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Mental Wellbeing & Alcohol

Updated: Feb 16

The term 'alcoholic' is misleading

There is this notion that only faulty humans become ‘alcoholics’. As in the faulty person is someone with a predisposition to being unable to cope with alcohol. We somehow then blame people for getting into a mess with alcohol… which doesn’t make sense!


This notion, that only humans with a predisposed inability to cope with alcohol get into trouble with it, is false!


These thoughts lead us to stigmatise anyone with an alcohol problem and can make people with an alcohol problem feel too ashamed to seek help.


I was highly embarrassed and ashamed of getting myself into trouble with alcohol for a long time. Then I learnt that alcohol is highly addictive and poisonous to humans, that alcohol itself changed how my brain processes it and I recognised that my mental health problems were the leading cause of me having a problem with alcohol. I also now see how our culture of drinking makes it easy for anyone given the right circumstances to fall pray to alcohol’s addictive properties.


I no longer feel ashamed or embarrassed. I feel empowered to educate others so that even if I only impact one other person to prevent them taking the path I did, that my journey and experience was not in vain.


Alcohol was not designed for humans

Alcohol is a highly addictive neurotoxin.


It was not designed for human consumption.


In a recent talk on alcohol, I was asked the following question:


“What are your thoughts on a healthy relationship with alcohol?”


My answer: I don’t think there is such a thing as a ‘healthy’ relationship with alcohol because alcohol is an addictive neurotoxin and is implicated as a risk factor for many diseases such as cancer.


Think about it like this, you wouldn’t be able to have a ‘healthy’ relationship with heroin!


In the UK, alcohol was reported as the leading cause of death in men aged 16-54 years.


Alcohol is the third leading risk factor for death and disability after smoking and obesity.


If alcohol were discovered today it would be a Class A drug because of its addictiveness and the ill-health & social-ill-effects that it causes.


If you have not reached the point where you are out of control with alcohol I think it is an individual choice to choose what alcohol consumption you will accept for yourself based on a risk analysis of the dangers. It’s no different, for example, to me choosing to freestyle snowboard off big jumps and at boxes of metal until just before I was 40. I then I decided that was a level of exposure I was unwilling to carry on with past 40 due to injury risk.


However, if you have hit the point where you are out of control with alcohol, I personally believe you will not be able to re-wire your brain to drink sensibly and therefore abstinence is a must if you want to live a healthy life.


Mental Health and Mental Wellbeing

In mental health awareness training we use a model to give a measure of where a person's mental health is currently at. There are four quadrants with a wellbeing continuum and a health continuum as shown below:


Low Mental Wellbeing, Mental Ill-Health and Alcohol

The fact of the matter is that anyone who sits in either of the bottom two quadrants of the model is more susceptible to alcohol misuse.


This is a public health message we should be getting told widely and frequently.


We need to challenge the widely popular belief and culture that alcohol is the cure to relieve stress at the end of a tough day.

It is not that some humans are defective in respect of consuming alcohol. It’s that if we have life events or circumstances that make us more susceptible to drink and use alcohol as a coping strategy, we are more likely to be more at risk of succumbing to the addictive properties of alcohol.


Research has shown links between alcohol problems and mental health problems.


Evidence outlined in this report has shown that:

  • there are significant connections between reported alcohol use and depressive symptoms

  • people report using alcohol to help them sleep

  • people drink more when experiencing moderate to high levels of shyness or fear

  • anxious people use drinking ‘to cope’ and are more likely to avoid social situations where alcohol is not available

  • as many as 65% of suicides have been linked to excessive drinking

  • 70% of men who kill themselves have drunk alcohol before doing so

  • almost a third of suicides amongst young people are committed while the person is intoxicated

  • anxiety and depressive symptoms are more common in heavy drinkers

  • heavy drinking is more common in those with anxiety and depression

  • there is a significant relationship between job stress and alcohol consumption

  • many GPs believe that alcohol is a cause of mental health problems

Cheers? Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health



I disagree with the last statement on the list above – I think alcohol can lead to mental health problems, but I think more often mental health problems lead to alcohol problems which in turn exacerbate the original and underlying mental health problem.


We need to challenge the widely popular belief and culture that alcohol is the cure to relieve stress at the end of a tough day.


This notion encourages and makes it ok for people to reach for alcohol when our mental wellbeing or mental health are negatively affected.


We should be made aware of the dangers of alcohol in the hope that it prevents more people succumbing to its addictive properties.


PTSD, Alcohol and Me

The content in this section of the post took me an incredibly long time to write, mostly because the subject is very hard for me to talk about.


There is a Trigger Warning Section. If you need to skip the detail please miss out the text between the warning signs.


The main reason I got in trouble with alcohol was when, what I used to call, ‘the yucky feeling’ came along!


I have now renamed it the feeling to take away negative connotations as I still work through this post-traumatic stress symptom.


The feeling is a post-traumatic stress response to sexual abuse. It’s a type of flashback that is felt as a physical feeling rather than as a mind memory. The body holds memories in many ways, despite our common thought that memories only exist in the mind.


If we experience a traumatic event the memories can stay stuck within us. If we experience a traumatic event in childhood, it can re-wire our brain’s response to stress in order to cope with something that our developing body and brain was unable to make sense of safely as a child.


This is what has happened to me. One of my PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) symptoms is a physical flashback. It is brought about in situations that make me feel unsafe in respect of sexual behaviour. My brain was wired a little differently due to experiencing trauma in childhood which means when my stress response is triggered it can be out of my control and present as an extreme reaction. I am still working through it in therapy to this day. I hope very much that one day it will be something that never troubles me, or at the very least troubles me to a very small degree.


This next section comes with a trigger warning – if you are prone to being triggered by things related to sexual abuse you may wish to skip to the next heading TRIGGER WARNING ENDS.


TRIGGER WARNING BEGINS



The feeling is an intense feeling in the clitoris. It's like a feeling of being turned on so hard that it's uncomfortable and painful. It also radiates out from that spot all over like a dull radiating anxious sensation that I can feel everywhere. The intensity of the feeling in my clitoris can vary from strong to weak. But no matter how strong that feeling is, the feeling that radiates from that spot and all over my body always has the same high level of discomfort & intensity.


It feels like an extreme level of stress. I liken it to what I can only imagine it might have felt like being stood in the trenches of Flanders Fields before soldiers ‘went over the top’ and put themselves in the firing line to almost certain death.


The anxiety that washes throughout my entire body is excruciatingly uncomfortable.




TRIGGER WARNING ENDS


When I am triggered the feeling can last for up to a week. As in 24 hours a day, day after day without a break.


It disturbs my sleep as I am unable to sleep through the intense physical sensation or the wash of anxiety flowing through my body.


I had a 5-year period from about 2008 where I experienced the feeling being triggered on and off during that time. It was a very challenging time in my life.


I sought help from many different places. My GP didn't know what to do. Hypnotherapy didn't work. Acupuncture didn't work. Counselling didn't work. CBT and tapping technique didn't work. Meditation & relaxation didn't work. At one point I was told that maybe I needed psychotherapy. But at that time this was at a cost to me of £175 which I didn't have as I was a mature student only working part-time. I sought help from the sexual assault referral centre only to be told they could not help me with this feeling.


I am upset by the last sentence above in particular. I have since discovered that there has been much research into supporting people through the effects of PTSD and trauma related to sexual abuse, yet the local service designed to support people with the after-effects of sexual abuse was not equipped or researched enough to be able to help.


What are people supposed to do if the service set up to help a particular type of person is not best equipped or experienced to actually help?


Once the feeling was triggered, sleep was incredibly difficult. During the day it was easier to distract my thoughts away from it. Sometimes I was so distracted by the activity I was engaged in that I would think it had gone... but once home and in bed unable to relax and fall asleep I would realise it was still there. The more I tried to relax the more intense the feeling would become.


I soon discovered that drinking a small amount of alcohol would get me off to sleep. It was the only thing that made the feeling go. If it got triggered I could drink a few beers or shots of vodka, fall asleep & wake with the feeling gone. It was a breakthrough! Finally, something worked!


Sadly this breakthrough ended up as my downfall as I then developed an alcohol problem.


I misused alcohol throughout that 5-year period to cope with the feeling and then beyond to cope with general sleep anxiety.


My problem started with a mental health problem.


I ended up with a mental health problem and an alcohol problem.


With how much I value my health and life, I know that if the dangers of alcohol use were more widely publicised and if our culture was less focused on encouraging alcohol consumption, I would not have gotten into this mess.


Since reading further on the subject of alcohol I have learned even more about the danger of consuming alcohol. I now know that I am never in danger of ‘falling off the wagon’ and drinking again because the ill-health effects from consuming alcohol are so great that, in my opinion, it just isn’t worth the risk. Not even to work through my PTSD symptom. I have since been challenged with tough times and with the PTSD symptom and have not given in to alcohol.


I know I will never use alcohol again, not even during my most challenging times with my own mental health and wellbeing.


Alcohol is not the cure for any low mental wellbeing or mental ill-health diagnosis, trust me.


If this post resonates with you there are four books (so far) that I highly recommend:


Toxic Childhood Stress by Dr Nadine Burke Harris


The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk


The Chimp Paradox by Professor Steve Peters


Drink? The New Science of Alcohol + Your Health by Professor David Nutt



I ask all readers to be respectful. This is an honest and heart-felt account of the struggle I incurred.


I thank you in advance for your respect and kindness and I encourage you to sign up to my mailing list so I can notify you about new blog updates.


If you are struggling with how much alcohol you are consuming or if you would like to talk further on the subject please get in touch. Your conversations with me will remain confidential. Please note that I am not a therapist but I can support you to find a way to address any issues you may be having with alcohol.



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