Do you have a healthy relationship with alcohol?
THIS ARTICLE HAS BEEN WRITTEN BY REGISTERED PSYCHOLOGIST, ANNETTE STEVENSON , FROM UNE COUNSELLING AND PSYCHOLOGICAL SERVICES (UNE CAPS).
The question we were asked to consider is how do you know if you have a healthy relationship with alcohol and what can you do if you don’t?
Before discussing whether alcohol and healthy can be used in the same sentence, let’s look at what alcohol is. What are we potentially having a relationship with?
Alcohol is a “psychoactive” drug in that it affects our body, mind, and how we feel. The alcohol in alcoholic drinks is ethanol or ethyl alcohol. There are other types of alcohol, such as methyl alcohol, and these are definitely not for consumption as they are lethal. Alcohol falls into a class of drugs called depressants. Depressants are drugs that slow down the rate of travel of messages between the brain and body. They reduce activity in your central nervous system.
So why would we want to consume something that slows things down?
There are so many answers to that question and the answers are in part a clue as to whether you do or don’t have a “healthy” relationship with booze, grog, liquor… How would you answer the question? Do you drink alcohol for the taste or flavour; to compliment a meal; for something to do; to get drunk; only when with friends; because you “have to”; to try to take the edge off a stressful day; as a “nightcap”; when alone; to mask other feelings; to forget?
Many Australians view alcohol as a “social lubricant” that helps them to relax and perhaps feel more confident. During COVID-19 restrictions you may have looked forward to when you could again have a beer or wine with friends or family in a public or private venue. This thought might conjure images of people drinking while engaging in convivial conversation, while watching a sporting match, or while sharing some laughs over a meal. We might associate these images with positive feelings, but it is the images of people losing balance and control, losing track of what and how much alcohol they have consumed, becoming disinhibited and unable to make rational decisions such that they say or do things that are out of character, dangerous, unethical, illegal, etc., which are of concern.
When does the relationship with alcohol go from healthy, socially acceptable, legal, safe, affordable, and fun to something else?
Before answering that question, is there a safe level of alcohol consumption? The answer is that there is no 100% safe level of alcohol or drug use. All drugs have an inherent risk. One risk with alcohol is that it affects each person differently. Factors such as size, weight, height, physical and mental health, other drug use, mood, context, past, and current drinking patterns, amount drunk, and strength of the alcoholic drink(s) can influence the immediate and long-term effects of alcohol. You can find out more about how alcohol (and other drugs) can affect the mind and body via the Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) drug facts site.
Back to the question about how to know whether your relationship with alcohol is or isn’t healthy. The National Health and Medical Research Council’s current position, rather than tell Australians how much to drink, is to give advice about the risks that drinking alcohol can have on people’s health. This position is part of a harm minimization or risk-reduction approach to drinking; where the provision of guidelines about the health risks of alcohol enables people to make fully-informed decisions. The guidelines state: “To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury for healthy men and women, drink no more than 10 standard drinks per week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day. The less you choose to drink, the lower your risk of alcohol-related harm. For some people not drinking at all is the safest option.” The recommendation for children and young people under age 18, and for pregnant and breastfeeding women is to not drink alcohol.
How does your alcohol consumption compare with these guidelines?
For starters, in order to answer that question, you need to know what a “standard” drink is. An Australian standard drink is 10g or 12.5ml of pure alcohol. Different types of drinks contain different amounts of pure alcohol, so it helps to get an idea of what a standard drink of wine, mid and full-strength beer, spirits, premixed spirits, etc., looks like. Check out the ADF standard drinks guide; bearing in mind that glass sizes vary, jugs, bottles, and casks are shared, and you might not know what alcohol went into the shared punch or a cocktail.
You might very well drink 10 or less standard drinks a week but might, for example, drink all 10 in one evening of the week and wake up the next day with a hangover and little memory of the night before. Or you might have up to 10 drinks across the week; 1 or 2 every second night with a meal, with no obvious health effects. You might think that your relationship with alcohol is perfectly fine but those around you might be expressing concern. Or perhaps you know you drink close to or well above 10 drinks a week but are not aware of any immediate health impacts. Where things continue to get tricky is that alcohol can not only impact your physical and mental health, but can lead to financial, reputational, relational, legal, academic, and employment risks. Does your drinking get in the way of your work, your study, your relationship with family, friends, or partners? Are you spending money that you can’t afford on alcohol? All of these things need to be considered when deciding if your relationship with alcohol is or isn’t healthy.
We are not always logical creatures. Many of us already know “intellectually” or perhaps first hand, for example, that the slowing down effect of alcohol may lead to trouble concentrating, slower reflexes, being more disinhibited, or unable to control impulses or urges. We may even recall terrible hangovers – headache, nausea, fatigue, poor concentration, poor sleep, and increased heart rate. Yet we might not be willing to change our drinking patterns. This is in part because many of the decisions we make are emotional ones; even the ones that we think are rational might be driven by emotions. This doesn’t mean that all emotionally driven decisions are bad ones, but it helps to know that the heart and/or mind are in the mix when we make decisions. We know, for example, that telling people about negative consequences doesn’t necessarily lead to changes in behavior, and can lead to push back. Ideally, how we feel and think about alcohol have to both be considered.
So what can you do if you think your relationship with alcohol is unhealthy?
Ask yourself what you already know about alcohol and how it affects you and possibly others in the short, intermediate, and long-term. What does your relationship with alcohol look like and what do you want it to be like? What reasons come to mind for seeking any change to your current drinking and what might you need in order to bring about some change?
If you would like to ask yourself or be asked some of the above questions in a supported environment, and to make fully informed decisions about your alcohol consumption, give CAPS a call.
UNE students can access free counselling through UNE Student Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS). They are fully qualified and registered psychologists, offering on-campus appointments and phone/video chat sessions for online students. The service is confidential and free for UNE students.
You can contact them Monday- Friday, 9am-4 pm, on (02) 6773 2897.
For more urgent assistance, UNE offers After Hours Support on weekdays from 4.00pm to 9.00am AEST, weekends and public holidays. Phone 1300 661 927 or text 0488 884 169. Alternatively, you can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
You’re never alone at UNE!