My Journey With AA
Alcohol and Anxiety (AA)
Growing up, I faced a lot of anxiety. I always attributed it to having a mother who compulsively worried. As I have grown older and through my journey to reduce this form of stress, I have learned that my original thinking was not entirely correct. It seems to me that anxiety is part of a more in-depth, unconscious part of our nervous system and is only slightly moderated by our conscious mind. I have also come to understand that not all anxiety is wrong; in fact, most of the time, this part of fear is trying to tell us something if we are willing and able to listen. It is for this reason that I will first examine what this type of stress is, then how it is deeply intertwined with our existence and survival. I will then look at alcohol as a way in which we try to escape anxiety when, in the long run, it can fuel the fire.
Anxiety - what is it?
To understand anxiety, we must look at the human condition. It is our biological predisposition to survive and reproduce. Therefore, many behaviors are ingrained within our nervous system to achieve these two goals. One of the default modes related to anxiety, which helps us to survive, is fear.
“An unexpected thing, or situation, appearing in the course of goal-directed behavior, constitutes a stimulus that is intrinsically problematic: novel occurrences are, simultaneously, cues for punishment (threats) and cues for satisfaction (promises). [...]
Unpredictable things, which have a paradoxical character, accordingly activate two antithetical emotional systems [...]. The most rapidly activated of these two systems governs inhibition of ongoing behavior, cessation of currently goal-directed activity; the second, equally powerful, but somewhat more conservative, underlies exploration, general behavioral activation, and forward locomotion.
Operation of the former appears associated with anxiety, with fear and apprehension, with negative affect – universal subjective reactions to the threatening and unexpected.
Operation of the latter, by contrast, appears associated with hope, with curiosity and interest, with positive affect – subjective responses to the promising and unexpected.
The process of exploring the emergent unknown is therefore guided by the interplay between the emotions of curiosity/hope/excitement, on the one hand, and anxiety, on the other” Pg. 45 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
It is clear from this quote that we sit at the crux of two juxtaposing forces in life. We have a desire to explore new domains filled with objects. On the other hand, the need to survive is strong and deeply seated, which will shut down the exploration via fear, anxiety, and potential negative affect. From here we can see that if we were to face a situation in which a negative emotion was felt - unsuccessful exploration and assimilation of a new environment - then when we think of meeting a similar situation our anxiety will be provoked to prevent us from having that adverse feeling again.
“Unsuccessful exploration, [...] avoidance or escape – leaves the novel object firmly entrenched in its initial, “natural,” anxiety-provoking category. This observation sets the stage for a fundamental realization: human beings do not learn to fear new objects or situations, or even really “learn” to fear something that previously appeared safe, when it manifests a dangerous property. Fear is the a priori position, the natural response to everything for which no structure of behavioral adaptation has been designed and inculcated. Fear is the innate reaction to everything that has not been rendered predictable, as a consequence of successful, creative exploratory behavior undertaken in its presence, at some time in the past.” Pg. 55 Jordan Peterson, Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief
Anxiety is a psychological response to facing a setting or situation that is filled with unknown. As a result, we default to the potential of this novel situation, bringing us harm in some way. For example, there could be anxiety from not following the tyrannical voice instilled in our head by our dictatorial parents. This voice could be the result of never being able to meet their expectations, or unsuccessfully exploring the domain which contained the parents. There is another more subtle form of anxiety that arises when we do things that we know to be wrong. This idea is to say when we do not listen to what our unconscious mind is telling us. Alan Watts introduced an interesting German term called a Hintekedanken. He translates it into the voice way deep down in the back of our head, the one that we are not willing to listen. It seems similar to our “gut instinct.” We often, if not always, know what we “should be” doing to ensure that we are aligned with our morals and values. It is when we do not do this that anxiety kicks in.
Anxiety compels us to act in specific ways. Perhaps we study because we are anxious about doing poorly on an exam. This experience is a result of a previously unexplored territory that revealed a fear invoking situation due to having failed a previous test. Now anxiety prevents us from having to feel that feeling of failure yet again. A similar thing could be said regarding jobs that require attention to detail. If we are engineer’s, we need to make sure that all details are correct and anxiety drives us to make sure that this is the case.
Now, when functioning correctly, anxiety can be beneficial if we choose to handle stress healthily through proper diet, exercise, mindfulness, etc. Then chances are, this type of fear is not a big issue in our lives. However, we all know that life is a tornado, and anxiety rides alongside us. We all seem to be running at a more dizzying speed every day with attention to detail going by the wayside. What could be worse than putting off what we know we need to do? This case becomes a self-fulfilling anxiety magnification process, and there is one substance that at first seems to help but in the end, douses this fire with jet fuel.
Alcohol - what is it?
Alcohol is a natural substance to most people, especially in the Western World. It is the most widely utilized substance with the realm of social gatherings. In that light alcohol does two things. It initially suppresses anxiety and stimulates a part of our brain that encourages us to be more social than usual. However, as the alcohol wears off, depression can set in, and anxiety can come on stronger than before we had the first drink. This substance also affects our behaviors; as Jordan Peterson mentions, it makes us act stupidly. The interesting thing to note is if you ask a person about what they are doing when they are acting foolishly, they well know it is a stupid action. However, alcohol makes us no longer care about the longer-term consequences. This reason is why many people engage in highly risky behaviors after having too many drinks. This concept also bleeds through to not caring about longer-term goals. It makes sense that some people continually drink in a systematic pattern because they believe that they will not achieve their goals, and this substance helps them not to care.
Alcohol is also hazardous to our health. Consumed consistently in large doses (more than two drinks per week), it damages our brains. Alcohol eats away at our gray matter and forces a degradation in it’s functioning. Additionally, it is widely known that alcohol affects other organs such as the liver. After just one binge-drinking episode, we can have a “fatty liver.” This occurrence is when the liver becomes inflamed due to having to process all of the alcohol out of our bloodstream. This idea is not to mention that some people drink themselves to death. When comparing alcohol to all other drugs, it’s astounding to note that it has been rated as the overall worst substance we as humans can consume. It has been shown in a study by Professor David Nutt that alcohol ranks as the worst drug for impacting others when the user is out of control, and number one overall most harmful drug. This study considered 16 criteria, nine related to the harm of the user, and seven relevant to the detriment of others.
I am not here to tell you that I have mastered some new methodology for dealing with anxiety, nor am I here to mention that I don’t drink. I do struggle with gripping anxiety, and I do drink. I take steps in my life to try to limit both of these aspects. I make an effort to exercise daily, eat properly, sleep well, and share my experience with people who I respect and enjoy being around. As far as alcohol is concerned, I have a rule where I rarely drink during the week. I do have some concern about how much I drink on the weekends. I’m not sure my lifestyle is always the healthiest. I tell myself that I am doing the best that I can and that my life is balanced. I’m not sure this the case. I justify my actions by saying that I am young and that I will change when I settle down with a long term relationship. I’m not sure if any of this is true.
Much of my fear of alcohol consumption stems from my father. He is a bipolar alcoholic who does not seek out help. Ending up like him is one of my biggest fears, and I know that it affects how I see social situations and alcohol in that context.
It also seems to me that we, as a nation, demonize alcohol consumption a lot more than in European countries. With the lesser demonization across the pond, it looks as though they tend toward binge drinking less. One of my French friends once said, “We drink more often than you, but not as much. We will have one or two drinks at most, not 10.” I think the mixture of these mindsets leaves me in an anxious position about alcohol consumption in general.
There is a large part of me that wishes alcohol was not so deeply ingrained within the social environment. It would also be nice to have been helped while growing up in the formation of social skills and facing social anxiety. By not having the proper tools to deal with social anxiety, it seems to me that we, as a society, we instead push our emotions away as opposed to confronting them. Now that I have done that for eight years of my life, I have a very ingrained pattern to break. I feel like I’m stuck in the middle. I don’t think that I’m an alcoholic, but I’m not sure my lifestyle is sustainable. I wonder does anyone else feel this way?
Anxiety is part of our built-in survival mechanism. When we take care of ourselves properly and listen to and act upon what we know that we should, then our level of anxiety can be reduced. Because of its inherent nature, this type of stress can never be eliminated. When appropriately deployed, anxiety can be beneficial.
Alcohol is a short term fix for anxiety that in the long run, can leave us feeling depressed and more anxious than before we started drinking. This substance makes us act in ways in which we otherwise would not. We realize that we are performing poorly but do not care about the consequences while under the influence. Perhaps it is a smart idea to limit our use of alcohol to the extent we can.