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Minding your mind by drinking less this Christmas

All over the festive season, TheJournal.ie is bringing you tried and tested ways to keep your mental health in fine fettle.

IT’S CHRISTMAS TIME and there is no shortage of parties and celebrations. How many drinks have you had this Christmas?

Most people like to drink alcohol from time to time, even if it’s just the annual glass of sherry at Christmas or champagne on New Year’s Eve. Alcohol can make you feel relaxed and even a little more sociable.

But how did you feel the last time you drank too much? Think about that.

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While we all know that when we drink in moderation alcohol can be fine, what many people don’t realise is that the line between social drinking and what’s considered alcohol abuse or misuse is actually very thin. And when the signs of alcohol misuse are ignored, the repercussions can be devastating and even fatal.

The damage alcohol can do to your physical wellbeing is widely known but what many people undermine is the lasting effect that alcohol can have on your mental health.

Did you know?

  • There are 88 alcohol related deaths in Ireland every month. That’s over 1,000 people in 2014 already. 
  • One in four deaths of young men (15-39) is due to alcohol.
  • One in three road-crash deaths are related to alcohol. 
  • There are 1,200 cases of cancer in Ireland that are associated with alcohol every year. 
  • And one in eleven children say that their parents drinking habits have a negative effect on their lives. That’s nearly 110,000 children. 
  • Over 150,000 people in Ireland are dependent drinkers.
  • More than one million people regard themselves as harmful drinkers.
  • As a nation we underestimate how much we drink by 60%.
  • And 72% of us claim to know someone we think drinks too much.

(Figures: Irish Alcohol Diaries 2013 report and National Registry of Deliberate Self Harm Ireland)

Alcohol and our mental health – when does it become an issue?

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People will often reach for a drink when they need cheering up or just want to unwind and there is nothing wrong with that. Alcohol becomes an issue when that drink you have in your hand is really masking your feelings.

Whether you feel under pressure from work, stressed about money and bills or you suffer from anxiety or depression, alcohol should not be the solution or a distraction.

While alcohol has a temporarily positive impact on our moods, in the long run it can have a major effect on our mental wellbeing. Alcohol is linked to a wide range of mental health issues like depression, the developmnent of dementia and suicide.

TheJournal.ie spoke to Dr Hester O’Connor, a clinical psychologist with the HSE, about the effects that alcohol has on our mental health.

 Alcohol is a depressant. And if someone is already feeling low then drinking alcohol will only make it worse – it’s a vicious cycle.

Our brains are balanced by chemicals and processes which alcohol, as a depressant, will disrupt. This disruption can affect our thoughts and actions as much as it affects our feelings. That relaxed feeling you get after one drink is because the alcohol has triggered a chemical change in your brain. But when you continue to drink more and more this effect becomes much stronger and can go either way.

Have you ever noticed that when some people drink they will do or say something they are ashamed of later and would never have done sober? This is why.

People become disinhibited with alcohol.

And then sometimes it feels like the only way to get over the embarrassment is to drink more and continue the cyclical nature of alcohol abuse.

For people dealing with anxiety or depression, alcohol can be very damaging. When you look at the level of suicides in Ireland that show alcohol use as a contributory factor, it is worrying.

In 2013 over 11,000 people were treated in hospitals around the country due to self-harm and alcohol was a factor in over one third of all cases. That’s close to 4,000 people who self-harmed and had alcohol in their system.

The number of self-harm presentations at hospitals all over Ireland typically increases during holiday periods.

Dr O’Connor spoke of how Christmas can be terribly difficult for people.

There is an internal pressure in society about how Christmas should be for everyone. There is a big difference between the images and portrayals of Christmas on TV than the realities.  And people can feel isolated or under pressure about the way they should be spending their Christmas.

Expert tips – how to cut back or avoid alcohol and mind your mental health

  • Know that it is okay to say no 

It’s really important to know that if you are drinking you don’t have to have more than one or if everyone around you is drinking you can say no.

  • Take it slow

If you do drink – take your time. Maybe get one drink and sip it very slowly for the night rather than drinking it fast and getting another.

  • Be prepared

For anyone trying to drink less or someone struggling with an alcohol problem, Christmas can be difficult with all the parties and social situations. If you know you are going to be in a place where you will be offered alcohol and you’re not comfortable then rather than isolating yourself and not going, plan your excuses in advance. While this may seem slightly misleading – it will provide you with the comfort that you need because giving up alcohol is not easy.

  • Stick to your daily routine

Structure is very important for everyone but especially for people with mental health issues it can be a great way to maintain balance.

  • Do not isolate yourself

Giving up alcohol is not easy but it is doable and you are never alone. If you don’t feel like going to the parties because of the alcohol, that is fine but do connect with people, don’t cut yourself off. Call your friends and family and go for coffee and a chat.

  • Talk to someone

If it all gets too much and it feels like everything is on top of you then talk to someone. Do not turn to alcohol. Talking is the best option every time. If you would rather not talk to family or friends you can always call the Samaritans on 116 123.

  • Take that first step

Forming a new habit begins with taking a new step. Don’t wait until January 1st. Take that step today.

How can friends and family help a loved one struggling with alcohol this Christmas?

Dr O’Connor recommends that family and friends respect their loved one’s decision.

Leading by example is one of the best things you can do for someone who is struggling with alcohol issues. And be careful about who you are offering alcohol to. If you know this person is trying to quit then don’t tempt them or encourage them to be more social. And be there to listen.

Christmas is a hard time to confront your demons no matter what they are so to have someone their to listen can be a huge help.

“It is difficult but giving up alcohol was the best thing I ever did”

Barbara Brennan, owner of Sewndipity, spoke openly to TheJournal.ie about her own battle with  mental health issues and alcohol abuse.

Source: BarbaraBrennan

I started getting ill when I was about twelve and I was hospitalised for the first time at fourteen.

Barbara was diagnosed with clinical depression and was heavily medicated for about fifteen years. It wasn’t until she was 25 that Barbara’s doctor reassessed her and she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. It was around the time of this diagnosis that alcohol started to play a role in her life.

“I didn’t drink at all when I was young, I only really started drinking at college and when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I started to drink heavily.”

I drank to alleviate the elation as much as the depression. I wanted to dull down everything I was feeling.

Barbara said that becoming dependent on alcohol changed her.

I became a liar. I lied to my friends, I lied to my family and all because I couldn’t stand the thought of them knowing the truth.

Barbara said this was the toughest part of hiding her dark secret.

Having to lie to people you love is really hurtful. I was ashamed of that and ashamed of how much I drank, how much I needed to drink. I thought it was better for everyone if I lied.

Accepting the facts

In 2005 Barbara was hospitalised again and the doctors informed her of the damage her alcohol use was causing to her mental and physical health and the fatal repercussions this level of drinking could have. That was when she knew it was time to stop, time to stop lying to her loved ones and time to stop drinking.

That was when I realised the true impact my drinking was having on me and knew that I had to stop. I had a lot of internal guilt and knew that I had to talk to my family.

Speaking to her family, Barbara overcame that fear that had been building up inside her for so long to discover that they knew something was wrong and were more than willing to be there and help her in every way possible.

I have been completely sober for almost ten years now and it is the best and hardest thing I have ever done.

While it’s not easy to give up alcohol cold turkey as Barbara did, it can be done.

My friends and family were fantastic. Once you get over the initial fears, it gets easier. And sure there are times when it is tempting to drink again but I know it’s not worth it anymore.

Barbara found that staying active helped her a lot.

I spent time doing things that were mindful – I am creative and started working on crafts and gardening more. I also find physical exertion to be very helpful. It lifts my mood. I started running and doing yoga and pilates.

And for anyone struggling this Christmas, Barbara has this advice:

Try and let people know. Talk to someone and ask for help. If you tell people you are not okay and need help you will be overwhelmed by how kind and willing they are. People are not telepathic – you need to tell them.

Are you, or someone you know, in need of help?

USEFUL RESOURCES ON ALCOHOL USE:

See our series on #LittleThings that can make a big difference to your mental wellbeing in 2015 here>

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About the author:

Amanda Connolly

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