In my last post, I looked at why lockdown has caused many people to drink more. But drinking more isn’t everyone’s story. A lot of people used lockdown as a springboard for stopping and have been very successful. But for these people, the ending of lockdown will bring its own challenges. After all, one of the big ‘sobriety tests’ we face when quitting is attending social events not drinking. So anyone who has quit during lockdown may have quit for anything up to a year, but may still be staring down the barrel of their first sober social event.
For people in this position, it’s worth bearing in mind that alcohol doesn’t aid social functions, it only seems like it does.
We, humans, are social animals. When we are relaxed and socialising our brain releases endorphins which make us feel happy and euphoric. The key here is that you need two things to get your endorphin hit; firstly you need to be relaxed. Secondly, you need to be socialising. It’s the first of these where the problems come in.
Humans are not only social animals, we are also self-conscious, and by this, I mean that we are aware of and sensitive to attention from others, often to the point of feeling anxious or embarrassed. Everyone has self-consciousness, albeit some have it more than others, and the vast majority of people feel it most keenly at the start of social events.
When we arrive at a social occasion we rarely feel relaxed. We feel slightly on edge. We feel self-conscious, concerned about how we look, what people will think of us, for most of us social interaction also has a degree of concern or worry. But we go into it, we start talking to someone. To begin with, the conversation can be forced and difficult, but hopefully, we will hit on a subject that both us and the person we are talking to actually enjoy. As the conversation flows we become more and more taken up with the conversation, leaving less space in our minds to worry about what we look like or sound like. Eventually, we relax into the social situation; we are talking, laughing, our self-consciousness drifts away, and at this point, the endorphins are released.
Essentially what happens is that we arrive at a social situation slightly nervous, and this feeling of nervousness has to disperse before we really settle into, and start to enjoy, the event.
Alcohol, being a sedative, can anesthetise this initial feeling of nervousness. In doing so it can be the catalyst for the endorphins to be released. The actual feeling of having a drink is nothing, it is a feeling of being slightly dulled, less able to think and concentrate, and being slightly tunnel visioned. It’s a sedative, it just dulls us. The only reason we think it is in any way pleasurable is that we usually take those first few experimental doses when we are socialising. In this situation, alcohol does confer two actual benefits. Firstly it anesthetises the feeling of nervousness we have in a social situation. Secondly, and in anaesthetising the feeling of nervousness, it allows the release of endorphins. So we start to associate drinking not with a slightly dulled feeling, but with a feeling of happiness and enjoyment.
So we very quickly start to believe that alcohol is the key to enjoying social situations. We turn up at social situations feeling nervous and self-conscious, and after a drink or two, we feel relaxed and shortly after, euphoric. We naturally believe that it’s the alcohol that has done that for us, whereas in reality, we would have ended up in exactly the same place had we not drunk any alcohol and instead just relaxed into the event naturally.
If you are in any doubt about this, go to a children’s party. Or if it’s not too long ago, think back to your own childhood. Do children need alcohol to enjoy social functions? Or do they go absolutely mad without it?
This false belief is exacerbated when we then go out and don’t drink. We may be on antibiotics, be the designated driver, or have an early start the next day. Whatever the reason, the dynamic when we aren’t drinking is that we turn up feeling slightly unhappy because we can’t drink, because we already believe that the key to a truly enjoyable social occasion is alcohol. So we aren’t relaxed, and we don’t really feel happy. And if we aren’t relaxed, and if we‘re not happy, we aren’t going to get our endorphin hit. To exacerbate this we feel like we’re on the outside. After all, we’ve turned up at a social event, and what we perceive to be the main activity (drinking) is something we are missing out on. Because we feel like we’re on the outside, that we’re different and excluded, we are even less likely to get our endorphin hit.
So when we go out and drink we feel great. And when we then go out and don’t drink, it’s just not the same. The more we experience each of these situations, the more we confirm our beliefs that we need alcohol to enjoy socialising, and the more unhappy we are when we socialise and don’t drink. This false belief is continuously reaffirmed. In essence, we lose a skill that we had as a child; the ability to truly enjoy social occasions without a drug. Think about those phrases that are bandied about so much that we just accept them at face value and never stop to really digest them, phrases like:
A night out just isn’t as much without a few drinks.
Which is exactly the same as saying:
A social event without alcohol is less enjoyable than one without it.
Which, in turn, is the same as saying:
I need a chemical substance in order to fully enjoy a night out.
Do children need alcohol to enjoy seeing their friends? Did you, before you started drinking?
Alcohol is a sedative. It anesthetises, it inhibits nerve activity. How can it possibly increase your enjoyment of a night out? All it can do is cause an interesting chemical / physiological / psychological process that ends up with you being unable to enjoy a night out without it. When you are able to understand that you can enjoy yourself without drinking, you can remove all the barriers that stop you from enjoying your night out. As ever, knowledge is power.
If you are generally a confident, outgoing and extroverted person then this is probably pretty much all you need. But if, like me, you lean more toward being introverted then there are a few tips to give you the best chance of completing and enjoying a sober night out.
Practice makes perfect. If you are going to do your first sober night out for several years (or even decades) then it will be a new experience for you. New means untested, unsure, worrying. This is not necessarily conducive to relaxation, enjoyment, and the flow of endorphins. But as you do something more and more it becomes more and more familiar, and less and less intimidating. The more you do it, the more relaxed you’ll be, the more you will enjoy it, and the more likely you will be to get that endorphin hit. So try not to worry about it, just go along and see where things take you, and know that whatever you experience the first time, it does get better and better over time.
Don’t expect an endorphin high to feel like being drunk. An endorphin hit leaves you feeling clear-headed, euphoric and happy. An alcohol and endorphin hit is the same but with a more dulled, intoxicated edge.
If, like me, you find small-talk difficult and you are struggling to make conversation, ask whoever you are talking to about themselves. Most people like talking about themselves, and it’s a topic they know a lot about.
When you stop enjoying yourself, leave. You don’t need to stay until the bitter end. When it’s a large event and most people are drinking no one is really aware of where you are on when you leave anyway.
When I’m at a large work event I tend to just leave, no one knows if you just went to the toilet and ended up talking to another group or not. I’ve attended events with others and can’t leave, and have just gone out for a walk when I’ve got bored of listening to drink people endlessly repeat themselves. Again no one knows nor cares where you are or what you’re doing. Another option is to just go to the toilet with your phone for a bit!
Enjoy watching the event unfold before your eyes, and see the reality of drinking. What you’ll see is that after an initial burst of euphoria, things calm down as the evening wears on. Alcohol is a sedative, an anaesthetic, it not only anaesthetises nerves but also feelings of euphoria. The non-drinker will ride their wave of endorphins through the whole evening, the drinking will anaesthetise this feeling as the drinking continues. Watch how the initial euphoria quickly wears off, how the eyes become glazed and the conversation repetitive and dull as the alcohol kicks in.
If it’s possible try to get someone else to go along with you and not drink. The days of people only quitting alcohol because they have a serious problem with it are long gone. These days more and more people are questioning their drinking, and the focus is less ‘Do I have a problem?’ and more ‘Why do I feel the need to keep doing this?’. Try to tempt a friend to try a sober night out. It is always so much better if you have someone with you who isn’t steadily stupefying themselves with a foul-smelling carcinogen throughout the course of the evening.
Remember that social events and not drinking are not equally challenging throughout, there is usually a ‘tipping point’ where you can focus your efforts. My previous article on this topic can be found here.