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Mindfulness & Alcohol

Alcohol often produces a short-term lift in mood and for some people it can induce short-lived spells of euphoria. In the long run however, excessive alcohol use in response to difficult emotions or problems produces a range of health problems including depression.

Mindfulness practice is a set of techniques designed to cultivate a non-judgmental attitude toward ones emotional life. This attitude is characterised by such qualities as acceptance, interest, curiosity and openness, each of these being brought to bear upon an experience as it unfolds in the present moment.

The aim is to learn to regulate emotions such as grief, anger, sadness, depression, anxiety, frustration and boredom, as well as impulses and cravings, without the use of alcohol. Substance abuse can be understood as a failure of emotional regulation. The regulation of emotions is achieved through the cultivation of a non-judgmental attitude towards thoughts, feelings and sensations as they occur.

The central role of thoughts in the determination of emotions is recognised, particularly the tendency to catastrophise in the face of a negative event or emotion (e.g. I can’t handle this anxiety. It will be obvious to others. They will think there is something seriously wrong with me).

The idea is to become the observer. We can distinguish between the experiencing self; the thinking (evaluative or judgmental) self and the observing self. More often than not, we are unable to stop unpleasant emotions. Equally, in the face of such emotions, we often find ourselves automatically judging those emotions and their implications, as in the example above.

Mindfulness allows us to engage more fully with the observing self such that we can view thoughts as dynamic, transient mental events, not necessarily grounded in fact or reality.

Within this observing mode of relating to experience, thoughts do not have to be interpreted as literal imperatives to urgent action (e.g. I need a drink to feel better) but can instead be regarded as temporary, passing mental phenomena that do not require a response.

In other words, thoughts, feelings, sensations, impulses or cravings can be present without our having to react to them. Instead, we can let go of compulsive thought patterns and discover alternatives to mindless, compulsive or impulsive behaviour. The observer mode facilitates this perspective and in this way mindfulness practice can allow greater control over harmful drinking.

It is important to practice how to tolerate difficult emotions as well as uncontrollable urges until these subside, instead of dealing with them by recourse to alcohol. Tolerance, acceptance and conscious observation of triggers to excessive alcohol use can promote greater self-control and greater self-esteem. In this way, the mechanisms at the core of the problem are effectively addressed.

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