The Science of Alcohol and Willpower
Our conscious mind accounts for approximately 5% of the whole mind, with our subconscious mind accounting for a staggering 95%. That makes our subconscious mind a powerhouse, and it is the ruler of everything that we have ever learned and everything that we have learned to believe. All our conditioning and the majority of what we do on a daily basis is driven by our subconscious mind. This includes all the things that we haven’t learnt to do well, based on inaccurate assumptions or conclusions.
There are too many things that we do regularly for us to be able to keep everything in our conscious mind. It is just not possible. Our conscious mind is very good at making decisions and deciding strategy, but the rest of our mind is where all the work gets done on a daily basis. The conscious mind is like the board room, and the subconscious mind is the rest of the staff in the organisation beneath. To enable everything to function smoothly once something has been learned (correctly or incorrectly), and usually after much repetition, all activities, beliefs, and capabilities get put into our subconscious.
We just know how to drive a car, ride a bike, and walk once we have learned how to do it, and whether we are good at it or not, we settle into our learned way of doing things unless something wakes us up to a need, and we learn something new.
Without feedback our learning essentially becomes frozen in time, and if we have learned things incorrectly, we settle into being an unconscious incompetent. Our subconscious mind contains every thought, every feeling, and every behavioural pattern from our past, and you may find it surprising to learn that every decision we make today is largely based on what we’ve done, learned or concluded in the past. And that means that our subconscious is making decisions for us.
The purpose of the subconscious mind in this context is to help us by making us happy and protecting us from harm. In this job our subconscious is very efficient. We have evolved to survive, and it is our ability to survive that has bought us to where we are today as a species. But what happens when our subconscious mind is conned?
Our subconscious is not always right. Alcohol hijacks our natural biology by short-circuiting our reward and learning cycles, as we will discover later.
The key point here is that we have learned by clever manipulation to become addicted to alcohol in our subconscious mind, and addiction to alcohol is 90% psychological.
When we wake up in the morning deciding to not drink that day, week, or ever again, we make the decision in our conscious mind, but our subconscious mind is the ruler of addiction. This starts a battle of wills between our small conscious mind, and our powerhouse of a subconscious mind. Our natural biological response will always seek homeostasis, or balance, and this disagreement between a decision not to drink and our subconscious learning which says we should drink, causes something called cognitive dissonance. This is essentially a ‘thinking disagreement’, which sets things out of balance. It’s also stressful in itself, and who wants an argument raging in their head?
Our natural biological reaction is to want balance, and to have warring thoughts of not drinking and wanting to drink is stressful. All of my clients at The Alcohol Coach tell me that at different times they drink to alleviate stress, and to feel relaxed. We are therefore more likely to drink when we’re stressed, and so it is easy to understand that our preconditioned learning and beliefs will win, and we’ll retract our decision to not drink. We give up, cave in, reach for the bottle, and feel like a failure.
Then when we have the drink, the relief we feel from the withdrawal and the end of dissonance is interpreted by our subconscious as being beneficial, and our belief that alcohol is both necessary and pleasurable is once more reinforced.
The childhood game that my brother and I played by the sea took a lot of willpower too.
As the water advanced with the incoming tide, a slow trickle would begin to break through the walls of our sand castle defences. At first the trickle was so slight that we left it, but then we would notice that the barrier that we had erected was eroding as the water continued to push its way through. We would build up our sand wall again, determined and hopeful that we would keep the water back.
The effort and determination we put into our defences was enormous. And as you know our efforts were in vain. If King Canute couldn’t hold back the tide, me and my eight-year-old brother weren’t likely to!
As the water advanced, we would get our buckets and be ankle-deep in the water inside our castle walls as we threw bucketful after bucketful of water out, shouting instructions to each other and as we ran faster and faster trying to keep the tide out. We would be bucketing faster and faster and losing ground quicker and quicker. It was hard work!
This is what happens when we try to control alcohol using the wrong method. When we use the wrong method, try as we might, we find ourselves failing, and then we start to tell ourselves that we’re not strong willed enough, and that we didn’t try hard enough.
Thinking and feeling that way is self-defeating. Playing on those feelings, we will learn later, is one of the masterful plays of the alcohol con artist. But, have no fear, because we are outsmarting it.
Were we, as children, weak because we didn’t build our defences better? Did we have a character defect? Or did the tide advance because that’s what the tide always does? The only way that we could have beaten the tide was to not be there in the first place.
The problem with alcohol is alcohol. And you and I never stood a chance. The nature of addiction is that we have to consume more of it more often in order to stem the tide, and even then it is only temporary.
Every time alcohol is used to fill the void that the previous alcoholic drink filled, the void becomes slightly bigger and more alcohol is needed to fill it the next time. The results being that the void is never filled, and drinker is never at the same level that they were before they started drinking. Just like our wonderful fortress was never as magnificent as it was before the tide started advancing.
This book is not about being helpless in the face on an incoming tide, or being a victim and powerless to alcohol. It is the opposite, and it is about changing the way you think and feel about alcohol so that you can get your power back and take control.
You have now learned that willpower is not the way to outsmart alcohol. If alcohol is to lose its hold over us, we need to literally change our minds about it. That is what you are learning here. Everything that you are reading is part of the process in changing the way you think and feel about alcohol.
Everybody has challenging times in their lives and everybody has situations that are stressful. Some people are better able to cope with life’s issues than others. However well you cope with life stresses, drinking will only serve to increase your levels of stress.
Consider all the aspects in your life as a circular pie, and the different things that cause you stress are slices of the pie. There will be money issues, health issues, relationship issues – maybe a divorce, or it could be that you’re unhappy in your marriage, or that you are alone and wish to find somebody in your life; there may be stresses of children and their health, a career issue, schooling, or friendships; there may be stresses from a holiday or not having a holiday, the car breaking down, a toothache, or somebody moaning about the dinner you’ve just cooked.
There will be plenty of things to put in that pie that will be causing you stress. Now add alcohol to the equation. When we first start drinking in the early days, we’ll come home from work, and work will be on our minds. We may be a little stressed about it and we walk into our home to find yesterday’s washing up, and we may or may not find a spouse and children. We reach for that glass at wine o’clock because we have grown accustomed to believing that this glass of wine is going to help us relax and remove the stress that we’re feeling.
Fast forward six months, and there’s another element of stress in our ‘stress pie’ and that slice in our pie is called alcohol. Now when we’re driving home from work, we’ll be thinking about the glass of wine that we’re going to have out of the fridge at wine o’clock when we walk through the door. Once that idea is planted in our brain our subconscious will do everything in its power to make sure we get what we want. That is the job of the subconscious mind. The subconscious mind is there to protect us, and it is there to help us get what we think we need.
The subconscious mind, however, is unable to distinguish between what we want and what we really need or should have, and it is flawed. Nevertheless, the subconscious mind will help us to get the alcohol that it believes is beneficial to us.
And you will probably feel a niggling, nagging stress in the pit of your stomach when you begin to think about having a drink. You may be thinking about a drink at lunchtime, but you know that you can’t have one because of the confines and restraints of work, so you put the feeling aside. You put the thought aside and you look forward to it for later that evening. When you get in through the door the feeling of the need for alcohol will grow larger until it’s the first thing you do when you walk in through the door. The alcohol piece of the stress pie grows bigger.
The timeline is different for different people based on a variety of reasons, but the alcohol slice of your stress pie will inevitably grow, just like the tide will continue to come in and more and more buckets of water are needed just try and keep on top of the problem.
As the addiction takes hold, alcohol becomes one of the main sources of stress in our lives, and the irony is that in order to deal with the stress that alcohol is causing, we drink more, thinking we’re alleviating the problem. And all the time we’re making the problem worse.
When we realise that alcohol is a problem in our lives and we want to cut down, or stop drinking completely, that starts another cycle of stress, because it’s at the moment when we realise we’re trapped and try to get away that we realise we can’t. Like a fish caught on a line we start to try to wriggle free, and all the time we become more tightly caught.
When I decided that there might be a problem for me with alcohol, I tried to do all kinds of things to manage the problem. I used all the resources that I used in other areas of my life – I used determination, I made plans, I gave myself rules to live by. For example I said that when I went out for a night I’d stop drinking at 10pm, I made the decision to not drink during the week, to never drink before 6pm, to never open the second bottle of wine, to not drink alone, to only buy mini bottles from the shop …
I made all those decisions over the years, and they all fell by the wayside. They all failed. Nothing I did lasted for long, and I was always back to square one. That’s stressful, and the way alcohol made me feel emotionally when I woke up after the parties that I couldn’t remember was also stressful.
Imagine a car alarm going off right now outside the window where you are. Imagine it going on and on in the background. Thirty minutes passes and it’s still going … one hour, four hours. You start to get agitated, maybe you go to the window and look out, hoping that just by doing that it would stop. As you get more wound up it’s occupying more of your thoughts, and you just can’t concentrate on anything else. You find yourself snapping at people, and you’re feeling stressed by the car alarm. Finally, the alarm stops. It is silent.
How do you feel? Do you feel happy? Is this having fun? Or do you feel relieved, and sigh with relief that the gnawing annoyance has been silenced?
You feel relieved because the source of your stress is gone.
Now, here’s the question:
Would you turn the car alarm back on again just so that you can have the relief of turning it off again?
Alcohol causes the release of stress and anxiety hormones adrenaline and cortisol, which remain in our system at a raised level after we have been drinking. When we take the next drink, we numb that feeling, fooling the brain into thinking that alcohol relaxes us, when in fact we are turning off the car alarm just to turn it back on again.
The Science of Cravings
Alcohol hijacks our natural biology, and it hijacks and cons our natural motivation, reward and learning process. For millions of years humans have evolved, survived and prospered based on an effective system of motivation, reward and learning.
If this system had not been in place the human race would no longer be here. So, what has this got to do with alcohol addiction? It has everything to do with it.
Humans are lazy. Every species will do the minimum that is required to survive. To ensure our survival, humans are equipped with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is released by the brain to motivate us to get what we think we need to survive.
When a Stone Age person had a coconut, bashed it with a stone and released the milk, she had a surge of good feeling. The next time she wanted milk she would climb a tree to get the coconut knowing that when she grasped it she would get a surge of good feeling. If she carried on doing the same thing day after day that feeling would get less and less each time, and yet she still wants that surge of good feeling.
So, she is motivated to do more. Possibly she will go in search of different food further afield, or rather than bashing the coconut with a stone she would build an axe, which is more effective, and once more she would get that surge of good feeling. She would then associate that surge of good feeling with getting something of value that she needs, and she would move on pushing herself further and further each time. This process underpins our evolution and achievements as a species, and it works very well.
The problem is when alcohol hijacks this natural process. The surge of good feeling that the Stone Age woman gets is from dopamine, and when we consume alcohol, which is a drug, it also has the effect on our brains of releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Our natural biology then associates consuming alcohol with getting something that we think we need to survive, and from that moment, we’re hooked into the con. If this weren’t bad enough, the law of diminishing returns is also in operation here.
Our natural biology is not satisfied with us consuming the same amount of alcohol, because in order to motivate us to do more, the initial level of dopamine high reduces, and so we need to drink more and more, always getting less and less of an effect.
Unlike the Stone Age woman with a coconut, we don’t go further afield looking for something different, or developing new tools. We go to the fridge and open the second bottle of wine looking for that surge of feeling from alcohol. But the void is still growing, and as we chase the elusive high trying to feel normal, we are getting further and further away from normal. As time passes, alcohol drags us lower and lower, so we never even get close to how we felt before we ever started drinking it.
Every drinker consumes alcohol to feel the way they did before they ever had a drink. Every drinker plays with the con artist hoping to feel the peace of mind they felt before they had ever met.
You now know different, and to gain peace of mind you need to cut of the supply.
The great news is that within 7 to 12 days of ending the relationship with the con artist your stress levels will have dropped significantly, your body will be calmer and less agitated, and you will be bouncing back to your ‘real’ normal.
We now understand what motivates us to drink alcohol, but how does a craving manifest and what can we do about it?
The answer lies in the different areas of our brain.
When we decide not to drink and to cut off the alcohol supply, different parts of our brain begin to react. When we understand this, we can learn how to respond.
To explain what happens we will use an analogy, and you can refer to the diagram to help.
Consider your brain as a small business. This is a brain role play, so let’s assign some roles. We have: the manager (that’s you – your conscious, decision-making mind), the administrator, who manages the records (the part of your subconscious that organises all your memories and beliefs), and the security guard, whose job it is to keep everybody safe and happy.
As the manager you decide that there is to be no alcohol allowed on the premises. You are completely determined about this. It’s just historical that alcohol had always been allowed before.
No one had ever questioned it, and alcohol had always been in ready supply.
As the alcohol stores level drops, the security guard notices the computer console in the office as it starts to flash red. This isn’t normal, and the guard thinks that there must be something wrong. He sends an alert through to the administrator, to say get more alcohol, there’s been a breach.
The administrator fires off a text to the manager (that’s you), and says, ‘We’ve got a problem. The alcohol levels have gone down, there has been a breach and the security guard says we need to top them up otherwise there’s going to be a problem.’
You politely reply saying that there is a change in policy and that’s not going to happen – from now on the business is an alcohol-free zone.
Meanwhile the security guard notices that stocks are sinking lower and lower, and there are early signs of unrest. He puts an urgent call in to the administrator saying, ‘Get more alcohol!’
The administrator is slightly baffled, so goes to access the records and files. What happened last time there was a problem? The records show that the manager’s request to stop all alcohol purchases is unprecedented. This hasn’t happened before, or if it did it was a disaster. So, the administrator sends another message up to you, this one more persuasive, and just for extra measure the files/memories are sprinkled with dopamine to give the message extra motivation for action.
Again, you say, ‘No, I have made up my mind!’
The security guard will not rest, doesn’t like change and continues to bombard the administrator, who goes back to the records again for yet more evidence. Finding the security guard is acting in accordance with all things past, the administrator sends the strongest, and most persuasive dopamine-soaked message up to the manager. The spa manager, who has already started to question the decision in the face of such opposition from trusted staff, backs down and allows the administrator to put in an order.
Given this difficult scenario, how can the manager ever make a change? The answer lies in re-educating the security guard and the administrator, updating policy (beliefs) and changing the files held in store (reprioritising memories). In this book, we are updating your beliefs.
When the security guard is given a new brief, and is reassured that all is well, and the administrator is on the side of the manager, the manager can easily and freely make the changes required. Then new records can be established for the future.
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Hi, I'm Michela
I’m a leader in the science of transformational freedom for women, and someone previously addicted to alcohol. I have walked the path. I understand your concerns and fears. Here you will find some of my thoughts and insights. Happy browsing!
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