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!