In an interview with Diane Sawyer, former ABC News network anchor Elizabeth Vargas reveals that a glass (or several) of white wine after a long day at work served as a “magic potion” to treat her chronic anxiety.
“It was like ah, I finally feel relaxed. Everyone looked smarter, prettier, more interesting… and me too… all my insecurities would sort of fade back,” she said.
As is the case for so many women in America—for whom high-risk drinking, or up to seven drinks per week, is on the rise—Vargas’ nightly wine habit served as a powerful coping mechanism to deal with a high-stress career and busy family life. That is, until her heavy drinking morphed into full-blown alcohol use disorder (AUD), which is defined as a chronic relapsing brain condition causing an individual to struggle to control or stop their drinking in spite of adverse consequences.
A pattern of heavy drinking, even in the absence of a genetic predisposition to alcohol use disorder, can “hijack the brain” and lead to addiction, Sawyer reported.
And since the onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic, habitual drinking has only intensified. A recent study published on the JAMA network shows that women are regularly drinking four or more drinks at a time, amounting to 41% more in 2020 than they did in 2019.
If you are questioning your relationship to the wine-o-clock witching hour, here are some tools and tips to help you establish healthier coping skills and avoid the pain of active addiction.
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One approach, advocated by Tempest founder Holly Whitaker in her book Quit Like a Woman, is to intentionally manage your energy throughout the day in order to reduce your chance of being in a state of hyperarousal (when your body is in high alert and you are experiencing symptoms such as irritability, difficulty sleeping, constant anxiety, or panic) in the evening. This means taking regular short breaks to engage in healthy stress-reducing activities, such as a yoga video, a brisk walk, or a few minutes of breathwork.
Depending on how much you’ve been drinking, though, the hyperarousal you feel in the evening may be the result of physical withdrawal symptoms, according to psychiatrist and addictionologist Dr. Arturo Taca. This requires medical attention.
“[Withdrawal] is basically a hyperarousal state where your heart rate goes up, your anxiety goes up, you’re sweating… you feel like you’re stimulated but not in a good way… and at that point, you have to really assess the need for a medical intervention,” Taca explains.
Once you are medically stabilized, addressing hyperarousal becomes a matter of changing your routine. It is crucial to create what Dr. Taca calls a “new salient experience” that will, over time, build new associations and overwrite the addictive urges of your brainstem, or “lizard brain.” For example, you could plan to take a 15-minute walk at 5:00 pm or hop in the shower instead of heading to the kitchen when you get home from work.
Learn Your Internal and External Cues
Engaging different senses with your new nightly ritual can help create a different set of external cues associated with a sober habit, edging out the ones you paired with drinking. You will also need to assess the internal cues, such as feelings or memories, that were linked to your wine habit, so that you can connect them to a new behavior.
Dr. Patricia Kennedy, a licensed professional counselor who has worked in the field of addiction for over 30 years, likens this process to Pavlov’s Bell, which refers to the research of a Russian psychologist who found that dogs would begin salivating at the sound of a bell when it preceded a bowl of food. Similarly, the sound of a certain television program or the smell of food cooking on the stove can function like that bell for you, serving as external cues that your brain links to a glass of wine.
Keep in mind, however, that the formation of new sober habits is not always enough to help you abstain from alcohol or reduce your wine consumption. Often, as individuals begin to address their problematic relationship with alcohol, they will uncover feelings, thoughts, or behaviors that indicate an underlying mental health condition, which is often connected to traumatic experiences.
Seek Help from Trained Professionals
Dr. Taca, who utilizes the disease model in his work as medical director for INSynergy, an outpatient program for addiction based in Saint Louis, Missouri, likens the importance of good counseling and psychiatric medication to the necessary components of treatment for diabetes, another chronic relapsing health condition.
Other individuals may not have a psychological condition and may simply need help managing cravings. There are medications that specifically target this biological process, as well as behavioral strategies for “surfing the urge,” such as mindfully accepting the sensations in your body, changing your environment, or engaging in some physical activity.
Have Compassion for Yourself and Your Journey
As you work to form new habits, you may slip back into old patterns. When it comes to addiction, however, the goal is harm reduction and prevention of an early death, experts say, so having a single glass instead of the whole bottle is considered a win.
That said, “abstinence builds on itself and allows you to gain momentum, like a ball of snow rolling down a hill,” Kennedy explains.
There is a saying that circulates in 12-step rooms, “Look for the similarities.” This can be comforting, but it is also helpful to embrace your individuality and pursue the path to sobriety that works for you and your specific health needs.
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