“Dr. Becky – Can you talk about parents’ alcohol use while in captivity? My friends and I are all boozing way more than usual. Is this ok for coping? No? Would love to hear your thoughts.”

Quick Answer:

This is a tough question for me because I don’t know anything about anyone’s drinking habits, temperaments, family histories, or how much anyone is actually consuming. I hope anyone with an alcohol use disorder, diagnosed or undiagnosed, is getting extra support to manage these stressful times without turning to alcohol.

For everyone else, I’d say that this is an important issue to watch: it’ll be easy for weekdays to be justified as weekends, to insist that we deserve alcohol as a reward for our 24/7 parenting (and we certainly deserve something!), and to associate alcohol with a calming down process that our bodies all need. And, right now, there’s a plethora of memes and social media posts that normalize alcohol use as a coping mechanism.

Let’s explore this topic of alcohol in a way that’s different from usual: often we ask ourselves, “Am I drinking too much? Yes or No?”  I find these questions very limiting and prefer reframing them into these questions: “Can I be more curious about why I’m drawn to alcohol, especially right now? Can I push myself to learn something about myself by inserting a pause between my urge to drink and my decision to drink?” More about all of these questions later, especially the last one, which will be my focus here after I review some information.

Alcohol: How it Works

There’s a lot of science to discuss when it comes to alcohol, but I’m going to sum it up here: alcohol makes us feel good when we consume it.  But then it makes you more anxious the next day and messes with your sleep so you wake up feeling less rested – and with a lower frustration tolerance to tackle everything in your day.  The day will end up feeling harder as a result and then later on, there’s an increased urge to drink.

Mindlessness vs Mindfulness

One of the problematic aspects of drinking is its mindlessness.  We get to a certain time in the day, pour a drink, and especially these days with long hours at home with young children, “the next thing we know,” consumption is higher than we had planned.

Mindlessness happens when we collapse the time between urge and action.  Mindfulness happens when we increase time between urge and action.

I’ll go on record here saying that mindfulness is better than mindlessness.  Mindfulness is actually kind of what makes us different from other animal species: we are not locked into reflexive action – we don’t actually have to act on an urge.

We learn the most about ourselves in the time between our urges and our actions; I’m a big fan of learning about ourselves, so I like the idea of expanding, not collapsing, that time.

Why do I have an increased urge to drink?

Drinking provides many functions, all of which are heightened right now.  Most people report that they’re drawn to ritual of drinking, as there’s something about the opening, pouring, smelling, and holding that feels cozy and safe.  We all are looking for cozy and safe feelings these days, so no wonder the urge to drink is especially strong.

For many parents of young children, alcohol often signals “me” time, a separation from the role of mother or father.  It becomes a ritualistic break, and right now when we are with our children non-stop and we don’t have the same routines, alcohol is especially enticing as a signifier of down-time, even if it’s just for 15 seconds as you hold your glass in the kitchen while your kids eat dinner across from you.

Oh, right, and these days there’s a global health crisis, financial crisis, supply chain crisis, hospital capacity crisis, uncertainty in the future crisis… yeah, these things all make us feel anxious and uncertain and worried.  All feelings that are hard to sit with.  So makes sense we have an urge to look something external that has the hope of taking it all away, even if just temporarily.  Makes sense that urges to use alcohol to cope are higher than before.

Focus on your Urge to Drink

Urge Surfing is a mindfulness technique where you practice noticing an urge and all of its components (feelings, sensations, thoughts, etc.), thereby “riding” the wave of the urge.  Urge surfing inserts space between urge and action and allows access to reflection and curiosity.

Surfing an urge slows down time, which allows access other thoughts like, “Hm…. What feeling am I looking for that I don’t have right now? What feeling am I having right now that I want to get away from?  What’s going to happen if I drink, how will I feel today? How might I feel tomorrow? How hard would it be to delay for a few minutes? Is there anything else I might do that somewhat speaks to what I’m looking for?

During this pause and when I answer that last question, I find more flexibility in what comes next: I might text a friend if I realize I’m lonely, I may decide to make a hot cup of tea, or, I might give myself permission to open the wine and pour a glass.  But now, I have many possibilities, not just one. And here’s something critical: the truly mindful decision to drink is very different than our mindless drinking – they may look the same on the outside, but they reinforce vastly different circuits on the inside.

Try This at Home: Urge Surfing Instructions

1.     Set your intention to become more mindful about your drinking.

2.     When you have an urge to drink, pause.  Rate your urge to drink on a scale of 0 to 10.

3.     Set an alarm for an amount of time that feels a bit uncomfortable but manageable – to separate urge from action. This could be 1 minute or 2 hours; only you know what’s right. Tell yourself something like, “My job over these minutes is to notice this urge and any related thoughts or feelings. After, if I decide to drink, I’ll give myself permission.”

4.     If you can, write down some of those thoughts or feelings that come up.  See what you notice in your body.

5.     When your alarm goes off, rate your urge again (0-10) and make a decision about what to do.  You likely have three options: drink now, decide not to drink, use a replacement activity, or urge surf again.  If you do decide to drink, drink slowly and take some pauses, making the alcohol more of a mindful sensory experience, and less of a mindless one.

Alternatives and Replacement Activities

Here’s a list of replacement activities, none of which will likely feel as immediately rewarding as alcohol, but all of have fewer negative impacts the next day.

  • Have a large cup of tea or hot chocolate.  Hold the mug in your hand.  Smell the scent.  Drink slowly.

  • Treat yourself to some other sensory experience: maybe a piece of fancy chocolate that feels indulgent and that you wouldn’t give your kids

  • Make a mocktail. Find a recipe you like and make a ritual of making it at a certain time.  Tell your kids you’re busy.

  • Reach out to a friend. Have a short FaceTime call to connect. Let her know how you’re feeling about everything that’s going on inside and outside of your home.

  • Tell yourself that you’re going to do something special for yourself later that night.  A bubble bath, a face mask, a long shower. Speak to the part of you that’s looking for that special separation and let it know that those needs will be met.

  • Check out my #DeepInDistance project on Instagram. Twice a week, I post prompts that can be used spark interesting and deepening conversations or email chains with friends. Sometimes connecting in a meaningful way with a friend can reduce the urge to drink.

Challenge:

Consider taking up this Urge Surfing challenge.  Becoming more mindful helps us make better decisions over time.

The period of pause between urge and action will feel uncomfortable. Remember that.  Talk to your discomfort by saying to it, “I feel you, discomfort.  You are telling me that I am not accustomed to pausing in this way, and so my body is making a brand-new circuit.  The discomfort is a sign that this new circuit is being carved out.  I can get through this uncomfortable feeling because it’s a sign of change and increased options for the future.  And that’s empowering.”