Mindful Drinking & Mental Health – A Drinkaware Public Webinar

Mindful Drinking & Mental Health

On September 16th the Drinkaware team were delighted to welcome members of the public to our webinar on Mindful Drinking & Mental Health. If you were unable to join us on the day, you’ll find some of the insights discussed below.

After providing some context on the topic and why it was chosen, CEO for Drinkaware Sheena Horgan turned to our three panellists, Kate Coffey Irish influencer based in Dublin, who has been alcohol-free for over a year and just recently completed her Masters, Pádraig Walsh behavioural psychologist, and Dil Wickremasinghe  IACP pre-accredited Psychotherapist and Counsellor, for their insights asking, “Is it possible to drink alcohol mindfully and still socialise in Ireland, what role does peer pressure play, and are there any tips for alcohol-free socialising”?

Kate kicked off the discussion by sharing her personal experience of being alcohol- free for over a year, “I didn’t set out to give up alcohol completely, but it was the benefits that really struck me…I fell in love with the positives”. Some tips Kate provided for going alcohol-free on a night out included, “not pushing it, if I’m tired, I go home”, going on to share that she has noticed others in her friend group cut back also and that it’s been an incredible experience for her. “The hardest part is the transition period and putting your foot down. People seem to want to know why, they want a reason for you being alcohol-free.” Kate continued,  “I didn’t explain myself, I just said this is what I want to do. People tend to be very supportive, and when people see it time and time again, they stop asking. I can understand that it could be difficult, but if it is something you want to do, you don’t have to explain yourself.”

Pádraig continued on with the discussion,  “willpower can be strong, but it isn’t reliable, we rely on it a lot when we first start a new habit, but as time goes by we need to rely on willpower less and less.” There is research to show how willing we are as people to conform. People will change what they initially believe to be true when they are influenced by others, showing the power that peer pressure can have. “It does take courage to be an individual amongst a group.” Mindfulness is something that will require us to be mindless, we cannot be consciously aware of every action we take throughout the day. When we want to build new habits, it’s important that we check in on our reasons why and make sure you are making it easy for you to do,  willpower can tell you it’s something you don’t want to do, but when put in a setting your willpower can be overwhelmed and it becomes harder to make the decision you want to. But by making the behaviour slightly more difficult, by placing small interruptions into the routine of the behaviour you can make a mindless action such as taking a beer from the fridge on a Friday night, to mindfully deciding not to.

Dill entered the conversation to speak about alcohol and mental health and how it takes a person with good mental health to step outside of the crowd. “The definition of mental health that sticks with me is the ability to live separately and independently of the culture that you’re in.” When it comes to anxiety, it’s a symptom. If you’re in a social setting, you might reach for alcohol to calm yourself, my question is can you be a bit curious as to why you’re anxious?  What is your drinking teaching you? Or What can you learn from your drinking? Be curious as to why you feel the way you do, your body is telling you something.”

The conversation then moved on to the benefits of drinking less/ cutting out alcohol. Kate spoke to the benefits she noticed when she stopped drinking alcohol. “Of all the benefits mental health was the highest, I did have anxiety for a while and it was only when I stopped drinking that I realised that alcohol was triggering it in some cases. When I removed alcohol from my life the anxiety went. Sometimes you’d drink more because of the anxiety, it can be a vicious circle with mental health and anxiety.”

Dill posed the question: Do we drink to celebrate life or drink to forget life? – It’s unusual to walk away from a drink, you bought it so you have to drink it all, this is culturally rooted and we need to question it. If we cherish our mental health, we need to live independently of the culture we live in.

Bringing the behavioural perspective, Pádraig added,  the anxiety and the fear that people experience after drinking,  we forget about it.  You would think that after the experience of anxiety after drinking or the ill health/fear, we would learn to reduce the behaviour – that would be a rational human response.  We put more value into something that gives us an immediate hit, in the short term over the long term, so we will discount something that will give us long-term health benefits. When we think of alcohol and then a behaviour such as exercise, they act on the opposite side of that spectrum, in the short-term alcohol can give you that dopamine hit, but in the long term a negative effect on wellbeing and health, but the opposite is true for exercise. We need to go back to that behavioural planning to make sure there is a plan in place so that when our mindful self says,  “I want to drink less,” when we are in a good place, we make those decisions, those good plans, and set it up so that when we are tired and stressed, we can be more kind to our mindful self.

Dill explained that when you’re anxious you don’t feel safe. You’re in a social setting, why don’t you feel safe in this setting? These are all clues that will help you be conscious and aware of why you’re drinking, but it will also go towards feeling more balanced and happier. You really have to have these conversations with yourself, what can you’re drinking teach you –

Having confidence in your decisions is key, however, the panel did note that when one person initiates the behaviour it can become easier for others, Kate noticed this with her own friend group, “I see that there is a reduction when I’m around, people don’t feel the need to have alcohol, when they see I’m not drinking,  it creates a place where others don’t feel the need to.

And Pádraig explained that, if you have people around you who aren’t doing something it becomes a lot easier for other people. But we need to have the courage to be on our own, for others to join, staying true to your values, can be very valuable, and you become important to other people who want to join. Identify your hotspots in your life that lead you to become mindless and slip back into old habits – tiredness, stress, environment, people you’re with, rewards. Our brains love simple mindless routines (hotspots) – so if your hotspots lead to drinking you need to catch them. Ask yourself, how can I plan so that when a hotspot occurs I can catch it? “We need to become  self-aware, by keeping a journal and looking at what happened in the day that made you reach for a drink could be useful to track your behaviours and spot your hotspots.”

The chat moved on to the Q&A session with people asking for tips and alternatives. Some simple tips include: get smaller wine glasses, and don’t purchase alcohol in your weekly shop! Small steps can have benefits. There is no such thing as eliminating a behaviour, you need to replace it. If you’re trying to change an entrenched behaviour, don’t spend time thinking about how to stop – think about what you could do instead. Pádraig described this as, how can I celebrate differently, in line with my values and goals – is it drink herbal tea, is it setting a limit, put that plan in place,  remember, I’m not trying to eliminate I am replacing.

Kate then went on to go through some of the alternatives she used, “it’s going for dinner and having a proper conversation by removing the alcohol you have time to catch up properly, going for a coffee, or walks with friends, just enjoying people’s company working it around socialising rather than the alcohol.”

The webinar then wrapped up, with a massive thanks to our three panellists. If you are looking for more information on mindful drinking and the sober curious movement click here. If you have any questions following on from the webinar or this blog, please email info@drinkaware.ie