“Christmas cheer” places a lot of peer pressure on people to conform to an increase in alcohol consumption to dangerous levels and yet alcohol is one of the most harmful substances we use; it causes anxiety, produces stress responses, depression and can be damaging to your overall psychological health.
It is often misused to manage these symptoms, to help aid sleep and to manage work stress but at what cost?
In England, among people aged 15 to 49 years, alcohol is the leading cause of ill health, disability, and death. Alcohol misuse across the UK is a significant public health problem with major health, social and economic consequences, estimated at between £21 and £52 billion a year.
Each year there are over one million admissions to hospitals for alcohol-related conditions” (mostly problems in adult drinking), with most alcohol health harms emerging over time.
In 2020 alcohol-related deaths rose in the UK after dropping for successive years, twice as many men die from alcohol-related deaths than women. In the same year, alcohol deaths were twice that of other drug-related deaths. There’s no hiding from the fact that there is a direct correlation between the amount of alcohol drunk and the risk of injury, death, violence, rape, and suicide on every metric and scale used.
There is however no link between being sober and life becoming boring, in fact, the evidence points in directly the opposite direction to the conclusion that being sober is boring.
The overall picture is that the cohort of problematic drinkers is growing, and we will see the problems with alcohol abuse increase, these include a rise in:
- Relationship breakdowns
- Domestic abuse
- Health concerns
- Mental health issues
- Work problems
- Financial worries
Are you abusing alcohol consumption?
The single biggest thing anyone can do to reduce the harm to themselves and others from their drinking is to get real about the amount they are putting away. Study after study shows all drinkers cannot accurately estimate how much they drink and consistently underreport, which in itself is not strange as alcohol changes our perception of reality.
It’s a good idea if worried to record your drinking using a unit calculator or drinks tracker, the NHS have a very helpful app called Drinkaware. When you have accurate records of consumption then ensure you stay below the binge drinking levels when you drink and stay below the weekly recommendation.
Often the key to managing drinking is having better mental health hygiene and better mental health fitness. This is because problematic drinking most often starts off as an attempt to manage some form of psychological distress, something many have suffered at the hands of the pandemic.
Following good mental health practices involves a range of easy practices such as good sleep hygiene, going to bed and getting up at a reasonable time, cutting out late-nights stimulants to aid sleep, stopping drinking alcohol which interrupts sleep; eating healthily and hydrating, regular exercise, talking to people who care about you regularly and talking about how you are feeling, organising fun activities, learning to meditate especially using mindfulness, learning basic CBT tools such as challenging negative thoughts and spotting unhelpful thinking styles.
Tips on managing your alcohol consumption this Christmas
- Unit calculators advise us to drink under 14 units in any one week, don’t drink all ‘your’ units in one sitting (spread them out), and don’t drink regularly or habitually, doing this will only keep the risks low.
- Don’t drink regularly – the healthiest pattern of drinking is random and irregular.
- Don’t drink to manage anxiety, stress, depression or because you can’t sleep – seek professional help if this is happening
- If you wait till you have a problem with drinking, it’s too late – be proactive in your health with alcohol
- Take regular breaks from drinking – times when you don’t drink at all
- Don’t fall into the pressure of drinking to the same levels as other people during happy hours for example – always drink in moderation when you do drink
- Use alcohol-free alternatives to drink socially with others – there are a great deal of low-alcohol and zero-alcohol beers, wines and increasingly spirits available
What to do if you’re concerned about a loved one’s drinking?
If you are worried about your drinking or that of someone you love, don’t wait till you get help. Catching these sorts of problems in the early stage vastly increases positive outcomes. There are brief interventions for alcohol use problems that can very effectively stop the problem from growing into something unmanageable.
Do a rigorous risk assessment of how it might hurt you (and your kids) and make a decision to protect yourself (and your family). Be realistic about the damage to yourself of this and make a rational balanced decision if you can reduce the harm to yourself and how (be open to all options that involve your health and well-being and that of any children involved). The problem is with the dependent drinker, and they need to get help to stop.
‘Xmas’ sees a significant rise in violence, suicide and stress from unrealistic expectations and financial pressures and a lot of this can be accounted for by the increase in alcohol consumption. The best present you are going to give yourself for Christmas is going sober.
Noel McDermott is a psychotherapist with over 25 years of experience in health, social care, and education. He has created mental health services in the independent sector.