Mental Health

What’s Your Relationship with Alcohol?

Recently my family had a fantastic new experience – an all-inclusive trip to a resort in Mexico where a great time was had by all. Near the end of the trip, my 15-year-old son expressed his need to eat nothing but kale and carrots after overeating during the trip. For many people, vacations can encourage over-indulgence in both food and drink. Can you relate to this? I know I can.

After a period of overindulgence, it is not uncommon to reflect on what’s important to us and what balance may look like. Sometimes this involves exploring our relationship with a particular substance like alcohol.

Exploring the relationship

All relationships will influence us in one way or another. This includes our relationships with family and friends, activities such as work or hobbies, and our relationship with things like alcohol. As a counsellor, one of my favourite general questions includes:

How are you in this relationship? What parts of yourself are brought forward (e.g., qualities, skills, attributes)?

This is an important question in all relationship areas. Problems in relationships thrive with inattention. For many people, their relationship with alcohol can be long-standing, or even multigenerational. Taking stock of your relationship with something like alcohol includes reflecting on its benefits and challenges – Do you like what you see? Such an awareness leads to my next favourite question:
How do you want to be in this relationship?

All relationships can shift and change, including your relationship with alcohol. If you are rethinking this relationship, you have choice. Old school thinking when it comes to alcohol is that if it is causing problems, you embrace either abstinence or the status quo. However, abstinence is not always necessary.

Change can be challenging. One of the ingredients for change is having choice (e.g., more than the choice to quit or continue drinking). In imagining how you want to be in your relationship with alcohol, there is a range of possibilities. Some things to consider may include:

Increased safety:
What concerns or risks do you have? This is individually defined and may include anywhere from alcoholism running in the family or impacting relationships to potential DUIs.

How can I best reduce these risks and increase safety?

Better control:
Set limits on amounts, frequency, duration, or on your drinking habits.

See Moderate Drinking for helpful guidelines.

This is the ultimate change and creates numerous benefits. The thing is, it is not for everyone.

Examining the details of the relationship

Problem relationships with alcohol don’t normally happen all at once, but rather seep in over a period of time to the point that they become routine. Examining your relationship with alcohol and its potential consequences can be an eye-opening experience.

There are many great apps for smart phones to help track your alcohol consumption and provide information around calories consumed, expenses incurred and, based on your consumption patterns, how your drinking compares to others. Apps can also provide information around recommended daily/weekly units of consumption, encourage personal goal setting around consumption levels, as well as offer advice on achieving these goals. What do you notice in your relationship with alcohol?

Take a break

Dry January is a recent and growing campaign encouraging social drinkers to give up alcohol for the month of January. January is a great time to engage in such a challenge, but there is no need to prioritize this month in particular – any month and any amount of time can be helpful.

“Sobriety sampling” is a useful tool to examine one’s relationship with alcohol. While taking any break from alcohol, pay attention to the following:

  • What was this experience like (i.e., was it easier/harder than expected)?
  • What did you miss most during the break?
  • What things did you enjoy during its absence?
  • Did you notice any differences in yourself (e.g., energy level, sleep patterns, changes in mental/physical health, relationships, etc.)?
  • Any learnings from this experience that you want to carry forward?
Cautionary Note: With prolonged and heavy drinking patterns, the immediate stoppage of alcohol may have negative health consequences. Consult your doctor regarding this risk.

Make a change

Change is one of the only constants in life. It makes things interesting, and if you don’t like how you are in your relationship with drinking, small changes can lead to big results. Problems love routines – shaking up old patterns can provide new perspectives and lead to new and preferred routines.

Some areas of change you may want to consider:

  • The environment in which you drink (i.e., your physical environment or who you are with – some drink more in social circumstances, others drink more while alone).
  • The mindset prior to drinking (e.g., for fun, escape, social reasons, routine, etc.).
  • Your mood prior to drinking (i.e., some drink more to celebrate, deal with sadness, anger, etc.).
  • Try something new (e.g., join a sport, pick up a musical instrument, connect with an old friend).

Whatever you are doing, examine patterns you want to keep and those you want to loosen. When experimenting with change, give it time to establish itself.

Like all relationships, your relationship with alcohol will have both benefits and challenges. Being reflective and intentional in this relationship (as in all important relationships) is the key to good health.

If you have further questions and/or concerns while contemplating your relationship with alcohol, I would encourage you to consult someone you trust. This could be a friend, family member, or professional (your doctor or counsellor may be a good place to start).

If reading is more of your thing, I would recommend:
Over the Influence: The Harm Reduction Guide to Controlling Your Drug and Alcohol Use by Patt Denning and Jeannie Little

How to Change Your Drinking: A Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol by Kenneth Anderson
(or check out their website)

I wish you well in this relationship.

For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.


John Koop Harder

MSW, RSW – Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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