After a few weeks or months into sobriety, our memories can shift.
Suddenly, we’re thinking about how much fun it was to stay out all night drinking. We’re not remembering what it was like to wake up the next day, or the regret we felt, the crushing anxiety, and whatever aftereffects we had to deal with: the lost wallet, the broken phone, the embarrassing text messages. Suddenly, it may feel like it wasn’t that bad afterall.
This is a phenomenon known as the Fading Affect Bias (FAB), a brilliant mechanism of the mind that allows us to, over time, discard painful memories, and keep the good ones. It’s why when we quit drinking alcohol, we’re often left forgetting how terrible it was for us, and can only remember the nice parts—the warmth that flows through us with the first sip, the intimate conversations, the rush of dopamine. Meanwhile, we forget the worst of it—the feeling of not remembering if you said something offensive at the office party, hangover breath, the shaky sinking feeling we carry around sometimes for entire days after a big night.
Fading Affect Bias is a gift in the sense that we don’t carry around extreme pain of everything that’s happened to us, but it’s a curse if we’re smack in the middle of quitting alcohol, and we can’t remember why it was so terrible.
In this article, we’ll explain what the Fading Affect Bias is, how it can distort our perceptions of our drinking past, and how it can impact our sobriety. We’ll also review some ways that you can deal with it when it comes up.
The Fading Affect Bias and Recovery
The Fading Affect Bias refers to a psychological event where negative, painful memories recede much more quickly than positive, pleasant ones. This doesn’t mean that you don’t remember the moment, but the negative feelings associated with that moment may fade over time. For example, when recalling your last hangover, you may remember that you had an awful headache, but you don’t remember the feelings of shame or anxiety quite as vividly. As the negative feelings associated with the memories recede, you might find yourself romanticizing the days before recovery. The Fading Affect Bias is one of the reasons why we may want to drink even after we’ve sworn never to drink again.
As time goes by, we can start to lose the initial spark of enthusiasm or determination to quit drinking and it starts to feel more like a chore than something new and exciting. We start to think about the good times we had drinking while downplaying the bad.
Although sobriety gives us a lot of new, positive benefits, it can also bring a sense of loss. For example, not seeing your “drinking buddies” as much anymore, or going to the bars or social events where you used to drink can make it feel like you're missing out. Or, maybe you just haven’t made many new sober friends yet, and you’re feeling lonely and isolated. A lot of people experience these feelings in recovery, especially early on. And it’s during this time that the positive memories of your drinking days may surface, and whatever reasons you had for quitting in the first place seem less important.
The Hourglass of Change
Kim Kokoska, a therapist and guest instructor in Tempest Membership, frequently talks about the Hourglass of Change, and she uses it to describe the process of quitting alcohol.
Stage 1: Starting out. You might feel thrilled, scared, excited, terrified, unprepared, hopeful and hateful—all at the same time, but you start anyway!
Stage 2: Begin to lose things. You start to move outside of your comfort zone. The familiar coping mechanism (alcohol) you once had is no longer available and you may feel somewhat unstable. But by losing the old unhealthy habits, you’re making room for new, healthier coping mechanisms.
Stage 3: “Maybe it wasn’t that bad…” You may feel like you're losing your social life, causing you to re-think your identity and how it relates to your drinking. This is where the Fading Affect Bias is likely to set in, and you may mostly forget the pain and consequences alcohol caused.
Stage 4: The middle/crossroads. This can be the most difficult stage, because you’ve come to a point where you have shed a lot of things that weren’t working, but you’re still learning and searching for things that do work. This is also the point where you may feel a sense of loss about your drinking and the lifestyle that went with it, so it may be helpful to mourn the things you are giving up in order to help you move through this stage. Most importantly, this stage is where you recommit to your goals and continue to do the work.
Stage 5: Begin to gain things back. The alcohol-free world you’ve worked so hard to create begins to expand and bring new things. You start to explore your true identity and you realize alcohol was only a small part of your expansive and ever-evolving personality. You may still feel like quitting sobriety, but you stick with it—after all, you’ve already passed through the middle.
Stage 6. You face a challenge. This is when you may have to do something you don’t feel ready for, or you’re confronted with something you didn’t think you’d ever be able to handle without a drink (holiday, wedding, seeing an ex), and then you handle it without a drink! Building up ‘sober wins’ like these deepens your recovery, and makes it easier to handle challenging people and places that come up in life.
Stage 7: The other side. You made it to the other side of the hourglass, which is a pretty amazing feat!
Recovery is an ongoing process—you’ll always be learning and healing in different ways, and you may experience the Hourglass of Change multiple times in your recovery. But it’s overcoming big challenges like these and consistently recommitting to your decision to quit drinking that will lead to real, lasting change.
How to handle the Fading Affect Bias
The best way to deal with the Fading Affect Bias is to be aware of it when it surfaces—so be sure to talk with your support group, a trusted friend, or your therapist about how you’re feeling. Remember, craving alcohol or missing the “good old days,” of drinking is completely normal and will pass, especially as you build up your sobriety toolbox.
You can also try this short writing exercise if you’re feeling nostalgic about alcohol. It’s important to remind yourself of why you embarked on this alcohol-free journey in the first place:
- Write down a list of ways your life has improved since you stopped drinking. No detail is too small—so make a note of everything you can think of: waking up without a hangover, remembering the night before, having an extra $20 in your pocket, etc. You can also include some of the things you are grateful not to have in your life anymore. Write your reasons for wanting to quit drinking in the first place. Is it so you’ll have more energy? For your mental health? List anything you can think of.
- Write your reasons for wanting to quit drinking in the first place. Is it so you’ll have more energy? For your mental health? List anything you can think of.
Keep these answers somewhere handy (like in your journal or in your phone) so you can easily refer to them if you’re starting to miss drinking.
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If you’ve been dealing with the Fading Affect Bias, here are some additional resources you can check out:
- 3 Mindfulness Visualizations to Help You Through Early Sobriety: Easy meditations you can try any time you’re feeling anxious.
- 5 Relaxation Exercises to Calm Wrecked Nerves: These breathing exercises can help you to relax and slow down.
- 4 Tools to Help You Deal When Life Gets Hard in Sobriety: These are excellent tools to add to your own sobriety toolkit.
- 6 Tools to Support Your Sobriety: Some helpful advice from sober women on how they navigated early recovery.
- What is ‘Sobriety Fatigue’ and How Can We Overcome It?: How to overcome the exhaustion that can arise when you share your sober journey.
Remember, by choosing sobriety when it feels hard—even if it feels impossible—you are learning how to do so many other hard things. As time goes on, it will get easier. And if you’d like any additional support, we’ll be here to help.
Tempest is a holistic, evidence-based digital recovery program that helps you stop drinking and feel better. Our yearly membership program offers three plans, designed to help you create your own personal Recovery Roadmap. Through support, community, and a dedicated staff, we’ll teach you how to make small, realistic changes to build a foundation for the kind of life you want.
In a study done in partnership with the University of Buffalo and Syracuse University, Tempest members reported a 50% reduction in their symptoms of Alcohol Use Disorder (problematic drinking) and a 25% reduction in the severity of anxiety and depression symptoms.