Ask me anything: How do I manage negative emotions without alcohol?

Woman upset about drinking
Question: I’m upset, sad or down. My first instinct is to reach for a drink to ‘drown my sorrows’. How do I cope with negative emotions without turning to alcohol?

The fact that we have a phrase to describe how we drink to cope with sad feelings – drowning our sorrows – shows just how much credit we give alcohol in helping us through the tough times. But does it really?

Let’s explore this in the context of a child who comes home crying because she has been picked on at school.

Would you plonk her down on the couch with a bottle of funny tasting liquid? When she complains about the taste, explain that she will get used to it.

“But why?” she will ask when you give her the liquid (children always ask why!).

“It will help you drown your sorrows,” you explain.

The child becomes more morose throughout the night, starts slurring and is unsteady on her feet when walking to the bathroom, which she is doing more and more frequently as she drinks more of the liquid.

“Will this help me?” she asks, slightly confused.

“It will help you forget about it for awhile,” you reassure her. “Although, I’ll have to warn you that you’ll wake up with a tummy ache, a sore head and feeling awful tomorrow morning. Don’t worry, that’s a normal reaction to drinking this.”

“But I’ll feel better?” the child asks hopefully.

You consider the question for a second before answering honestly: “Actually, probably not. You’ll feel just as sad, maybe even more so, plus you’ll feel sick.”

“So what’s the point?” she asks.

You have no response.

What’s the point?

When we look at the difference in how we would treat a child who is feeling sad and our own response to being down or upset, we realise how ineffective drowning our sorrows with alcohol really is.

So what do we do instead?

Life throws curve balls. I know – I’ve been through a relationship breaking leaving me a single mother, been made redundant and have had losses in my life. I’ve also had the regular down days that come with being human.

When I realised that drinking to manage negative emotions was making things worse rather than better, I considered other ways to work through these feelings.

I decided to treat myself as I would a child in distress by being caring and compassionate towards myself.

My go-to list for managing life’s curve balls

I have a list of things that will help me when life is not going smoothly.

  • Getting in tune with my feelings, otherwise known as feel, deal and heal. I spent so long suppressing any negative feelings that I neglected to realise that they’re there for a reason. Now I talk it through with a friend, write about it or simply sit and notice how I’m feeling. Working through my feelings rather than suppressing them, is much more productive. Adele recently talked about how she now sits with her feelings instead of dowsing them in alcohol.
  • If you’re going through a major life upheaval – grief, separation, illness – reach out to those around you or, if your family and friends don’t understand what you’re going through, find online communities of others who are going through something similar. Knowing you are not alone is reassuring.
  • Sweat it out – I like to walk, run or swim. Not only does exercise release endorphins (the feel-good emotions), but it also relieves the physical tension that often builds up when you’re upset.
  • Treat myself – a long bath, a good book, a nice meal.
  • Laugh – the last thing you may feel like is having a chuckle but when I’m down I’ll watch a good stand-up comedy or sit com to lighten the load.

Your list may look different so I encourage you to figure out what helps when you’re facing tough times and make your own list.

It’s important to remember that life is made up of the highs and lows. None of us live a life of bliss.

It’s how we manage the bad times that is important and realising that drinking is going to add to your problems not solve them is a major ‘a-ha’ moment when re-evaluating your relationship with alcohol.

If you have a question please send it to me at rachael@inspiredtochange.com.au

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