I thought it would be useful to set out a timeline of the physiological changes that take place when you consume alcohol regularly.
When you first consume alcohol, your brain has never encountered it before and it is ill-prepared to deal with it. First-time drinkers find that their tolerance is low and they easily become intoxicated. They often sleep for hours and wake up the following morning still feeling ‘drunk’. People often report very different experiences of their first drink. Some people describe it as a non-event, for others it’s like an epiphany; ‘I suddenly became the person I’d always wanted to be: confident, funny, happy.’ Some people take this as evidence that alcohol can have a different effect on different people but of course, this isn’t the case. Alcohol is simply a sedative; something that decreases or inhibits nerve activity. In fact, the differentiating factor between these different experiences of alcohol is not the person or the drink but the situation the person finds themselves in.
If you are relaxed and comfortable when you take your first drink it’s unlikely to have much of an impact other than to make you feel slightly dulled. However, if you are uncomfortable or nervous when you take it, it will make you feel much better because it will anesthetise that feeling of anxiety. Many people take their first drink as a teenager in a social function. Teenage years can be difficult, being out in a large group (with the opposite sex and/or people we find attractive) can be incredibly stressful. You can find yourself feeling unsure, anxious, and utterly out-and-out terrified. Take a drink and you immediately anaesthetise all those negative emotions and (surprise surprise) you feel amazing.
If you continue to drink regularly then certain changes start to take place. Your brain becomes increasingly good at countering the sedating effects of the alcohol. After all, your brain creates and releases a huge number of chemicals, drugs and hormones which all work with one another to create a delicate chemical balancing act called homeostasis. If you keep interrupting this balance, for example by regularly consuming a sedative, your brain will become adept at countering the effect of this. Homeostasis is a complicated process. How your brain does this is not fully understood, but it’s useful to think of a weighing scale. On the one side, you have stimulants which are things that wake us up and make us feel alert. On the other side, we have sedatives which are things that anesthetise us and knock us out. Lump something extra on the sedation side and your brain adds a corresponding amount to the stimulant side to counter it.
The problem is that the alcohol doesn’t remain in your system forever; it leaves. And when it does so, it leaves a corresponding feeling of anxiety. Think of the scales.
They’re balancing nicely. You load up the sedative side so the scales tip. Your brain loads up the stimulant side to correct the imbalance. Then the extra that was placed on the sedative side wears off, so there’s now too much on the stimulant side. Whatever sedating effect you get from a drink., there’s a corresponding stimulant effect when it wears off. That is why, as our brain becomes better and better at countering the effects of the alcohol, we can drink more and we find we sleep less. In this stage after drinking, we often spring up bright and early the next day (providing we don’t badly overdo it) feeling pretty good. When you speak to people who tell you they don’t get hangovers, that when they drink they’re up bright and early for a run or down the gym, they are at this stage.
As the brain’s ability to counter the alcohol continues to increase, so does our intake, and so does the overstimulation that kicks in as the alcohol wears off. As it gets more pronounced it morphs from early morning wake-ups, to waking up in the middle of the night, riddled with anxiety and heart racing, completely unable to sleep no matter how exhausted we are. That anxiety, elevated heart rate, anxiety and tiredness follows us around all day, like a millstone round our necks, and it remains until we take another drink. That next drink makes us feel a whole world better because it fills the alcohol gap left when the last dose of alcohol has worn off. Think of the scales again. They were balanced, we added to the depressant side, the brain added to the simulant side but then the alcohol wore off. The scales are now too heavily weighted on the stimulant side.
What’s the quickest way to get rid of this? Add some more to the depressant side of course. A lot of people live (or rather waste) their entire lives in this very unpleasant little existence. They feel awful although they may not even realise it because this hugely reduced quality of life is normal for them.
The only time they feel remotely good is when they take their daily drinks. Some people end up drinking all day every day, others manage to maintain some semblance of normality by only drinking in the evening, but the same basic dynamic applies. The reason this stage is ‘necessity’ is because you are in the overstimulation phase when you feel anxious, depressed, and exhausted. You have very little physical and mental resilience, the smallest things can overwhelm you. When you drink you correct that chemical imbalance and go back to your old self – confident, positive, capable. Things that looked overwhelming suddenly don’t look too bad.
Alcohol becomes the difference between enjoying life and suffering it. This is essentially why people find it so hard to give up; no matter what its downsides, life without it just seems unpleasant and unenjoyable. They have a very deeply held belief that life without alcohol just isn’t the same. This is also why understanding and education is the key to freedom for so many.