First Steps To Understand and Stop Binge Drinking

By Kacie MItterando, LMSW

Binge drinking is a form of short term escape from stress. Binge drinking also causes a tremendous amount of long impacting stress to our bodies, relationships and wallets. This article breaks down the seeming appeal of binge drinking, it’s downsides and ways to start taking control of your drinking.

We All Need An Escape From Reality

In Johann Hari’s book Chasing the Scream, Hari draws a comparison between using substances as an adult and the ways in which each and every once of us have used mechanisms other than substances to escape our own realities. In this comparison, Hari discusses times in which we have all gotten “high” without using substances. Take for example an occasion in which you were a young child and spun around and around to the point where you became so dizzy you couldn’t even see or walk straight. Or even a time in which you enjoyed riding a roller coaster and dropping down so far and so fast your body and mind were almost separate from yourself.

The idea of escaping our reality by mentally or even physically removing ourselves from it is a normal mechanism that all of us has attempted, whether under the influence or not. In fact this is not only something humans do but rather, something that can be witnessed throughout the animal kingdom as a whole including: reindeer have been known to eat a hallucinogenic mushroom called Amanita muscaria, the wallaby (a small kangaroo-like animal) have been reported not only eating poppy plant but running around in circles until they pass out and dolphins have even been spotted pushing around a pufferfish- a fish known to produce the toxin, tetrodotoxin which can easily get an animal high (1).

 

Any one person may drink for a variety of reasons. The environment may be a perfect setting- a few of your favorite co workers grabbing drinks at happy hour or a holiday party that ends up much more fun after a few cocktails. From a social perspective, drinking has become incredibly “normalized.”  Recent studies have even shown that if a college campus has a strong drinking culture, students will in turn drink more than if the social norm was the opposite (2). While all of these reasons are valid and understandable, I’d like to dive deeper into one particular reason someone may drink:

 

Stress.

More specifically, what is binge drinking and how does this attempt at coping increase our stress?

 

While binge drinking may be a term that’s thrown around loosely, there are specific requirements set around what’s considered “binge drinking.” The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism defines binge drinking as a pattern of drinking that will raise an individual’s blood alcohol concentration to .08. While the amount of alcohol needed to get to this level varies based on a few different biological factors, as an estimate this equates to four drinks for women and five drinks for men in a two-hour time frame (3).

 

Binge drinking causes an increase in the disruption to our body’s stress regulation system, which attempts to keep our Cortisol levels in balance. When this process is interrupted, symptoms of not only depression and anxiety increase but various physical impairments as well such as heart concerns. Overall, binge drinking negatively impacts efforts to maintain and improve our mental health. The key piece here is that you don’t need to have an alcohol diagnosis to reap the negative benefits of binge drinking. The negative impacts of binge drinking influence anyone who binge drinks. Therefore, while having a drink or two with a coworker (similar to spinning around in circles as child) may not be harmful, letting that drink lead to four or five because you have had a rough day at work may end up doing more harm than good (4).

 

Below you’ll find some ways to de-stress daily before a night with coworkers leads to binge drinking:

1.     Preparation:

Is a tough family event coming up that seems impossible to attend without a few drinks? Set up defense mechanisms now for the impact that this future event may have on you. One activity I enjoy doing with my clients is picking each emotion that you may experience at this event and developing a “Safety Plan” around this emotion. For example, if you’re preparing to feel overwhelmed, pick one or two things you can do to decompress once feeling overwhelmed such as stating you have a phone call to make and actually going for a brief walk. Write these down on an index card and bring with you for a reminder if needed.

2.     Find activities that you love outside of alcohol:

I’d like to reiterate that it is normal to want to feel outside of reality and a healthy experience that everyone has. However, if binge drinking is a coping mechanism you find yourself using every once in a while after a stressful week, do some soul searching for a different activity that you enjoy. This may be a competitive sport that you can join a league for or creative pursuits such as music or painting.

3.     Support:

Lean on your healthy support systems when feeling stressed and plan a day/night/weekend to do relaxing but enjoyable activities together. Possibly consider cooking a new recipe together, going to a new restaurant or having a spa day.

4.     Peace:

Get in touch with whatever it may be that brings you peace. Whether this means attending a spiritual event, going for a walk through nature or listening to music. Consider spending some time doing things that help bring you back to a calm, peaceful state.

 

If you need further assistance navigating Safety Plans and developing healthy coping skills, schedule a 15 minutes session with us today.

 

1. No, Coyotes Don't Get High-But These Animals Do. (2016, February 24). Retrieved from https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/02/160224-coyotes-mushrooms-drugs-high-animals-science/

2. Why Do People Drink? (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201703/why-do-people-drink

3. The Neuroscience of Binge Drinking. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-athletes-way/201604/the-neuroscience-binge-drinking

4. Stress About Alcohol? Heavy Drinking Versus Alcoholism. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/all-about-addiction/201201/stress-about-alcohol-heavy-drinking-versus-alcoholism