September 30, 2014

My Addicted Brain

495_alcoholismIn recent years my daily drinking has caused me concern … increased health risks, trigger for migraines, occasional hangovers or slow morning afters. But despite these concerns I haven’t been able to stop.

Emory University (who recently ran a course The Addicted Brain via the www.coursera.org platform) defines addiction as a behaviour you are unable to stop despite distressing negative impacts. While the impacts I’m concerned about can be a little distressing at times, for the most part I do manage my addiction within acceptable social boundaries.

Not only that, many of my friends and colleagues exhibit similar behaviours, making it even more difficult to find the impetus to change. Isn’t my drinking pretty normal? I’m not an “alcoholic”. It’s not that bad … etc. etc.

After listening to an interesting podcast (interview with Jill Stark, a Sydney Morning Herald journalist, who wrote a book about her year of sobriety), I became aware of how we boast about our excessive drinking exploits, such as a particularly bad hangover. We talk about such experiences like they are a badge of honour, marks of a hero status. Interesting when you step back from it.

alcohol-brain

Fortunately, I don’t drink THIS much!!!!

Anyway, I decided to take a “harm reduction” approach. I didn’t want to stop drinking altogether. I just wanted to reduce the harmful affects and reduce other risk factors as I progress into my senior years. Critics of the harm reduction approach believe such an approach fails to address the underlying dependence. Alcohol free days for example, are really just all about waiting for the next time you have a drink.

While I found this to be true – there is always a risk of over-indulgence, the first day  drinking after a period of abstinence – I still felt it was better than doing nothing.

The problem with the addicted brain is that if you partake in regular consistent consumption of a drug (such as ethanol in alcohol) over a long period of time, your brain builds up resistance. This means you have to consume more to get the same effect. Alarmingly, I’ve found this to be true, with my 1-2 drinks gradually developing into 4-5 (eek!) over the last 2-3 decades.

So where am I now? Still very much on this journey. While I have had some success in alcohol free days and reducing my intake, I know that my brain has not yet come to terms with this reduced intake. I’m sure this topic will be returned to in the coming months/years as I try to find a way to take responsibility for my lifestyle choices and the impact they have on my health as I age.

Love to hear what you think.

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