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How alcohol steals happiness from tomorrow

This blog explains how and why drinking alcohol feels good at the time, but leaves you with less capacity to experience joy and pleasure in the future.

There is absolutely no denying that drinking alcohol feels good in the moment. The dopamine, endorphins and other feel-good chemicals released by the brain in response to alcohol give us a delicious buzz. A buzz that all of us who’ve struggled with drinking absolutely love. These feel-good chemicals are what keep us reaching for drink after drink. We want to feel the buzz, then keep it going or even increase the intensity of it.

Drinking alcohol is a legal and socially acceptable way of getting high. It really is as simple as that.

But everyone knows that what goes up must come down, and the way the body and brain come down after drinking is by releasing stress hormones and stimulants like cortisol and norepinephrine. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant as well as a sedative, so stress hormones and stimulants are our body’s way of keeping us alert, awake and functioning despite the presence of alcohol in our system.

The issue is that the feel-good chemicals wear off much faster than the stress hormones and stimulants, which explains why you find yourself waking up at 3am feeling anxious and struggling to go back to sleep after a night of drinking. It’s also why you might feel tired, edgy, and irritable the next day.

So, that’s the pay-off: feel better now to feel worse later. Instant gratification in exchange for delayed dissatisfaction.

It is also important to understand how building a tolerance to alcohol reduces your capacity to experience pleasure and joy in a generalised way.

When you’re drinking alcohol regularly, your body adapts so that you can function more normally despite the presence of alcohol in your system. We’ve all seen that person who can knock back six drinks and doesn’t appear even slightly drunk. That’s tolerance in action.

What’s happening as you build tolerance to alcohol is that your brain is downregulating its dopamine receptors. This means that the number of dopamine receptors in your brain decreases, so you have less receptor sites in which to receive the alcohol-induced dopamine hit. The result being, you don’t feel as buzzed as you used to from the same amount as you did when all your dopamine receptors were intact.

The major problem with this dopamine receptor downregulation is that it doesn’t only apply to pleasure from alcohol. It also decreases your ability to feel pleasure from other things like eating a good meal, having a good conversation, making love to your partner, or being out in nature. These are all examples of activities that release dopamine in your brain, but with downregulated dopamine receptors they feel less pleasurable than they did when all your receptors were intact.

This is exactly why regular, heavy drinkers often feel numb, like all the colour has drained from their lives. They no longer experience much pleasure from ordinarily pleasurable things, a horrible state known as anhedonia. And because alcohol releases an unnaturally large amount of dopamine, drinking becomes the one thing that registers, giving them some semblance of pleasure.

This was certainly my experience. Just before I quit drinking in February 2019 I was on a trip of a lifetime, caravanning around Australia with my family. It was a dream come true and I expected it to be a magical experience. But the reality was far, far from my expectations. As I watched yet another gorgeous sunset, or stood at an exquisite viewpoint, I willed the joy and gratitude to flow through me. But all I felt was an empty numbness, a sadness even. A horrible emptiness that lasted until I felt the buzz from my nightly Sav Blanc. The next day the numbness returned, now coupled with anxiety, and the cycle of drink, regret, repeat, would start all over again.

The good news is that dopamine downregulation need not be permanent. By quitting, or even by cutting down your drinking to moderate levels, your receptors will start to replenish and restore. This is why people in sobriety often speak of finding joy in the little things again. They slowly but surely become un-numb, colour starts to return to their world, and they are able to appreciate and enjoy those small moments that went unnoticed when they were a regular, heavy drinker.

It sounds cheesy but I now genuinely appreciate the small things. A walk on the beach, hearing my kids giggling, a hug from someone I love. The small pleasures really add up to drastically improve the quality of my life on a daily basis.

So, if you’re feeling numb to life, changing your relationship with alcohol could be just the thing to drastically improve the quality of your life too.

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