You’re driving home from work after a long day at work. Board meetings, staff performance problems, strategic planning – all the usual daily activity. You know that when you get home you’ll be switching into parent mode.
Your youngest needs to be bathed and put to bed. Your older children will be wanting to talk about their homework, or to arrange pick-ups and drop-offs for sports and parties on the weekend. Your partner has a list waiting for you, and will no doubt have something important that needs to be resolved.
But in your mind’s eye, everything looks red, because all you can think about is a big glass of shiraz. That feeling of relief you get as you hear the “glug, glug” of the wine glass filling, that heavy sigh as you sink into the couch and taste the first mouthful, and that slightly numb feeling as you head off to bed half a bottle later is what you’re really looking forward to.
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But you’re not an alcoholic, are you? Everyone does it – you’ve asked around, you’ve heard it yourself. And besides, you’re not falling down drunk and you’re functioning perfectly well at work. So you can relax. Can’t you?
What I’ve described above is a common occurrence in Australian households. We are one of the largest consumers (in litres per person, per year) of alcohol in the world. And it’s not just young people bingeing, or dysfunctional alcoholics.
The definition of an alcoholic is actually quite broad. In mental health circles we talk about both dependence and tolerance. Tolerance is the body’s ability to process alcohol. The more often you drink, the more it takes to get drunk. You might think that sounds good. What it actually means is that your body has geared up to work harder to process the alcohol. Your liver works harder more constantly to deal with the alcohol, eventually causing cirrhosis.
Dependence can be either psychological or physical dependence. When someone drinks on a regular basis, they form the belief that they need the drink to wind down, or to deal with stress, or to feel good, but they also condition their bodies to be used to alcohol. When you stop drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol you often notice an increased sense of arousal (like being keyed up, or on edge, or restless), and experience poor sleep.
The larger the amount of alcohol that is consumed regularly, the more severe the withdrawal effects. For heavy drinkers, withdrawal can cause serious side-effects and needs to be managed carefully, under the supervision of doctors.
Apart from tolerance and dependence, alcohol has other harmful effects. It is one of the most neurotoxic substances we consume. That means it does more damage to brain cells than anything else we consume. Even over a 10-year period of moderate drinking there is observable brain damage as a result. Other long-term effects include memory loss, confusion, cancer, impotence, an enlarged heart, high blood pressure, and weakness.
So what should you do about it?
It’s critical that you take the time to look at your patterns objectively and look at what is driving your behaviour. You may want to ask a doctor or a psychologist, or even your partner.
If you think you might be drinking to manage stress we recommend you find more functional ways of handling stress. If you intervene to manage stress before it is too severe you will save yourself a great deal of pain further down the track.
Early intervention ultimately means less intervention, whether that’s in relation to stress, or alcohol abuse.
Dr Simon Kinsella is a Melbourne-based clinical psychologist. He’s a co-founder of The Institute of Performance and Wellbeing (IPW), which performs check-ups for executives aimed at improving their wellbeing.