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Wellness

What We Miss When We Stop Drinking

After a while, we stop drinking. A lot. And it feels good for a while, but then something is missing, because we’ve already become so accustomed to not drinking that we’re no longer drinking.

One reason I quit drinking is that a little bit of drinking would make me much more relaxed and less anxious. I know from experience — my drinking had gotten out of control. If I stopped drinking, I couldn’t help but notice I was less tense. I got bored. I got anxious.

Another reason is that I love the process of drinking and I believe it has a lot to do with how we process information in the brain and create the feeling of contentment that alcohol gives us. We create and process our drinking behavior in conscious and unconscious ways, all of which are linked. Our conscious processing involves learning: the rules of the game, the rules of the behavior, what’s expected, the reward.

When we stop drinking, our unconscious processing switches to unconscious processes, and the feeling of contentment is greatly diminished: that feeling of being at ease, relaxed, at peace with ourselves. Instead, the feeling of “what if there was another hour in this shitty day” returns, which is a much bigger problem to manage.

The final reason we stop drinking is because, eventually, even if we don’t see it — because it just goes and goes and goes and goes — we will run out of alcohol, or we will go crazy and lose control. There’s a huge dose of risk involved.

But one thing that does not go up in smoke, even when we’ve run out of alcohol, is our anxiety.

If alcohol has really made you anxious, what does this say about the way you see the world? What does this say about something else about your life? What does this suggest, in terms of how your brain may be working, about your feelings, your beliefs?

It looks like the answer to all of these questions is that you’re really scared of drinking. This, I suspect, may be part of the reason that we drink and, perhaps more fundamentally, that we continue to drink because we have these feelings of anxiety about drinking, which are really just projections of our fear of alcohol.

But then why do people feel that way? Isn’t that just the way that our brains work? Is not anxiety just the brain’s way of expressing its fear of the unknown? That if you drank, you’d end up like me, with a permanent hangover? Why would a brain express anxiety in such a specific way?

I suspect that there is a deeper source of anxiety behind our fear of drinking, because alcohol can be more rewarding than sugar. We can experience a kind of addiction to it.

We know this from the field of addictive behavior, where an animal — even though not addicted to the drug — is actually very good at getting addicted. It can learn to seek out the drug and use it much more frequently than it would do normally because it now believes it’s getting something that will trigger the same reward patterns in the brain, even if the drug is not actually delivering the reward itself.

We’ve known for decades that many animals, including us, have this type of addiction. We know it happens — we see it in the lab. The animals have much stronger cravings. The cravings get stronger and stronger.

When the animals stop drinking, the cravings don’t go away. They might even increase. They could even become more intense. The animals become more and more dependent on alcohol, and this could explain why rats in the laboratory show such high alcohol levels even when they’re not drinking.