Using mindfulness can help you quit drinking
Cultivating awareness might be the key to walking away from alcohol for good
I don’t know when I started drinking every day. But as I entered my mid-30s, I realized alcohol had moved from a weekend visitor to a roommate before I even noticed the shift. I’m not an alcoholic, but it was hard when I decided to quit drinking. Acknowledging I’d gone from wanting a drink to needing one to unwind was eye-opening.
I’m a writer and a woman, so wine is around a lot. Trying to go 48 hours without booze was alarmingly difficult. Not only did abstaining really disappoint most of my friends, but nothing helped unclench my anxiety-filled shoulders quite like a vodka on the rocks.
“It has become the modern woman’s steroid,” said Ann Dowsett-Johnston, author of Drink: The Intimate Relationship with Women and Alcohol. “Something to help her do the heavy lifting in an overstressed, unresolved culture.”
If you’re a regular drinker, starting the new year sober is usually harder than just setting a resolution. Thank your brain for that. If you want to cut back, or give up drinking for good, cultivating mindfulness might be the key to quitting. It has been for me.
“Our brains are not set up to think into the future very much,” said Judson Brewer, director of research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “So it’s really challenging until we really pay attention to the immediate behaviour to be able to step out of it.”
If you feel bad and do something to feel better — like reach for a drink or check your Facebook feed — your brain learns to repeat this process. Forming a habit, whether healthy or not, can happen in a matter of weeks, said Brewer, a psychiatrist who uses mindfulness to treat addiction. Fo- cusing more on the present moment can help break the cycle.
Practising just 11 minutes of mindfulness — like paying attention to your breath — helped heavy drinkers cut back, according to a study out of University College London. Brewer showed that using awareness techniques were more effective than the gold-standard behavioural treatment at getting people to quit smoking.
Paying close attention to my alcohol cravings was like taking the red pill in The Matrix. I could see my actions from the outside, which made my nightly habit far easier to stop. I noticed even seeing my favourite cocktail glass or reading a book — something I often did with a glass of wine — triggered my brain into wanting a drink.
I had actually turned to mindfulness a few years ago as a long-term treatment for depression. I was on medication to deal with some depressive spells that would sap my motivation and make me feel like I was lugging around an unwelcome, heavy blanket. While on the meds, I gained 20 pounds.
I told a friend I wanted to get off the medication, and he suggested I try meditation. I’d tried the practice before, but it never took. I’m a worrier; I ruminate and sitting alone with my thoughts hadn’t helped in the past.
Although I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was hooked after a week. Six months later, I was antidepressant-free.
As I got into mindfulness, I noticed more things about myself, specifically that I was using booze as a crutch. It was my signal to wind down at the end of the day and if I was going to an event, I’d get nervous if wine wasn’t available.
My father battled addiction, a condition I didn’t want to inherit. I figured that mindfulness had worked for me with depression, so I gave it a go.
Some may roll their eyes at mindfulness, but brain scans show that experienced meditators have stronger control over their posterior cingulate cortex — the part of the brain activated by stress and cravings.
I don’t know if I’ll ever drink again — only time will tell — but for now my mindfulness practice has liberated me from the habit. I have the tools to simply sit with myself, moment to moment, without having to seek a way out. Keri Wiginton is a writer and photographer focusing on issues related to health, psychology and feminism. @keriphoto