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I had no idea of the damage I was doing to my brain when I was deep in the clutches of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol.
In her book, The Source: Open Your Mind, Change Your Life, Dr. Tara Swart (neuroscientist, leadership coach, award-winning author, and medical doctor) writes about the need to adopt a “whole-brain approach” if we want to function in an optimal way (in life, in relationships, at work, and for our own well-being).
In order for us to be at our best and to get what we want from life, she suggests we need to develop brain “agility.”
She describes six different and desirable ways of thinking that correspond with a simplified version of the neural pathways in the brain and says that we need these six elements to be working well and working together if we want to thrive:
- Emotional intelligence: mastering your emotions.
- Physicality and interoception: knowing yourself inside and out.
- Gut instinct and intuition: trusting yourself.
- Motivation: staying resilient to reach your goals.
- Logic: making good decisions.
- Creativity: designing your future and ideal life.
She says that, “Acknowledging the benefits of each of these and then learning how to facilitate their power to work together and in balance—a whole brain approach—gives us exhilarating control over our brains. This is the antithesis of black-and-white or lack thinking and is key to developing an abundant and positive mindset.”
This prompted me to start thinking about how we can apply this knowledge to changing unhealthy drinking habits. I thought about each of these six elements in turn and how they were affected by my unhealthy relationship with alcohol—and how it’s different now that I’m sober.
1. Emotional Intelligence: Mastering your Emotions
When I was drinking, I was using alcohol to escape my emotions. I ran away from anxiety, fear, stress, anger, discomfort. I even used it to enhance and distort positive feelings like joy and excitement.
Ironically, alcohol also used to exacerbate anxiety, shame, and stress, which in turn affected my self-confidence. Although it gave me instant relief in the moment, long-term, sustained abuse of alcohol led to debilitating anxiety and panic attacks. Being in a near-constant state of heightened anxiety meant that I couldn’t access or identify normal emotions, let alone regulate them.
If I was stressed or irritated, for example, how could I know whether these were symptoms of a hangover or whether there was good cause for a stress response?
The contrast now is that I get to experience a full range of different emotions—some comfortable and positive, and some less comfortable. Now that I’m actually letting myself experience them, I can learn to recognise, understand, and manage them. I can deal with them far more healthily. I can control them and get mindful about what I’m feeling and why. This enables me to make more choices about how to express what I’m feeling in ways that are healthy for me.
We can’t learn to master our emotions while we’re using alcohol to run away from them.
2. Physicality and Interoception: Knowing Yourself Inside and Out
I had to look up “interoception,” as I’d never come across it before. It’s what is sometimes referred to as our eighth sense; it helps you understand what’s going on inside your body. It’s what tells you you’re hungry, thirsty, tired, aroused, or frightened. It’s about understanding the body’s signals. It’s essential for self-regulation.
When I was drinking, I was numbing out my emotions and running away from myself. In doing this, I also stopped recognising and connecting with signals my body was giving me. For instance, I would eat a massive, carb-laden breakfast because I was hungover and needed comforting. I was oblivious to actual hunger signals and couldn’t diagnose my body’s needs with enough sensitivity. My driving force was the need to alleviate the discomfort of a hangover.
I could feel thirsty, but was it an average, healthy indicator of the need for a water top-up, or was it a serious dehydration issue because of the amount of alcohol I was consuming? How could I possibly know while I was putting my body, mind, and sensory system under all this pressure?
Even on days when I wasn’t hungover, my body and mind were investing all their energy into surviving whatever withdrawal was going on and getting me back to a balanced and healthy functioning state. They had no energy left for interoception or self-regulation.
I have a much better sense of what my body is trying to tell me now that I’m sober. I recognise immediately when I’ve forgotten to drink enough water in the morning—my tongue and throat start to tell me. I know my body’s signals well enough to know when my desire to eat isn’t really hunger, but boredom or comfort-seeking. I know the difference between when raised stress levels are a healthy and productive state to be in or when they indicate that I’m tired or my hormones are dancing crazily all over the place. And, I know what to do about it.
This intricate and sensitive awareness of my body and its needs was simply not possible while I was drinking.
3. Gut Instinct and Intuition: Trusting Yourself
I remember being young and having a great relationship with my gut instinct. I remember giving very intuitive responses to people and situations and not really ever getting it wrong.
Until I discovered drinking.
Early on in my relationship with alcohol, I probably believed it was enhancing my instinctual abilities and giving me an edge. It certainly gave me the confidence to act on my instincts instead of overriding them. But, over time and with consistent overuse and abuse, alcohol became a barrier between me and my intuition.
Before I started drinking, I remember making healthy decisions about relationships based on my gut instinct. When I was a teenager and my boyfriend at the time lied to his friends and spread rumours all around our group at school about how far we’d “gone” together, I immediately ended the relationship, knowing in my gut that I didn’t want to be with a boy who placed his image and reputation with his mates over being true and fair to me. I had no respect for him for doing this, and I couldn’t be with someone I didn’t respect. This wasn’t a logical thought; it was an innate, instinctual knowledge. Despite the heartache and grieving involved, I went with my gut and did what was right for me.
Enter alcohol, and gut instinct didn’t get a look-in. Alcohol wrong-footed me in so many ways. I made bad decision after bad decision about men and relationships because drinking got in the way of both my intuition and my courage. And then I had the shame of all those bad decisions to deal with, further eroding my confidence and trust in myself.
Since I’ve stopped drinking, I’m starting to recognise and listen to my gut more and more. I don’t think I’m 100 percent there yet, but I’m closer than I was a few years ago. Alcohol had acted as a barrier between me and my gut for so long that it’s going to take some time for me to reconnect with it.
4. Motivation: Staying Resilient to Reach your Goals
To be motivated by your future, to feel energised by your goals, dreams, and aspirations, you need to be clearheaded enough to focus on them, flesh them out, and bring them alive.
Once you have a detailed sense of what it is you want to do and how it is you want to be, you start taking action to get there. Resilience, courage, and determination are crucial to success, as you can hit all sorts of bumps along the way.
Alcohol gets in the way of every single aspect of this.
When I was drinking, I had a loose idea that my goal was to “help people.” I didn’t have the headspace to be able to get any more detail. I couldn’t bring any deep and purposeful goals to life because I couldn’t spare the energy. My energy was taken up with surviving day-to-day, with being successful at work, as a parent, and as a coach while containing and managing my relationship with alcohol.
Yes, I was resilient and courageous and determined, but all of these qualities were going into my survival and not into creating the kind of future I wanted.
I did have some motivation to eat healthily, to work out, to be fit, to prioritise the family and friends who mattered to me, and to work on myself, but it wasn’t strong enough to withstand the demands of my relationship with alcohol. The motivation would come and go. I would come to on a Saturday morning when I had planned on getting up and working out before having a healthy breakfast and spring-cleaning the house and would feel so bad that I’d cancel all my plans and spend most of the day in bed feeling sorry for myself, dreading the inevitable trip to the shops and battling with rising panic and anxiety.
When your motivation is getting waylaid by alcohol, there’s very little left for yourself and your goals.
In contrast, living life alcohol-free liberates you so you can put your energy and motivation wherever you want. I now have a very clear picture of what I want to be doing and where I want to be going, and it’s getting clearer and closer by the day. I’m able to carry through with my actions and deal with blocks and disappointments. I can judge healthily how to try again differently and what different routes I might take if I come across a barrier or if something doesn’t work. I have the mental and emotional resilience to stay committed in the face of difficulties because it’s not all being taken up with simply fighting through each day. I’m being proactive in creating the future I want rather than reactive and simply focused on surviving each day.
5. Logic: Making Good Decisions
Our brains function at their best when we look after them well, and there are several ways we can do this. We can get good quality sleep. We can eat the right foods and get the right amount of hydration. We can get lots of exercise. We can become more mindful.
Alcohol gets in the way of every single one of these. So, the actual mechanical working of our brain ends up a bit clunky. Our ability to use logic to make the best decisions is affected. We tend to become more reactive and less proactive, acting in the heat of the moment rather than planning ahead and considering outcomes and consequences.
Experts also agree that heavy or binge-drinking causes direct damage to the brain. Excessive alcohol consumption can shrink and kill brain cells. This leads to memory loss, slower processing of information, poorer decision-making, and difficulty with concentration.
All sorts of decisions I made during my drinking years were flawed, from the big stuff like relationships to the smaller stuff like whether to work out or not. Although I did a great job at work and at home and was perceived as successful and credible by my friends, peers, and colleagues, my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders. It was going into overdrive to deal with hangovers, panic, anxiety, and stress and had little energy left for logical thinking and processing.
Since I’ve stopped drinking, I’ve noticed a massive improvement in my concentration and focus. Because I’m sleeping better and my brain is firing on all cylinders, I’m sharper and able to react quickly and responsively to crises and pressure.
All of these benefits give me more control of my decisions and reactions. I prioritise more efficiently. I stick to my commitments. I’m good at finding solutions. I bring energy, creativity, and positivity to projects, meetings, and conversations.
6. Creativity: Designing your Future and Ideal Life
You’re already seeing the pattern here, and you probably know what’s coming next.
While your brain’s dealing with all the crap that comes with an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, it can’t function optimally in any of these areas, including creatively shaping your desired future.
Dr. Tara Swart argues that a creative brain “is one that can put ideas to use in unexpected ways, using contrasting combinations of thoughts to foster new ones…When we’re thinking with our whole brain and devote our full creative power to a situation or problem, we see possibility where others see limitations.”
This give us the ability to reimagine our futures, think flexibly around challenges, and reinvent ourselves. We’re more likely to spot opportunities that are going to take us toward our desired future when we’re functioning well at this creative level.
It’s all about potential, possibility, and positivity—turning life to our advantage instead of perceiving ourselves as victims of circumstance. It’s about us becoming the creators of our own destinies.
I’m only just beginning to discover the power of this creativity in my brain. Alcohol numbed out possibility and potential for so long. I couldn’t imagine having fun socially without being drunk, let alone imagine a productive, happy, and fulfilling life without alcohol. All of that has turned on its head now.
In fact, it’s the opposite now; I couldn’t imagine achieving what I want to achieve, living my life the way I want it, being the best version of myself, and connecting meaningfully with other people with alcohol in tow.
It’s almost impossible to think positively when you’re in the clutches of an alcohol-induced state of misery, anxiety, guilt, or shame, and when your trust in yourself and your confidence levels are at rock-bottom. How can you turn obstacles into opportunities, believe in a wonderful future, and put the creative energy into getting there when you’re struggling to get through simple, everyday experiences like supermarket shopping and family gatherings?
When we have this knowledge about how our brains need to function for us to be at our best, and we realise just how much an unhealthy relationship with alcohol prevents this from happening, it can give us the boost of motivation we need to make some changes to our habits.
When you stop drinking, it doesn’t mean that all of these six areas of brain functionality start to magically work wondrously well. But they do start working better, and living alcohol-free means you can develop them even further and get even closer to living your best life.