I don’t know when I started drinking every day. But as I entered my mid-30s, I realized alcohol had moved from a weekend visitor to a roommate before I even noticed the shift. I’m not an alcoholic, but it was hard when I decided to quit drinking. Acknowledging I’d gone from wanting a drink to needing one to unwind was eye-opening.
I’m a writer and a woman, so wine is around a lot. Trying to go 48 hours without booze was alarmingly difficult. Not only did abstaining really disappoint most of my friends; nothing helped unclench my anxiety-filled shoulders quite like a vodka on the rocks.
“It has become the modern woman’s steroid,” said Ann Dowsett-Johnston, author of “Drink: The Intimate Relationship with Women and Alcohol.” “Something to help her do the heavy lifting in an over-stressed, unresolved culture.”
If you’re a regular drinker, starting the New Year sober is usually harder than just setting a resolution. Thank your brain for that. If you want to cut back, or give up drinking for good, cultivating mindfulness might be the key to quitting. It has been for me.
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“Our brains are not set up to think into the future very much,” said Judson Brewer, director of research at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “So it’s really challenging until we really pay attention to the immediate behavior to be able to step out of it.”
If you feel bad and do something to feel better — like reach for a drink or check your Facebook feed — your brain learns to repeat this process. Forming a habit, whether healthy or not, can happen in a matter of weeks, said Brewer, a psychiatrist who uses mindfulness to treat addiction. Focusing more on the present moment can help break the cycle.
Practicing just 11 minutes of mindfulness — like paying attention to your breath — helped heavy drinkers cut back, according to a study out of University College London. Brewer showed that using awareness techniques were more effective than the gold-standard behavioral treatment at getting people to quit smoking.
Paying close attention to my alcohol cravings was like taking the red pill in “The Matrix.” I could see my actions from the outside, which made my nightly habit far easier to stop. I noticed even seeing my favorite cocktail glass or reading a book — something I often did with a glass of wine — triggered my brain into wanting a drink.
Anxiety and boredom were other prompts. When I stopped mindlessly pairing stress-relief with Shiraz, the less I felt the urge to use alcohol. I also felt more present in the evenings, stopped waking up in the middle of the night and no longer noticed morning mood swings.
I had actually turned to mindfulness a few years ago as a long-term treatment for depression. I was on medication to deal with some depressive spells that would sap my motivation and make me feel like I was lugging around an unwelcome, heavy blanket. While on the meds, I gained 20 pounds.
I told a friend I wanted to get off the medication, and he suggested I try meditation. I’d tried the practice before, but it never took. I’m a worrier, I ruminate, and sitting alone with my thoughts hadn’t helped in the past.
I began my journey with the Headspace app. The program eases users into the practice with 10-minute sessions guided by Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk with a soothing British accent.
When I first started, it was painful. I couldn’t sit for three minutes without becoming restless and uncomfortable in my skin. It felt like my brain was yelling at me, but Andy’s encouraging voice got me to stick with it. Although I didn’t really know what I was doing, I was hooked after a week. Six months later, I was anti-depressant free.
As I got into mindfulness, I noticed more things about myself, specifically that I was using booze as a crutch. It was my signal to wind down at the end of the day, and if I was going to an event, I’d get nervous if wine wasn’t available. My father battled addiction, a condition I didn’t want to inherit. I figured that mindfulness had worked for me with depression, so I gave it a go.
It turns out that spending months or years on focused meditation isn’t the only way to interrupt negative thought loops that can lead to mood disorders and bad habits like drinking. Brewer’s Unwinding Anxiety app offers a different approach. Users start out with short, informal practices that encourage “curiosity” toward the brain and body.
I thought exercises like breathing into my anxiety and holding it in awareness seemed too simple. But three days into the 30-day Unwinding Anxiety app program, I felt my worries dissipate in a way I’d never experienced before. Brewer’s methods taught me to focus inward on my unease instead of seeking external rewards that aren’t always available.
Some may roll their eyes at mindfulness, but brain scans show that experienced meditators have stronger control over their posterior cingulate cortex — the part of the brain activated by stress and cravings.
Brewer’s work shows that mindfulness strategies like practicing loving-kindness can actually quiet this area of the brain.
Learning a new behavior — including becoming mindful — can feel like a lot of work, explained Brewer in an Unwinding Anxiety session. But he urges users to keep going.
When you practice sitting in curious awareness, without forcing it, mindfulness becomes easier and easier. You become an observer, rather than a participant in the damaging thoughts that run through your head. As you become more aware, you are less prone to engage in mindless harmful behaviors, like drinking, and more apt to act with intention and self-love and acceptance.
I don’t know if I’ll ever drink again — only time will tell — but for now my mindfulness practice has liberated me from the habit. I have the tools to simply sit with myself, moment to moment, without having to seek a way out.