The Power of Associations

Updated: Jun 29

Our drinking life revolves around the way that we think about alcohol. It impacts whether we want to quit, whether we find ourselves bingeing on the weekends, or whether we have causal drinks during dinner outings. For me, the hardest part about quitting alcohol was that all my associations surrounding alcohol were positive ones. Alcohol was there for all of the fun times, making me more social, and allowing me to relax. I knew that if I thought about alcohol in such a optimistic way, quitting would be extremely excruciating. I would feel like I was missing out on life, rather than living a better life without it.

In order to quit drinking, I had to completely rewire my brain and rethink the way that alcohol was showing up in my life. I had to reconstruct the way that I thought about alcohol, and create different associations. This is difficult, but it's possible. It's difficult because I've spent the last seven to eight years of my life with positive associations attached to alcohol, and I can't outgrow those overnight. It's also difficult because of our toxic society that advertises alcohol and makes it a symbol for liberation, relaxation, and connection. News flash: it's all bullsh*t. I'm about to take you through two associations that I've managed to change in my own brain, in order to see an alcohol free life as necessary and exhilarating, rather than devoid and empty.

1. Alcohol Makes Me A Better Socializer

The association: Starting all the way back in high school, I would go to parties and drink, and realize that alcohol made it easier to socialize. I would open up to strangers, be more honest and open with my friends, and not give a sh*t what came out of my mouth. As a social being who wanted to fit in, this was everything for me. This association grew even stronger in college when I knew almost no one and wanted to make friends. I was constantly drinking, and drinking more if I didn't know anyone at a party I'd be attending. This association followed me around throughout my life. When I studied abroad in Spain I was uncomfortable with my Spanish (even though I've been studying it for fourteen years for gods sake), so I drank to speak with confidence. When I moved 1,200 miles away from my hometown, drinking was a way to open up with my coworkers and newly found graduate friends. This association was one tough cookie to break.

The reality: The reality is, alcohol does lower your inhibitions. You do become more loose, opening up more and sharing stuff you wouldn't sober. And this can seem like a good thing. But here's the catch: how many times have you woken up after a night of drinking and regretted something that you said the night before? Our inhibitions are there for a reason. They're a way to protect ourselves and to stay safe. You might think that you're becoming friendlier, but to the sober person in the room, you're just becoming louder and ignoring people's personal space. Also, our reaction time slows down, so you're actually less likely to make a witty joke on cue. Yes, you might make more "friends" because your inhibitions are lowered, but how many of those friendships are genuine? When you meet someone drunk and feel like you hit it off, what are the chances that you get together the next day and continue that same connection? Probably doesn't happen often. Ask yourself, has alcohol made me a better friend? I think about the time that my best friend visited me in DC and we were too hungover to see the breathtaking monuments; and I feel shameful. I think about the times I said something hurtful to friends while drunk simply because I was "being honest." I also think of the times where I've been hurt by others who were drinking... being blown off by people just for them to get a buzz, even though I was moving across the country the next week. Alcohol weakens your connections, it doesn't strengthen them.

2. Alcohol Helps Me Relax  

The association: Have you ever thought... I had a rough day. I deserve a drink. I know I have. I used to use alcohol as a way to relax at the end of the day or after going through something stressful. Just finished a fifteen page paper? That calls for a drink! Someone was shitty to you at work? Take the edge off with a cocktail! Nervous about a family gathering where politics will get involved? Wine will help! Eventually it became a habit, and I started to associate alcohol as a way to relax. I told myself that I deserved it, that it was necessary. And when I would take that first sip, my shoulders would relax, I would sink into my chair, and the associations that I was feeding myself worked. Until they didn't.

The reality: Alcohol does release dopamine when we drink. That means, the first drink will provide you relaxation, but only for a maximum time of about twenty minutes. Then, your brain tries to to balance out the heightened dopamine, and it releases more cortisol and adrenaline, the "stress" chemicals. This in turn makes you want to reach for another drink to bring your dopamine levels back up. So to speak, drinking alcohol actually increases our stress chemicals, and in turn makes us want more alcohol. Essentially, I was always using a substance to run away from my stress, and I was never actually dealing with what was causing me to feel stressed in the first place. In recovery, I realized that drinking was causing me to handle stress less efficiently. Instead of dealing with my stress head on, I would avoid it and push it off for later. You can only push off stress for so long until it starts to negatively impact your mental, emotional and even physical health. If you drink to take away your stress, it's still going to be there in the morning, accompanied by a pounding headache.

These are only two associations that I've had to change in my own brain surrounding alcohol to see reality for what it really was. There are plenty more that I've had to change, but I wanted to make the point that in order to see life as fulfilling without alcohol, we have to change the way that we think about it. I still have to remind myself of these things occasionally, because it takes practice, just like anything else in life. It's time to take the blindfold off and see reality for what it is: we don't "deserve" to use a substance that slowly kills us as a way to relax. We don't even need alcohol to make friends. We already have everything we need within ourselves, and if we trust in ourselves, believe in our worth, and learn how to like who we are, we won't have to turn to a substance to avoid parts of ourselves that make up the whole of who we are.

End note: The book This Naked Mind by Annie Grace was a fantastic resource for me as I went through the process of changing my associations surrounding alcohol. In her book, she goes through many other associations that are common. Her book is a great investment if you're in the beginning stages of quitting drinking. She also offers a 30 day sober challenge journal that can help you with self reflection through writing. If you're interested in her book or journal, I have them linked here: This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol, Find Freedom, Discover Happiness & Change Your Life & The Alcohol Experiment 2 Books Collection Set by Annie Grace

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