FIFO Focus director Sandra Lam joins Big Al as part of the REDFM series FIFO Life.
In part 3, Sandra talks about alcohol and how it can affect FIFO workers.
Alcohol use and what happens in your brain
Man I’m glad that shift’s over.
What a day, I need a drink.
I just need to switch off and get away from all of this. Beer time.
We have all said this kind of thing at some point and we all know alcohol does a great job relaxing us and even makes us feel a bit more confident. Having a good time with friends and colleagues is definitely recommended.
But, here’s the thing: alcohol is not a great help when you feel depressed, angry, sad, confused, frustrated or lonely. Alcohol makes those feelings feel bigger and more intense. When we are happy and socializing with family or friends, alcohol is very pleasant and enhances our social experience. Those positive feelings feel bigger too.
Know your reasons for drinking
Listen, nobody wants a lecture about their drinking habits. The take away message here is: “Know your reasons for drinking and how it will make you feel”.
Are you drinking because you feel sad or mad and you want a break from the world? Or, are you drinking to relax and socialize? The reason we drink alcohol will have a lot to do with how this substance affects our brain. Alcohol does a lot of different things to our brains. Here’s two that you should at least be aware of:
Firstly, alcohol jacks up dopamine levels which is the pleasure chemical in the brain. It makes us feel good but creates an unnatural high that doesn’t last very long. You could call it the “Oh that feels good, do it again” chemical. You probably notice this brain reaction when you eat chocolate and sugar or go shopping. So basically, you learn that drinking alcohol, makes you feel good. When that feeling subsides, you subconsciously think, I want that feeling again, I got that when I drink alcohol, therefore, I’m going to drink more alcohol. But remember what was said earlier, this dopamine level doesn’t last very long. So you can start to see a pattern, right?
Secondly, alcohol impairs communication between neurons in the brain. These neurons take in the cues from the world and help us make sense of it. We do this all the time, without knowing it.
Impaired associations can be good. It gives our brains a break. That’s why we feel relaxed. The issue is, your brain will still need to take in cues to try and make sense of the world – but the cues we take in, are more often than not, biased by the thoughts we’ve had in our heads all day.
So, if you’ve been feeling lonely all day, you’re going to take in cues relating to people not talking to you. If you’ve been irritated all day, you’re going to take in cues relating to behaviours that… yes, you guessed it, irritate you. Basically, alcohol causes our negative feelings to deepen. When we feel down, depressed and angry and we choose alcohol to ‘help’ us, we will experience more depression, more sadness and more anger.
So if alcohol is not a great idea when I feel terrible, what can I do instead?
If you know that your plan to drink is due to negative feelings of hurt, sadness, depression or anger, try going for a walk outside instead. Talk to a trusted friend about your feelings. Go to the gym or watch some TV show (preferably a comedy because we can all do with a laugh every so often). Sometimes we feel better after a good night’s sleep too.
How can I tell if alcohol is becoming a problem in my life?
There are some basic ways you can tell if alcohol is getting the upper hand in your life. Check out the following list for signs and symptoms of alcohol negatively affecting you:
- sleep disruption with difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, frequent waking, early morning awakening and unable to fall asleep again
- low energy, tired all the time, no appetite or overeating
- low or depressed mood with feelings of discouragement and constant negative thoughts
- regular feelings of anxiety and dread in situations where you usually feel comfortable
- constant thoughts of when and where you will drink again
- constant irritability and tendency to be physically or verbally aggressive or withdrawn
What if I see a few things in this list that sound familiar?
Talk to someone. It could be your EAP provider or some other medical professional that you trust. You will be provided with lots of great information and counselling to help you decide what to do next. No one will tell you that you are bad for trying to look after yourself.
If you tend to drink for social occasions and do not have a concern about alcohol, be sure you have regular non-alcohol days in your week. Even if you feel that alcohol is well managed in your life, it is easy to develop a dependency when alcohol is consumed on a regular basis, day to day. Tolerance to alcohol does not mean you get to avoid the very real negative effects of frequent use. Alcohol demands respect. We just want to make sure that respect goes both ways, including respect for yourself.