Drinking plays an integral part in today’s society – we drink to celebrate, commiserate and to simply ‘have a good time’. But at what point does having a few drinks become a serious problem?
Sally* believes she is living a healthy lifestyle. She watches what she eats, and cycles three times a week. At the end of a 60-hour week, she usually has a few well-deserved drinks with her friends. She loves wine, doesn’t drink by herself, and finds it an easy way to switch off. She feels like a confident and relaxed person when she drinks.
Tom* likes to unwind on the weekend by having a couple of beers with his family and friends, and uses alcohol to relax and check out for a short time. He is never violent or abusive but his partner often complains about his drinking habits, which tends to irritate him a bit. It’s just his way of having fun and being social.
Friday night drinks, drinking before going out, drinking to take the edge off, drinking to unwind, relax, have fun … this is what we, as a society, do.
WHAT CONSTITUTES BINGE DRINKING?
According to a 2010 study conducted by researchers at Monash University, one in five Australians drink atshort-term risky levels at least once a month. This excessive level of alcohol consumption is also sometimes known as binge drinking.
As a result of its strong drinking culture, Australia ranks among the largest consumers of alcohol, with the World Health Organization reporting that the highest consumption levels are in the developed world – mostly in the Northern Hemisphere, but also in Argentina, Australia and New Zealand.
A NEGATIVE IMPACT Sally finds that she tends to feel quite low for a couple of days after a big night out. Tom too feels the effects the day after, often regretting the stupid things he got up to the night before. Both rely on alcohol to have fun. Monash researchers also surveyed family, friends and co-workers of people who drink heavily regularly and reported various negative effects, including a negative impact on relationships, productivity, as well as an increase in accidents and health consequences.
Recent studies by the National Health and Medical Research Council found that drinking more than two standard drinks per day increases a healthy adult’s risk of death from alcohol-related disease from 0.4 in 100 to over one in 100. The council also reported that drinking four standard drinks on a single occasion more than doubles the risk of an injury in the six hours afterwards.
Much has been written about the societal influences, including the contribution of lax alcohol laws, easy accessibility and extensive advertising on our attitudes and behaviour.
Undoubtedly these factors influence our drinking culture. But what other reasons are there for drinking this way?
WHY WE BINGE DRINK Enter the late Alan Marlatt, a researcher who has had a profound effect on how health professionals view drinking behaviour. In 1999 Marlatt and his colleagues suggested that if life is out of balance, people become more vulnerable. They may then reach for whatever seems to fill the gap. Let’s take a look at some of the elements his Relapse Prevention model suggests working on:
Lifestyle balance The pressure of work might leave people stressed out and needing to unwind. Identifying chronic stresses and building positive habits (e.g. exercise, massage, facial, calling a friend, walking on the beach). Then when the need to indulge hits, you will have alternatives to drinking that lift your mood.
Urges and cravings The technique known as ‘urge surfing’ can be useful in dealing with cravings. It involves using mindfulness meditation techniques to let an urge be – without fighting it or feeding it, until it eventually subsides and passes.
Breaking associations This involves recognising that there are certain things that have become associated with drinking, e.g. the corner of the cupboard where the alcohol is kept, or sinking into a favourite chair accompanied by a particular CD while ruminating on the hardships of the day. This may mean ridding your home of alcohol, or changing your routines (listen to different music, sitting in another chair, etc).
Good times without alcohol Drinking is often associated with other people and having a good time. Other ways of connecting socially may need to be explored.
Awareness of thought patterns Specific thoughts can lead to indulging, if you don’t know how to cope with them. These are grouped into three categories:
1 Anticipatory beliefs – where you have an expectation of having a drink as a reward. For example, thinking: ‘That party tonight will be great,’ while minimising/forgetting the negative effects of drinking.
2 Relief oriented – where drinking reduces an uncomfortable feeling. For example, ‘I can’t stand feeling stressed, a drink will take the edge off,’ without also recognising that there are other ways of relaxing.
3 Permissive – you give yourself permission to drink. For example, ‘I deserve this after working so hard.’ Working hard may need to be acknowledged but in what other ways could it be recognised?
One positive example of a change in attitudes and behaviour toward binge drinking can be found in Jill Stark’s piece, High Sobriety (The Age, April 2011). Providing much food for thought, it also points us to experiment with taking a break from our own drinking behaviours.