New York City, NY

"I Don’t Have A Drinking Problem. Other People Have A Problem With Drinking." Nervous System Expert Masha Kay Weighs In

Bridget Mulroy
"I don’t have a drinking problem. Other people have a problem with drinking." Nervous system expert Masha Kay weighs in,Photo by(@PonyWang/iStock)

Let’s think about something scary, taboo, and controversial – at the very least. Alcohol – it’s a blessing and a curse. Under normal circumstances, it’s seen as fun, carefree, and liberating. But what happens when those feelings go away?

Culturally, alcohol is a part of food, celebrations, and society. Under those provisions, alcohol is a seemingly innocent device. Out of those provisions… not so much.

Alcohol is a curse when people find themselves struggling with it after the feelings of joy and carelessness disappear, and responsibilities come back into focus – especially in a world following a global health crisis.

In 2020, liquor stores were considered “essential” businesses when the rest of the world shut down. Why? Liquor stores remained open to prevent alcohol-dependent individuals from withdrawing and winding up at the hospitals when hospitals were maxed out. At that time, fewer people were alcohol-dependent then than they are now. The definition of “essential” was left to be interpreted during a crazy time by people who had nowhere else to go. Alcohol use soared during the health crisis, and today, the number of people who now have a complex relationship with alcohol reflects that.

We know today that the human body is capable of “fixing itself” when a person refrains from drinking. Negative side effects associated with regularly consuming large amounts of alcohol will subside when alcohol is less present in a person’s system.

We also know about the very serious consequences of drinking and operating a vehicle. In New Jersey, you can still be charged with a DWI, and you don’t even have to be driving.

Despite mounting evidence about the dangers of drinking, the information isn’t enough to make everyone realize the potential for a problem.

Masha Kay is a certified breathwork coach who has helped countless New Yorkers – and people beyond the city – better themselves through their nervous systems. When thinking about alcohol and its impact on a person’s nervous system, it only made sense to interview Masha Kay about the ways of navigating a potential problem with alcohol.

Read on if you or someone you know is struggling with alcohol. There is hope.

How do you feel about the statement: “I don’t have a drinking problem, other people have a problem with drinking”? (Like, reluctance to acknowledge drinking as a ‘problem’ and putting pressure on other people’s issues with the substance/it being consumed - not implying everyone else is an alcoholic.)

“I think that this person may not fully understand what a drinking problem can look like. It is not just alcoholism. This is probably someone afraid to look at themselves honestly. Which I completely understand because it is very scary. Looking at your relationship with alcohol will often open the door to looking at much deeper issues and emotions. The truth is that when someone has an issue with alcohol, alcohol is the solution, not the problem. Alcohol is how they are coping with something too hard to look at or deal with.”

How common is it in your line of work to encounter people battling the stigma of alcohol?

“The topic of alcohol comes up with at least 50-60% of my clients. However, it rarely comes up at the beginning of our work. People often come to me for help with anxiety, stress, overwhelm, burnout, or just feeling stuck in life. As they start to learn about their nervous system and get to know themselves on a deeper level they become more self-aware and more honest with themselves. It is at this point that they often come to me with the realization that alcohol may be standing in the way of them feeling, acting, and thinking in a way that's aligned with whom they want to be. They start to see how much of a barrier drinking can be to building healthy habits, managing anxiety, dealing with gut issues, feeling motivated and productive, the list goes on and on. They realize that it is slowing down their progress and getting in the way. This is where it becomes tough for them. Not only is it hard to stop drinking since it’s such a big part of life, but there is a stigma in our culture around not drinking.”

Without chalking drinking up to alcoholism, since there are many nuances to socially acceptable drinking (culturally, socially, with food, to go out, etc.,) what are some of the most common scenarios you’ve heard/dealt with (what is a common threshold) people tacking their alcohol consumption/identifying it as an issue?

“I think the three biggest signs of drinking starting to become an issue is it being used as a coping strategy, you being dependent on it for a specific need and it getting in the way of your goals. The thing is that this sounds innocent hence why it is so hard for most people to see it as a problem. An example of it being used as a coping strategy is someone drinking to relax after work, to deal with a tough day, or cope with getting some bad news. When you do this consistently you lose the ability to cope with stress and emotions without a substance which is the fastback to more stress, overwhelm, anxiety, and mental health struggles. An example of being dependent on alcohol for a specific need is needing to drink to be able to socialize or to have fun. This is a slippery slope because it prevents you from finding other ways to meet this need which creates dependency. This dependency is where addiction starts. It starts to control our decision-making and limits us from seeing other options and opportunities. An example of drinking getting in the way of your goals is if you are trying to eat healthily and wake up early every day to exercise but find that because you’re hungover and recovering you can’t do that until Wednesday, only to start drinking Thursday night and restarting the nasty cycle. So drinking is hurting your goals but you continue to do it anyway - that is a huge problem in my book.”

Is it mind over matter? Can people discipline themselves away from the dangers of drinking?

“Yes but not in the way most people think. Willpower is not enough. Trying to force yourself to drink less or “control” your drinking rarely works for long. To change a problematic behavior we need to understand the role this behavior is serving. We need self-awareness and an understanding of our nervous systems. Even “bad” habits are there for a good reason - they are meeting a need. Until you can understand this reason and find a way to address that need in a healthier way you will not be able to create sustainable, long-lasting change in any area of your life.”

By society’s standards, what do you think the “ideal drinker” does to hold that title? (Men v women)

“I think as a society we have a very strange relationship with alcohol. We do not want to acknowledge the fact that alcohol is a toxic and addictive substance but we also judge and shame people who are addicted to it. We expect people to be able to drink all the time but not get too drunk or out of control. We shame people who drink too much but we also shame people who do not drink. I think society considers someone an ideal drinker if they can drink without losing control but the reality is that we do lose control when we drink. Not just in the moment but also long term when we become dependent on it for fun, connection, and stress relief.”

Do you find more men or more women encountering these struggles?

“I have not seen a big difference between men and women.”

What do you recommend for anyone slipping down the hill?

“I recommend you pause and re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol. Get curious about why you are drinking and what it is doing for you. What need of yours is it meeting? What makes the idea of not drinking so scary? How is drinking impacting your day-to-day life, goals, and relationships? Get ready to be very honest with yourself but resist the urge to judge or shame yourself. That will only get in the way. Be sure to do this before trying to change anything. Any change that comes before analysis and self-reflection will not stick long. If you find yourself resisting the idea of even looking at this area of your life that is a good sign that there is something to be looked at there. Use that as a cue to get support. Not someone who will force you to change your behavior, but someone who can help you understand yourself so you can then start to make gradual changes in alignment with your goals.”

Why are mocktails such a great cheating tactic (abstinence hack)? (I think of it like nicotine patches for people trying to quit smoking cigs, I see it as a brilliant maneuver)

“Mocktails are a great option because we don’t just drink to get drunk - we do it to feel included, to have a delicious drink in our hand as we socialize, and to not be constantly asked, “why are you not drinking?!”. Drinking is also habitual. We often pour or order the next drink without even thinking. We are not doing it because we want another drink but because we are used to having a drink in our hands. If you can catch yourself reaching for another drink out of habit, choosing a mocktail instead is a great way to gradually decrease how much you’re drinking.”

Resources for anyone struggling with alcohol:

Masha Kay’s services:

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