A girlfriend was telling me that she wanted to quit drinking on weeknights but couldn’t because she needed something to take the edge off. I asked what the edges were. “Name it,” she said, “stress, worry, boredom, annoyance, anger.”
I completely get it. We evolved to be on alert for dangerous things, but life is comparatively safe now and our primary threat comes from uncomfortable emotions. Plus there are so many quick fixes – alcohol, drugs, sugar, social media, Netflix, etc. Why would we not choose to escape?
I would have been happy to round the days’ edges with a drink indefinitely had alcohol’s charms not worn out their welcome. I could no longer ignore the negative consequences – the disconnection from my kids, disrupted sleep, next day regrets for all the stupid things I had done and said, health, etc.
Also, it began to dawn on me that escape wasn’t even a necessary survival skill for what I was experiencing. Negative emotions, while unpleasant, are ultimately harmless. I guess I didn’t realize this because I associated them with acting on impulse, usually with unfortunate consequences, or getting stuck in a never-ending thought loop about whatever injustice caused my feeling to begin with. But then I read what neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor had to say. In short, once triggered an emotion runs a chemical path in our body that lasts about 90 seconds. If it sticks around for longer it’s because we are keeping the circuit alive with our thoughts – replaying the trigger in our mind, ascribing an upsetting meaning to it, etc. The feeling itself, if you allow it to run its course uninterrupted, will intensify, begin to dissipate, and pass relatively quickly.
Boom. For me, developing this skill was a far more sustainable long-term strategy for taking the edge off than drinking a glass (read: several) of wine every night. (Bonus: I gained more credibility with my kids when I told them they didn’t need to pick up their phones every time they felt bored, sad, or any other human emotion.)
Photo by Lisa Fotios