the truth is, I don’t really know! For many folks, a healthy relationship with alcohol doesn’t exist. 

If you feel best sober, or that is how you get to be in order to manage addiction, I support you 100%. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume you are physically able to stop after one drink—a common distinction among alcoholics is that once they have even a sip, there’s no stopping. With that said, I want to give you permission to get curious about your habits with alcohol, without judgment. It’s okay to talk about it, explore it, and be honest about whether your relationship with drinking feels healthy or unhealthy! My clients consistently find this a really illuminating piece of their autoimmune journey. Let’s start with a personal example.

Drinking Alcohol Makes Up For What We Feel We Lack

For me, drinking began to have power starting in junior high and continuing into high school. During those years, I felt like I lacked so many things, and drinking was like a magic wand that gave me the gifts I’d been yearning for: I felt connection with friends, like I shone in social settings, like people enjoyed being around me, and I finally felt this “click” of feeling like enough. It became rare for me not to drink on the weekends.

In college, I became a daily drinker and often an excessive drinker, as many folks do. I continued the habit of having at least a drink per day well into my adult years, overindulging in the case of parties or on weekends. Even after starting a family and being a professional woman, I noticed it becoming hard not to have a drink on any given day. If a day or two went by where I didn’t have one, I’d definitely be aware of it. I began spending a lot of time thinking about alcohol. What if I went a week without drinking? What pieces of my identity would I be letting go of, if that happened? Would I still be fun, would people still want to connect with me and be around me? At this point, it felt like a huge piece of my identity!

When Alcohol Became a Problem

A few years ago, I went through a leadership training to strengthen my coaching practice, and it gave me the opportunity to take a closer look at my fears and anxieties and how they were running my life. I began to realize that all the limiting beliefs that I would use alcohol to avoid feeling (I don’t belong, people don’t think I’m fun, I’m not worthy of connection, etc.) were actually exacerbated by how I behaved when drinking and after. Inevitably, I’d become isolated and irritable with my family and spend the next day on an emotional roller coaster of insecurity—exactly the opposite of the connection I was looking for when I picked up a beer the day before! I was amazed to discover, after the intense training working with my anxieties, insecurities, and self-doubts, my body starting having an aversion to alcohol and when I would have a drink I was acutely aware of my intentions to avoid, numb, prove, and perform.

What My Relationship With Alcohol Has Taught Me

I’ve heard from clients again and again that their autoimmune disease has been a hugely clarifying force in their lives, giving them the opportunity to get specific about what foods, practices, relationships, and ways of being really work for them—and which don’t support their healing. Alcohol is no different! I found that when I checked my ways of being that led me to drink, they weren’t aligned with how I want to live my life. Here are some of my biggest learnings.

  • I drink to numb anxiety and insecurity. Alcohol as a remedy for stress, social nerves, and feeling “less than” is so ingrained in my life that sometimes I’m opening a bottle of wine before I even know what’s happening. Here’s the thing, though: when I’m using alcohol to cope, I’m not accessing all the ways of being I truly cherish, like authenticity, vibrancy, honestly, and vulnerability. When I learned how to be with my anxiety in a new way, and to let my feelings have a voice, I no longer needed the crutch of alcohol to numb them. I can see the feelings as information, sit with them, and not need to drown them in alcohol.
  • I drink to feel worthy. I internalized a belief early on in life that I needed to socially “perform” to be valued by others. I got a lot of affirmation from family and friends when being silly, loud, and “fun” while drinking, which led me to devalue myself as I am. Now I know I can embrace my uniqueness and my personality without drinking. I don’t need to be outrageous, and I’m still loved by those around me. I get to create those moments of connection without a drink in my hand.
  • I drink because I think it relaxes me. For most of my life, I’ve associated alcohol with relaxation and decompression—in fact, I’m an expert at convincing myself I “deserve” a drink to relax. Anyone else do this? But I’ve learned that studies are showing that alcohol actually increases cortisol release in chronic drinkers. Add to that the leaky gut and inflammation caused by alcohol consumption, and you’ve got a situation that is most definitely not equal to de-stressing the body. So I’ve had to face the hard truth: the idea that alcohol de-stresses me is merely an excuse I’ve made up to deny that I prefer numbing out.
  • I drink out of habit. There are endless excuses to have a drink, and I made a habit of so many of them! It’s hot outside, I’m at a family gathering, it’s a party, we’re celebrating, I’m taking a bath and I deserve a glass of wine, I’m making dinner so a cocktail will be perfect, you name it! Habits are strong! So, I’ve started to notice the times when I would rely on a drink to relax or celebrate or quench my thirst, and find other ways to achieve the same result—like watching a great show in the bath instead of having a glass of wine to unwind. And, many cold refreshing drinks can pair well with sunshine, holidays, and BBQs when I stop and consider my options—not just beer!
  • Lots of other people are getting curious about their drinking habits, too. While sharing, “I don’t like my relationship with alcohol, and I want to change it,” with friends was probably one of the scariest sentences I can imagine, I found that a lot of folks around me are interrogating their own relationships with alcohol. And it’s not just in my social circles—there’s momentum gathering around a whole sober curious movement.

Like Everything in the Autoimmune World… Empowerment Is Key

So many of my clients have struggled with the mental shift of living in a way that supports their autoimmune health—it can feel so restrictive, especially when we slip into a victim mindset. Just like diet, deciding when to go to bed, or powerfully choosing your activities during the week, a mindset of empowerment and choice is helpful when it comes to drinking, too. For most of us, it doesn’t have to be black and white. We can make informed decisions about when we do or don’t pick up a beverage. I encourage you to check out the work of Annie Grace at This Naked Mind and her Alcohol Experiment—I’ve found her perspectives helpful and my clients have, too!

I’ve found discussion to be so helpful in the process of finding a new way to look at drinking, and I’m so curious to engage with this community around this topic.

What have you discovered in reflecting on your relationship with alcohol? What ways of being are you choosing when you overindulge? Do you have an emotional practice that helps you maintain healthy boundaries when it comes to drinking? Please, share in the comments!

About Sarah Kolman

Sarah Kolman RN, MA, CHPN, INHC is an AIP Certified Coach, Registered Nurse, Integrative Nutrition Health Coach, and Contemplative Psychotherapist. Sarah’s unique one-on-one health coaching practice blends her nursing and psychotherapy experience with holistic and nutrition-based health concepts. A passionate student in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, she helps her clients heal by focusing on the brain-body connection and its profound impact on wellness. With Sarah’s support and guidance, clients learn to manage stubborn symptoms that have persisted through countless traditional treatments. Learn more about Sarah’s coaching services by visiting her website, www.this-one-life.com. Her book Full Plate: Nourishing Your Family’s Whole Health in a Busy World is available on Amazon. You can follow Sarah on Facebook.

11 comments

  • Terri Warren says

    So grateful to read this article! I love Annie Grace and read her book several years ago before it gained the momentum and notoriety she has received due to her excellent ability to explain the topic of alcohol use and its place in [or out] of our lives. I have hypothyroidism as well as rheumatoid arthritis and NONE of my doctors have ever inquired about my alcohol use, even when I was taking a medicine with high liver toxicity side effects and the recommendations were to not drink while taking it! Removing alcohol from my life has been a benefit in more ways than I can list but it was challenging as I had a physical and emotional addiction to it…but I am so happy to be where I am today without booze!

  • Blythe says

    Thank you for being so open about a topic most people are uncomfortable in being honest with themselves about. For me, that daily wind-down wine definitely became a habit: one glass wth dinner; another in the evening. Because my husband refrains from any alcohol at all, I was the only one drinking (by myself; not socially), and because it seemed like an unnecessary expense just on myself, I usually bought cheap stuff, full of sulfites and who knows what. I have rheumatoid arthritis (& thyroid issues) and definitely thought the wine was a reward after a strenuous day gardening – or whatever – something to take away the aches. I also made my own wine (avoiding sulfites and other additives) out of aronia berries, goumi berries, seaberries, currants, etc. – the berries are full of antioxidants, the alcohol aids in the extraction of good properties – and they must be good for you, right? I didn’t consider myself an alcoholic, but deep down, I knew it all converts to sugar and is hard on the liver. 2 months ago, I quit all alcohol, grains, nightshades, dairy, legumes, & soy and am feeling so much better. I was surprised how much I missed the wine at first. But now, I sleep better; I don’t have the night sweats I used to; I have a whole lot more energy and greater focus. Whether it’s because of the alcohol, the other foods, a combination, or trying to get my thyroid meds at the right level – probably a combination of all – but the alcohol was definitely a part of that. Experimenting with “quitting” can be very revealing!

  • Mimi says

    Thank you for sharing this and for your transparency. You and I have a very similar relationship with alcohol and I too have been allowing myself to forgo the cocktail and FEEL, even when the feelings are overwhelming. Its important let go of what holds us back, not just physically but emotionally/spiritually as well. I’ve learned if I do something and don’t feel good after, then I shouldn’t do that again. Sometimes this takes time to sink in, but that’s ok too. You need to give yourself grace and forgiveness. The one valuable gift I’ve learned on my healing journey is to never give up, no matter how long takes me or what road I need to go down, Some things that I’ve given up to be healthy were easy and some have been really hard, but eventually I don’t miss any of them. We just have to keep plugging until we get to our best, healthiest self, emotionally, spiritually and physically. 😊

  • Leaving alcohol was a multifaceted journey. I eventually got to the point when I realized that life was better without it. It seems to be the same experience of elimination when you desire to feel well instead of using bandaids to treat whatever you are going through. Currently I can rejoice when I make the right choice for my health and feel good because of it. Many times in the past I would turn my head as I would “cheat” only to be disappointed in the results. Walking the walk toward good health is hard enough to learn on its own that we surly don’t need obstacles to bring us down. Onward HO!

  • Lynne Farrell says

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and stimulating the autoimmune community to think about how alcohol can become a habit. I had a nightly habit of a drink every night before dinner. The rule that helped me control it is that I would not start to drink more than one hour before dinner. Even when I was out I kept that rule. Fortunately after eating I don’t want any alcohol. The reason I drink is that I really love the flavor. My only drink is Jack Daniels and water. I haven’t had a drink in a year since my diagnosis of autoimmune hepatitis. I have learned to substitute a sparkling water or just take a walk before dinner. I don’t know if this helps but my suggestion is to make a rule you can live to and stick to it. Find a substitute if you can and figure out what times you are most vulnerable.

  • jessie says

    I’ve been AIP for 4 months now. I’m curious to see if I can have a drink socially or not. What is the best hard liquor to reintroduce first? Or is wine to best thing to try first? I know that vodka is derived from potatoes, so I’m assuming that would not be compliant? I’m not really a drinker, but it would be nice to have a drink while out with friends. Thank you for all your insight 🙂
    jessie

    • Mickey Trescott says

      Hey Jessie! You’ll want to reintroduce small quantities of alcohol as a formal reintroduction by type. I would start with the least amount of variables, like a half of a glass of wine. Some people find their tolerance to types of alcohol varies, so it will be up to you to determine what works. And you do need to do research about ingredients on different types of alcohol – while some vodka is made from potatoes, a lot is distilled from grain. Hope it helps! -Mickey

  • Sheryll L Ziemer says

    This wonderful article comes at a very good time for me. I’m seeing a therapist to help me adjust to living with Autoimmune issues. She has put me in touch with a Nutritionist. I’m having to write down food and drink and I have to stop and think about it. Last night I had a gluten free beer while watching the first football game of the year. It didn’t settle well.

    This makes me realize that I may have to avoid alcohol for quite awhile to heal my gut and to get back to a healthy lifestyle.

    Thanks so much for this information. I will save it and show it to both of my therapists.

  • Victoria Lane says

    Thank you for sharing that. I was just diagnosed and knowing my binging tendencies I have decided to go the sparkling water and lime route; although I may have a glass of really good white on my b/d next week, but have heard the carbonation is not good for your bones; maybe there is a healthier bev or “special cocktail » out there for summer?

  • Kathleen says

    This felt very timely to me. I don’t think I’ve ever had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol per se, but lately I’ve found myself having a drink (usually just one per night) more frequently and I could tell it probably wasn’t the best for my body (I have Crohns) and likely representative of something deeper going on. I’ve definitely been feeling a bit more stressed the past few weeks as my kids have been home a lot at the end of their summer. I would find myself wanting a drink in the evening “to relax” or “decompress” as you said. But then would often wake up the next morning feeling a bit off or that one drink would lead to poor sleep. They started back to school this week and I’ve noticed a big shift in the amount of margin in my days to take care of myself. I was totally sober for a long time after a severe flare of my Crohns – as I’ve healed on AIP, I’ve been able to reintroduce more foods and having an occasional glass of wine or hard kombucha was nice. But I think I’m going to abstain for a while and try to think creatively about other non-alcoholic “treats” I could make in the evenings, like a virgin cocktail with sparkling water and juice.

  • Tae says

    Yup, i love this. The struggle is real! I think there’s so much going on here in regards to how this can effect our lives and why. Asking WHY has become the best thing I’ve learned in my journey, for any type of health issue. Why this symptom, why this emotion, why do i struggle with this, etc. It helps keep me focused on what’s really going on at the source.

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