WHY YOU WANT TO DRINK ON SUNNY DAYS

It’s the time of the year when a familiar message starts popping up in online sobriety groups:

What is it about a beautiful sunny day that makes me want to drink so badly?!

We think there is a magical answer to this, but it’s no different than why we drink when we are snowed in or when there is a cozy rainstorm. Or, for that matter, when we are stressed, angry, or sad.

We have a thought (a drink would be great right now!) that causes a feeling (desire) that we reward with alcohol. Repeat this pattern a few times and a craving is born. We have trained our brains to pair sunny days and alcohol, and compound it by associating the sun/alcohol combo with good times – laughing with our friends while we have a margarita at a sidewalk cafe or sipping a cold IPA while we watch our kids play in the back yard.

Wanting a drink on a sunny day becomes automatic. If it weren’t the idea might sound kind of crazy…

It’s beautiful. I feel happy. What would make it even better? I know! A drink that will make me numb and tired.

But, of course, that isn’t where our mind goes. Our brains are trained to seek immediate pleasure and the longer term negative consequences don’t quite bubble to the surface in those moments.

We inadvertently taught ourselves to crave a drink on a sunny day, but we can unlearn it. We can allow the craving to come and go without responding to it and eventually our brain will stop making that association. We can be proactive in reminding ourselves of the truth – that it was never the alcohol that made us laugh with our friends or take joy in watching our kids play. In fact, it eventually just made us tired, numb, and impatient with our kids.

SOBRIETY IS THE PLOT TWIST

Have you ever made a decision to cut back your drinking only to be met with an inner critic that tells you that it’ll be boring, your friends won’t want to hang out with you, and that you’ll never have any fun ever ever ever again? As though slurring, losing track of conversation, and talking to other drunk people who won’t remember the conversation tomorrow is the high life? It’s interesting to consider the possibility that, just maybe, sobriety is going to be the fun part.

YOUR PLAN VS. REALITY

I saw this image at my son’s school the other day and I had to laugh. It’s so accurate! Sometimes life isn’t what we think it should be. But instead of accepting that as part of the deal, we think it should be different. We get stuck in blame or self-judgment. But what if we expected things to go as planned half the time and for things to take unexpected turns half the time? Would the unexpected things seem like less of a problem?

DID YOU TRADE ALCOHOL FOR ANOTHER HABIT?

When you reduce your drinking does a different bad habit sprout in its place? Shopping, Netflix, smoking pot, non-stop Instagramming, porn, eating?

This isn’t uncommon and here’s why. The truth of why you drink, beyond the physically addictive properties, is still lurking. Drinking is a symptom. Your new habit is a new symptom. The cause is still out there, possibly beneath your conscious awareness, continuing to wreak havoc, and your brain is trying to protect you from the pain with another distraction or numbing agent.

Maybe the reason you drink is obvious to you. Perhaps you feel trapped in an unhappy marriage and see numbing as the only way to make it through the day.

Maybe the reason is a mystery. If so, there’s a short cut to figuring it out. When you feel an urge coming on, just watch it without acting on it. Don’t turn to an alternative salve. The emotion that remains – choose your flavor: anxiety, boredom, loneliness, etc. – is the truth of why you drink. It’s uncomfortable and we are motivated at a primal level to avoid that discomfort. We have to do a manual override of the part of our brain that says this unease is going to kill us or last forever if we don’t do something about it. Emotions themselves are harmless; they are just a collection of sensations in our bodies. They are part of the human experience. If we don’t react to them or resist them, they keep moving. If we don’t make them mean that something has gone horribly wrong, they eventually go away.

I think there is something to be said for harm reduction. If your new habit is what you need right now to not drink, then do what you need to do to take care of yourself. There’s no shame in that. But if you get to a point where it isn’t serving you anymore, take that quiet moment to peel back the symptom to reveal the cause. It’s your next step toward freedom.

(A note about sugar in particular… if you are having intense sugar cravings when you reduce drinking you may be fighting against your physiology. There is a great article by Mary Vance, NC, on thetemper.com, “Is It Okay to Replace Sugar in Sobriety?,” that describes how you can give your body what it needs in other ways, and eventually not feel controlled by sugar cravings. If you are still craving sweets after a few weeks, it’s possible that it has just become a new habit.)

INSTEAD OF COUNTING DAYS, COUNT THESE

Julie had a question for her Facebook group. She had gone 45 days without a drink and felt great about it, but decided on day 46 to have a glass of wine. She went back to not drinking on day 47, but at day 52 was still haunted by the glass of wine from the prior week. Was it okay for her to continue counting days from where she left off, or did she need to zero out and start fresh? She wanted an official ruling, and several of the responses confirmed what she was worried about – yes, she would need to restart at Day 1. She was discouraged, but agreed to start over.

For some, counting days like this serves them well in reaching their goal. But for others, it can be an anxiety-provoking, self-defeating approach that robs them of their progress and becomes a weapon to bludgeon themselves with when they don’t “follow the rules.”

If you are in this latter camp, instead of counting days, try counting unanswered urges. An unanswered urge is a craving that we allow to come and go without acting on it or resisting it (i.e., white-knuckling). This is important because each unanswered urge helps rewire your brain. When you are in a drinking habit cycle, your brain is conditioned to expect a reward (alcohol) in response to an urge. By allowing an urge to go unanswered, you begin to teach your brain not to expect the reward and, eventually, the desire will extinguish. (To learn how to allow an unanswered urge see my earlier post, “The Secret to Surviving Your Next Craving.”)

Allowing is different from resisting in that you are welcoming it in, noticing what it feels like, and breathing through it. Eventually it passes. Resisting an urge bottles up the desire and creates pressure. It’s hard to sustain. Think of it like a beach ball that you are trying to hold under water. Eventually your arms get tired, you let go, and it shoots up.

I recommend documenting allowed urges on a chart or in a journal. Here are a few things to note about each experience:

· Date and time

· Intensity of the urge on a scale from 1-10

· What did it feel like physically? Where was it in your body – jaw, chest, stomach? Was it hot or cold? Heavy or light?

· What does it feel like emotionally? Like restlessness? Anxiety? Anticipation?

· How long did the peak of it last? How long did it last all together?

· What was happening when you first noticed the urge? What thoughts were you having?

Be patient with yourself because it takes time to dial in allowing versus resisting. It gets easier, and by the time you make it to 100 allowed urges your relationship with alcohol will be very different. If you decide to drink off plan, don’t restart your count. The progress you have accumulated is still there. Just pick up where you left off.

Are you having trouble getting traction with your drinking? Sign up for a free consultation, and I’ll teach you how I help my clients drink less by wanting it less (no shame, no labels).


TWO WAYS TO DRINK LESS

You’ve decided to cut back your drinking. You can approach it in one of two ways.

One way involves starting, stopping, and beating yourself up.

The other involves practice and curiosity.

Most of us find ourselves in the first category. We make a big promise and start counting days. One slip means a Back to Zero sandwich with a side serving of self-flagellation. We tell ourselves we are weak. We ask ourselves, “WHY???,” and then we don’t listen to the answer. We take it as evidence that something is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG with us.

But what if nothing was wrong with us? What if our brain was doing exactly what it was previously conditioned to do, and we just aren’t done rewiring things yet? What if giving in to that urge was actually more valuable in the long-term than if it had never happened at all? What if all it meant was that you need more practice?

We think that if we criticize, judge, and beat ourselves up we will be motivated to change. But that doesn’t actually work. We don’t act strong when we think we’re weak. We act strong when we recognize our own strength.

Should you find yourself drinking when you don’t plan to, don’t make it mean something horrible about you. You aren’t broken. This is a practice, and there is valuable information to be gleaned here that will serve you down the road. Turn your judgment into curiosity.

Here are some questions to get you started:

What and how much did I drink that wasn’t planned?

What was the circumstance that triggered it?

What was the thought that caused the desire or urge?

Did I try to resist, or did I just react?

Did I try to allow the urge?

What worked and what didn’t?

What did I learn?

What will I do next time?

Are you having trouble getting traction with your drinking? Sign up for a free strategy call, and I’ll teach you how I help my clients drink less by wanting it less (no shame, no labels).

THE SECRET TO SURVIVING YOUR NEXT CRAVING

Does this sound familiar? You have committed to not drinking today and so far so good. But then it happens. Just a whisper at first, but pretty soon you can’t ignore it. The craving is coming and you feel a growing sense of dread. You know you are in for an exhausting, unpleasant evening of either white-knuckling it (at best) or breaking a promise to yourself (more likely).

If this is you, you’re in good company. Most people believe the options for dealing with an urge or craving are:

· Answer the call and have the drink. Often accompanied by some of the old favorite tunes: “Screw it, I’ll start tomorrow” and “One drink won’t kill me.”

· Resist! White knuckle it, distract yourself until it passes, grit your teeth and give yourself a stern pep talk – you know this drill. Sometimes it works, but ultimately it feels exhausting and unsustainable. It’s like trying to stand up to a wave by digging in your heels and making yourself heavy. It works for a while, but eventually a big one comes and you’re under water.

BUT there is a third way that most of us are unfamiliar with and, good news, it’s the secret sauce. This option is to allow the urge without acting on it or resisting it. So instead of bracing for the wave, you make yourself light. As the wave comes in you float up with it and then back down to your feet. When the big one comes you give a little hop, ride it up, and land on your feet again. Perhaps wobbly and unsteady, but upright nonetheless. Here are three steps to get you started:

· Remind yourself that nothing has gone wrong! Your brain has become conditioned to expect alcohol when you think certain thoughts or feel certain emotions (e.g., “I need to take the edge off” → feel restless → drink). Your brain is doing what it was designed to do. You can decondition this pattern by allowing urges and rewiring your brain not to expect alcohol when you have these thoughts and feelings.

· Breathe and become the watcher. Breathe in for three and out for four. As you start to relax, begin to observe and describe your experience from a distance.

· Scan your body. Start at the top of your head and move down. What does the urge feel like? Describe it in detail. Is it hot in your solar plexus? Is it tight in your jaw? Is it heavy or light? Where does it show up? Focus just on the physical experience of it. When your mind wanders to thoughts (“this is so hard”), refocus on the physical sensations. Do this until the peak of the urge passes.

Is allowing an urge easy or comfortable? No. But neither is white-knuckling it or giving in and regretting it at 3 AM. That’s the less good news. But it gets easier, and you may as well put your discomfort to good use and build the life you want instead of staying stuck.