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Dublin: 13 °C Tuesday 11 August, 2020
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'There is no certain amount that is too much alcohol - it's what it does to the person'

Christmas is a particularly difficult time for people who have a negative relationship with alcohol.

File photo
File photo
Image: Shutterstock/Iryna Mishyna

CHRISTMAS IS A time of over-indulgence for many people in terms of food and drink.

It can be a particularly difficult time for people who have a negative relationship with alcohol and are trying to cut back, stop drinking altogether or stay on the wagon.

For people who do end up drinking to excess – even if they don’t normally have an issue with alcohol – it can have a negative impact on their physical and mental health.

For those who have a dependency on alcohol, the side-effects can last a lot longer and often lead to them seeking solace in more alcohol.

“There is no certain amount or measurement that is too much, it’s not the quantity, it’s what it does to the person,” Patrick, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), explains.

He said when people have a dependency on or addiction to alcohol, once they start drinking an “absolute spiral” can “kick off very quickly”.

“No matter how long a person is away from drink – they could be off it for years – that cycle then catches up with them,” Patrick told TheJournal.ie.

He said people who are on the wagon but find themselves tempted to start drinking, or those who have already started to drink, can and should seek help.

“Contact somebody, go to a meeting. I do realise it can be quite frightening to contact somebody, to go out and get help … but don’t suffer alone.”

Patrick said many people struggle to admit they have a problem with alcohol, noting: “There’s a drinking culture in Ireland, it can be difficult to admit ‘I’m not able to handle drinking’.

It is an illness that will try to convince us that we don’t have it. Many people think, ‘Alcoholism is for somebody else, I just drank a little bit too much’.

Patrick said long-term drinking can have a serious impact on a person’s mental health and the decisions they make, often leading to regret.

“It diminishes their ability to make rational or sensible decisions. It’s not just that people will spend all their money on alcohol, when we’re under the influence we make stupid decisions, we tend to make unwise decisions,” he noted.

Rose-tinted glasses 

Patrick said if a person is feeling down the morning after the night before they should “strike while the iron is hot, contact someone straight away before the rose-tinted glasses get put on and you say ‘Ah it wasn’t that bad’.” 

AA pairs members up with a sponsor, someone they often talk to on a daily basis. New members can arrange to meet other members in person and/or speak to them over the phone.

Patrick said people should never feel as though they can’t contact their sponsor, saying there is no such thing as letting them down.

There will be no condemnation or judgement, just call or come back (to meetings) when you can.

“Normally a sponsor would look to contact a person if they haven’t heard from them. If somebody refuses to engage, we don’t push it, it’s very much up to the person seeking help,” Patrick said.

He added that if a person is going to an AA meeting, “they are coming to a place of safety”, noting: “They might be shaking from drinking yesterday or have had a drink today, there’s absolutely no judgement whatsoever, all they need to do is say they want to stop drinking.”

Sponsors are there to listen and give “down-to-earth advice” on how to avoid or respond to a particular situation, he noted. Patrick said if a person finds themselves in a pub or a stressful situation which could lead to them drinking, they should call their sponsor or someone else who can help as soon as possible, “before it gets out of hand”.

“We ask them to just try to live in this moment, if you will. Instead of saying, ‘I won’t drink today’, say ‘I’m not going to drink right now’. It’s possibly a form of mindfulness, it’s very much about trying to live in the moment, take it as it comes,” Patrick said.

For people who haven’t stopped drinking and have to attend a party or social situation where there will be alcohol, he advises them to pace themselves and not start drinking too early.

“If you’re going to a party, instead of drinking at home beforehand, leave it until later on,” he said, adding that if a person is presented with “a difficult family situation, my advice is to walk away, avoid confrontation”.

AA meetings regularly take place all over the country and many areas will host a meeting on Christmas Day.

Coping mechanism

The 2019 Drinkaware Index found that 64% of 18-25-year-olds drink alcohol as a coping mechanism. A similar number (58%) of the 25-34 age group also reported coping as a reason for alcohol consumption.

Across all ages, half of people said coping was one of their motivations for drinking. The report found that men (56%) were more likely to cite ‘coping’ as a reason for drinking alcohol than women (46%).

Coping reasons cited included ‘to cheer you up when in a bad mood or feeling stressed’; ‘to forget about your problems’ and ‘because it helps when feeling depressed or anxious’.

reasons Source: Drinkaware

“Young adults in Ireland who drink are far more likely to use alcohol as a way to cope with how they are feeling and conform to their peers than other age groups,” Sheena Horgan, CEO of Drinkaware CEO, said.

She noted that Christmas can be “a stressful time of year with much more to do than usual”.

“If you are experiencing feelings of anxiety, Christmas, and all the expectations that come with it, can add to the pressure,” she said. 

However, alcohol won’t make you feel better. Alcohol is a depressant and can contribute to the development of mental health problems including depression and anxiety, as well as making existing problems worse.

The research also found that just 2% of adults can correctly identify the HSE’s weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines, which are as follows:

  • 11 standard drinks (110g pure alcohol) spread out over the week for women, with at least two alcohol-free days
  • 17 standard drinks (170g pure alcohol) spread out over the week for men, with at least two alcohol-free days

“Without this information, it’s almost impossible to know how much you’re really drinking, if you’re at risk and if it’s time to make small positive changes to protect your health and wellbeing,” Horgan said.

She added that one in five Irish adults binge drink on a ‘typical’ drinking occasion.

“The problem is that in Ireland we are almost anaesthetised to the term. We often see this behaviour as being associated with someone else not ourselves, or we see it as ‘we all do it’.”

Half of people questioned for the index said that drinking to excess is not a big deal and 74% said it’s just part of our culture.

Drinkaware has the following advice for people to look after their mental health this Christmas:

  • Make time for family and friends: Make sure to pick an environment that is appropriate for everyone in your group and remember that not everyone will want to drink alcohol.
  • Keep active and rest well: Alcohol, even just a few drinks, can affect how well you sleep which can lead to having less energy the following day. Simple actions like going for a walk can make a positive difference to how you feel. 
  • Drink less or no alcohol: While alcohol may temporarily appear to ease feelings of stress or depression, over time the opposite effect may occur. With more social occasions providing more opportunities to drink alcohol, be mindful of how much you are drinking and always have no-alcohol options stocked up at home.

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Alcohol and regret

Alcohol and regret is one of the topics being covered by the Global Drug Survey 2020, an international survey that examines people’s use of alcohol and other drugs.

Professor Adam R Winstock, consultant psychiatrist and CEO of the Global Drug Survey (GDS), told TheJournal.ie, that going from being “happily drunk” to too drunk is a “fine line” that for many people could mean two to three pints or half a bottle of wine.

He added that there are enough “warning signs” about alcohol for people to know to cut down on how much they drink. 

Last year the GDS asked people how often they got drunk. English-speaking countries came out on top, reporting getting drunk an average of 50 times per year. While most of the occasions on which participants reported getting drunk were reported as being enjoyable, on about 20% of occasions the consequence was one of regret.

Winstock said the survey found that people who drink more regularly or heavily experience regret more often than lighter drinkers, rather than being able to handle their drink better. “The more problematic the drinker, the more regret,” he noted. 

About 1,800 people from Ireland have taken part in the survey to date. People interested in completing the alcohol and regret section of the survey, or other sections which are relevant to them, can find more information here (the deadline is 30 December). 

More information about AA and its support services can be read here.

Results from the GDS will be published on TheJournal.ie, GDS’s Irish media partner, in the new year. 

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Órla Ryan

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