It’s true that alcohol initially seems to bring a calm state to our otherwise chaotic world, both inside ourselves and outside. If it didn’t bring a sense of calm, few people would want to drink it. However, we are kidding ourselves to think that alcohol can continue to make us calm because it absolutely won’t.
As a former nurse and recovering alcoholic, I have a unique understanding of what it means to want that drink, but I also know what the drink does to our bodies, minds, and souls. Not only did I live this reality personally, but as a nurse, I also know the physiology behind how alcohol affects our physical and mental health.
I started drinking in my teens, as many young people do. But also, alcohol was a staple in my family. All of our celebrations and gatherings revolved around alcohol, so it made sense that I would eventually pick up the habit.
When I was young, my family was also more youthful too, so the effects of alcohol wouldn’t start catching up with them until they began to age a little. But once they did get older, it became apparent how alcohol was slowly destroying their lives. And eventually, alcohol began to destroy mine as well; such is the legacy of an alcoholic family.
The main reason we drank in my family was for the supposed relief and relaxation it would bring. And it’s true that alcohol initially brings a sense of calm to our nervous system. It does so by changing the neurotransmitters in our bodies and dulling them. What we think of as a calm state is really the toxic effects of alcohol suppressing our nervous systems.
The general public may not understand that this initial effect doesn’t last forever, especially if we continue to drink past the safe limits. This is even more true if we repeatedly drink past the safe limits. To reiterate, the safe drinking guidelines stipulate no more than one drink per day for a woman and two drinks per day for a man.
As we know, we can’t live without a functioning and balanced nervous system. As we increase our frequent alcohol intake, our nervous system has to compensate for the toxic effects to protect itself. Unfortunately, this compensation leads to ever-increasing amounts of alcohol to get that calm state we are chasing. And then, this increasing amount leads to further toxicity causing even more compensation from the nervous system. The neurotransmitters have to change their structure and functioning in a way that decreases our capacity to achieve calmness. The end result is a nervous system primed for hyper-excitation, which is the opposite of a calm state.
Once the nervous system is bent out of shape like this, it becomes hazardous to actually stop drinking. Thus, people need to drink daily and in higher amounts to feel normal.
And this is what the general public doesn’t understand about the supposed “calming effects” of alcohol. Once we start drinking more frequently and in higher doses, we no longer chase the calm feeling; instead, we only drink to feel normal again. And many people mistake that normalization for becoming calm.
However, I don’t have to tell anyone what happens when we stop drinking. Anyone who has ever imbibed too much on a Friday night knows the hell they face the following day. The “hangover” is just a word to describe the slingshot effect of neurotransmitters bouncing back into place after the alcohol has left the bloodstream. And it is not pretty.
Symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, tremors, panic, and anxiety are well known to anyone who’s had a little too much alcohol the night before.
We’ve also heard about people who say they don’t get hangovers because they are a “seasoned drinker” or pride themselves on “holding their liquor.” This is a hallmark of alcoholism, and it signifies a person who drinks very frequently to ensure their nervous systems remain on an even keel. Rest assured, if those people ever stopped drinking altogether, even for a few days, they’d be in a lot of trouble. And in fact, stopping drinking suddenly when you drink frequently can be life-threatening. Again, this is the opposite of calm.
In my case, I used to binge drink for a few days and then “take a break.” Sometimes I would have to have one or two drinks and ease my way down to take a break from drinking in a safe way. This pattern would most certainly put me into withdrawals for which I needed to take lorazepam or other medications to manage.
However, according to research, I didn’t know that frequent bouts of withdrawal can actually make future withdrawals more dangerous. Heavy episodic drinking usually entails more than four drinks on one occasion for a woman and more than five drinks for a man. Anytime we drink this amount, rest assured, our nervous system is responding in unhealthy ways, even if we are not entirely aware of it. It causes even more damage to our brain and nervous system to carry a pattern of drinking heavily and then stopping for a few days.
Over time, this pattern of drinking can erode our nervous system, gut, brain, organs, and mental health. This erosion is anything but calming as it can create severe disability, affecting our ability to live our lives the way we would like.
Many heavy drinkers have mysterious illnesses that doctors are often confused about. This is because heavy drinkers usually don’t tell the truth about their alcohol intake, which throws doctors off the trail of solving these mysterious illnesses. Nonetheless, dealing with illness is very stressful for people and does the opposite of calming us down.
Lastly, the toll that heavy drinking takes on our mental health is something we don’t talk about enough. Mental illness in and of itself causes serious emotional upheaval and leaves us unable to experience any calm feeling at all. Not only that, alcohol can decrease the effect of mental health medications which leaves these conditions untreated. Unfortunately, 37% of alcohol users have at least one serious mental illness, and thus the two often go together. Research shows people who drink a lot of alcohol are more likely to develop mental health problems. It’s also true that people with severe mental illness are more likely to have alcohol problems.
What we perceive as a calm feeling we get from drinking is about keeping our nervous system upright to feel somewhat normal. So the calm feeling is not a calm feeling at all; instead, it’s us maintaining a nervous system that is bent out of shape. So while alcohol may initially give us a sense of calm, this is a short-lived experience and is only the result of alcohol’s toxic effect on the nervous system.
The more people understand this about heavy alcohol use, the more they can make informed choices about their drinking. Perhaps knowing what’s actually happening in our physical body can demystify the role that alcohol plays in our society.
Make no mistake; alcohol does anything but calm us down.