Feeling your feelings when you’re used to numbing with alcohol
I will never forget how difficult it felt to sit with my feelings when I removed alcohol from my life for the first time in 2018. I felt raw and exposed, like all my skin had been removed. I was so out of practice when it came to sitting with emotional discomfort. I was so used to pouring a glass of wine to smooth the jagged edges of my shattered nerves, that I didn’t know how to handle my feelings without drinking.
Looking back now, I don’t think I had ever really learned to navigate difficult feelings before I started drinking. At least not in healthy ways. When I discovered alcohol as an awkward teen, I felt like I had hit the jackpot. A few drinks eased my imposter syndrome, turned down the volume on my inner mean-girl, and took away the dull sense of dread in my stomach. I didn’t have the words to articulate it back then, but alcohol was a quick fix for my anxiety, and the most reliable way to make me comfortable in my normally very uncomfortable (and far too pale!) skin.
I had this idea that ‘bad’ feelings were unacceptable. I bought into the myth that I ‘should be’ happy all the time, and if I wasn’t, I was doing something wrong. I was really interested in Mind Power and positive thinking in my late teens and twenties, so when I felt down or anxious or angry, I blamed myself for my sloppy thinking, and I wanted those negative feelings gone as fast as possible. I had no time for feeling sh*t, and absolutely no tolerance for it.
So, when I found myself depressed, anxious, and in a world of emotional pain after a traumatic birth experience, wine became my go-to. It helped me to feel better for those few fuzzy hours each evening. I thought it was helping so I reached for it, night, after night, after night. The emotional dependence snuck up on me, and before I knew it, I was struggling to take even just a few nights off. The other thing I didn’t realise until it was too late, was that it was actually making me feel worse overall, increasing my anxiety and deepening my depression. That ‘Wine Witch’ really is a horrible backstabbing woman!
It’s not about the alcohol
When I was struggling with my drinking, in my mind, alcohol was the problem. It made logical sense to me that if I stopped drinking, I would remove the problem, and everything would be good. But what quickly became apparent after I stopped drinking, was that alcohol wasn’t the problem at all. At least not the real problem. The real problem was that my mental health was a hot mess, and I didn’t have the tools to handle that. Yes, I was in therapy. Yes, I was exercising. But I wasn’t equipped to handle the depth of emotional pain I was in, and in a very natural and human fashion, I had been reaching for something outside of myself to soothe myself.
We all self-soothe with external things to varying degrees. Every single one of us. Some coping mechanisms are ‘healthy’, like exercise, and some aren’t. But even the healthy ones can be used excessively, turning them into unhealthy ways of coping.
When you start to realise that it’s not about the alcohol, that it’s far more about managing your feelings, you might start to see how you use (or have used) other things to cope with your feelings too. Many of us use food to cope. Some eat too much, the physical discomfort of their overfull stomach a welcome distraction from their emotional pain. Others mask their feelings by starving. Some women binge and purge to feel better, others over-exercise. Some work so hard, and busy themselves so much, that they literally don’t have a single moment of stillness to be with themselves and acknowledge their feelings. Some shop their feelings away. Others scroll, and scroll, and scroll. Alcohol is just one of the many ways in which we avoid, numb, escape and buffer ourselves from the discomfort of the human experience; from the discomfort of being ourselves and living our lives.
Why it’s important to escape less, and feel more:
1. Your feelings contain important insights for you
All our emotions tell us something about ourselves and our situation. If someone is rude to you and you feel angry, that anger contains the message that your boundaries have been crossed. That anger gives you the opportunity to recognise that you’re not okay with someone speaking to you like that and motivates you to take action to protect your boundaries in future.
If you’re in an unhappy marriage and you feel sad, that sadness is telling you that you want better for yourself and your relationship. That sadness motivates you to take action, to do everything you can to improve your marriage or alternatively, to leave.
If you ignore your feelings, you’re ignoring the messages they contain. And ignored feelings don’t go away. They simply get stronger and louder, until you pay attention. If you’re drinking to avoid your feelings, all you’re really doing is delaying having to deal with them.
Drinking does absolutely nothing to address the issues causing the feelings, and while drinking may provide a sense of temporary relief, it tends to add to your problems, especially if you’re self-medicating with alcohol.
2. Using alcohol to cope with feelings adds more suffering
Using alcohol to feel better has a boomerang effect on your mood because what goes up must come down. This is due to the impact of alcohol on your delicate brain chemistry and the stress hormones released to counter the feel-good chemicals that alcohol triggers in the brain. So, while you may feel better in the moment when you drink, you’re actually left feeling more down, more anxious, more irritable, or more hopeless than before you started drinking. The net effect of drinking to cope with your feelings is that it leaves you feeling worse, not better.
3. When you numb the bad you also numb the good
As Brené Brown says, you can’t selectively numb emotions. If you’re numbing out the bad, you’re also, unintentionally, numbing out the good. Heavy drinkers often experience anhedonia: the inability to feel pleasure in normally pleasurable activities. This is because of the down-regulation of dopamine receptors that happens when we flood our brain with unnaturally large dopamine surges night after night and our brain attempts to adapt. And this is why many heavy drinkers feel low, and often depressed. By numbing out their negative feelings with alcohol, they’ve accidentally stunted their ability to feel the good in their lives as well.
How to start processing and feeling your feelings
1. Label what you’re feeling
Often, when we’ve been using alcohol to mask our feelings for a long time, we’re not aware of the more nuanced feeling states. We know we feel ‘bad’ but we may not have the emotional vocabulary to describe the difficult emotion.
The Feelings Wheel is a great tool to use when you start this process. Simply being able to identify and name what you’re feeling creates an awareness and mindfulness of your feelings that’s often lacking when you’re used to escaping at the first hint of discomfort.
2. Check your thinking
Our feelings don’t just happen. Many people mistakenly believe that circumstances cause our feelings, but the truth is that circumstances are completely neutral until we ascribe meaning to them through our thoughts. For example:
Situation: You’re meeting a friend for dinner. It’s 20-minutes after the meeting time and she’s not there.
Thought 1: How rude! She doesn’t respect my time.
Feeling 1: Anger
Now, consider the same situation with a different thought.
Thought 2: Gosh, I hope she’s ok.
Feeling 2: Worry
Do you see how it’s not the situation causing the feelings? The situation isn’t good or bad, right or wrong, but our thinking makes it so. Our thoughts lead to our feelings. Circumstances and situations don’t.
The reason I raise this is because when you’re feeling a difficult emotion it’s helpful to check the thoughts in your head that are creating the feelings for you.
Sometimes, you’ll be able to consciously choose better-feeling thoughts and you won’t need to process a difficult emotion because you’ve moved through it quickly by changing your thinking.
But sometimes, thought-work isn’t enough.
3. Allow and observe
When you’re struggling with a difficult emotion and no amount of reframing or thinking about the situation differently is helping, it’s helpful to set a few minutes aside to lean in and feel into the emotion, to give it the attention it deserves and the opportunity to process through you.
Try this. Set a timer for two-minutes and give your full attention to the feeling. Breath deeply, using your awareness to scan your body for the physical sensations of the feeling. How is it manifesting in your body? Where do you feel it? And what does it feel like? Describe it to yourself in as much detail as possible. Breath into those parts of your body, just allowing the sensations to be there and observing them. If the feeling feels overwhelming, ask yourself: can I tolerate this? Why or why not? You are stronger than you know and can tolerate any feeling in your body.
This practice helps to teach you that your feelings won’t kill you. They are not to be feared. And when we strip them down to their bare bones (the physical sensations in our body), we can always tolerate them without escaping. We must bravely stay when we want to run. That’s where the magic happens.
I know it can be intimidating to start feeling your feelings when you’re used to relying on alcohol. But you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll build up emotional resilience once you prove to yourself that your feelings are not to be feared.
It is hard in the beginning, but feelings always pass. It takes practice and commitment, but once you’re in the habit of allowing and observing your feelings instead of numbing and escaping them, you become unstoppable. Because if there is no feeling that you’re unwilling to feel, there is literally no goal you will be too afraid to chase. Becoming adept at managing your emotions without external substances and distractions opens you up to a bigger, bolder, and ultimately more beautiful life.