How do you deal with stress after a
tough day? Do you go to the gym, meet up with friends, or watch TV? For many
people after a stressful day the way to relax is by going to the fridge, taking
out a cold beer and sitting on the patio. After the first sip, you start to
relax, and by the time you have finished the beer, you have forgotten about
what happened that caused the stress.
We all have coping strategies to
deal with stress, but some are better for us than others. Surely, there is
nothing is wrong with having a few drinks to relax, but like any habit, if
we’re not careful, alcohol use has the potential to negatively influence our
happiness, self-esteem, relationships and health.
A few drinks can easily turn into
an excessive night or binge-drinking, and it can be a fine line between looking
forward to a few drinks with our friends and looking forward to drinking to
avoid or escape from our problems.
So, can alcohol be used as an
effective stress-management strategy?
The effects of alcohol
Alcohol gives us that feeling of
relaxation because as a drug it depresses our central nervous system; in
essence it ‘slows down’ the brain. It takes about one hour for the body to
process one standard drink, and afterward we are just as stressed as before.
Having one or two drinks can affect our sleep by making it more difficult to
fall asleep (this is enhanced if taken with caffeine based sodas or so-called
energy drinks), and reduces the quality of deep sleep you receive. Therefore,
waking up tired and jaded can negatively affect the next morning, day, and the
ability to handle the stress that life throws us. A few drinks to unwind may
therefore give the feeling that the problems have disappeared, but this is a
temporally illusion; the problems remain and your ability to cope with them
A slippery slope
Alcohol will not reduce stress in
the long term. Once the alcohol has worn off, the problems are still there, and
we haven’t dealt with anything. The more serious the problem, the more alcohol
is needed to (temporarily) reduce the stress; this is a slippery slope that can
lead to problem drinking. As a substance, alcohol is easily available,
relatively cheap and heavily promoted. For many of us, drinking is socially
acceptable, and it is easy to find an excuse to drink, a tough or great day,
mid-week get together, happy hour, a birthday or simply boredom.
Having said this, drinking a glass
of wine or a pint of beer with dinner to help us ‘unwind’ from the day is not
the same thing as problem drinking. As long as we are staying within the
low-risk drinking guidelines (i.e., no more than two standard drinks a day),
using alcohol in this manner for most of us is not problematic. However, it is
of concern if alcohol is being used chronically or excessively, or if alcohol
is being used as an alternative to dealing with problems in a constructive way.
It’s when we use alcohol as a way of trying to forget, cope or repress our problems
that we can become reliant psychologically on alcohol to ‘cope’ and ultimately
this can lead to physical dependence.
Alcohol not only affects our
ability to manage stress but can also affect our relationships and health. The
United States recently made their guidelines more specific because of concern
about the detrimental effects on the nation’s health through alcohol use:
“Taking more than one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men
can raise the risk for auto accidents, other accidents, high blood pressure,
stroke, violence, suicide, birth defects, and certain cancers… even one drink
per day can slightly raise the risk of breast cancer.”
Finding an alternative
As counsellors, we are interested
in how the individual copes with stress. Most adults have developed a mixture
of positive and potentially negative coping strategies. Think about your own
ways of coping with the world; do you use exercise, diet, make sure you have a
good night’s sleep, or do you have a few drinks to take the edge off the day?
Be honest with yourself. Consider
how you cope with stress and how much you drink – could there be a link between
the two? Write down all your coping strategies, positive and not so positive,
and during the week keep a tally of every time you take an alcoholic drink. If
at the end of the week, you feel there may be a shift to relying on alcohol as
a strategy and/or the number of drinks is above the recommended healthy
guidelines, it may be time to set yourself some goals. Decide to reduce your
drinking, set a goal and share this with a trusted friend or family member.
Alternatively, this might be a good time to talk to a counsellor who can help
you understand what’s behind your behaviour and help you to make the changes.
Counselling enables us to
understand our motivation, our defence mechanisms and the way we tick and with
this knowledge, and therefore empowers us to change. If you are concerned about
your dependency on alcohol, seek advice from your general practitioner, and
consider contacting Alcoholics Anonymous, which holds local daily meetings.
Emma Roberts is an
EAP Counsellor. For more information on this topic, or to schedule a
confidential appointment, contact The Employee Assistance Programme at 949-9559
or visit www.eap.ky
Alcoholics Anonymous Cayman Islands can be contacted on 926-9044.