Retrain Your Brain To Enjoy Other Things
Written by: JoAnne Pearce
Most of the folks I know tend to approach sober challenges with an air of somber resignation. A kind of white knuckling ‘this is gonna suck’ attitude. And sure. Yes. Parts of it are gonna suck. Some folks might be at square one when it comes to re-learning how to be social, entertain themselves in the evenings and feel all the feelings (more on this later). I certainly was!
Here’s the fun part: a sober challenge is also an invitation to check in with yourself about other things that oil your roller-skates.
It’s a remarkably effective measure of your capacity to self-soothe, beyond happy hour. What else calms you down? Diverts you? Dillies your dally?
You see, regular drinking creates something that I like to call the ‘dopamine itch’. On top of all the other complicated chemical reactions going on in your brain when you drink, your noggin’s reward centre also gets flooded with dopamine. This is the one that keeps people coming back, since dopamine is the nectar that facilitates feelings of pleasure and motivation. Hence the 3-beer buzz that makes you feel like the universe is unfolding as it should and you are capable of anything.
There’s a hitch here, though. Regular drinking means that your brain doesn't think it needs to make as much of this giggle juice naturally, and can eventually even decrease its number of dopamine receptors. So, even though you drink to feel giddy, you may actually be stunting your natural ability to feel happiness, thereby making yourself prone to feelings of anxiety and depression.
When you stop drinking, your brain is going to be triggered by events like happy hour or Super Bowl parties, and it will prompt you to seek out the fastest path to the usual flood of dopamine, aka booze. When you tell your brain 'hey, sorry, we're doing a sober challenge this month', there's a chance that it's going to get real grumpy with you. This, dear friends, is the dopamine itch.
Now for the fun part. This month, it is your job to figure out other ways to scratch that itch. This means doing every other satisfying or pleasurable activity you can think of. I suggest throwing everything you’ve got at this, and having a heckin' good time while you’re at it. I’m talking food, TV, video games, shopping, orgasms, naps, baths, manicures, massages… whatever you perceive as a reward (other than drinking), just flipping GIVE IT TO YOURSELF.
Don’t be stingy, don’t hold back, just find whatever scratching stick works and get after it.
Of course, take this advice with a grain of salt. Am I suggesting that you start smoking 3 packs a day and dabbling in a meth habit? No. Am I saying that you should max out all your credit cards on $10,000 a night hotel rooms, Anna Delvey style? Absolutely not. There are plenty of ways to get your jollies without picking up another tricky habit or blowing the budget.
For me, I eventually learned that I like to self-soothe by eating cake, making mocktails, taking baths, doing detail-oriented creative work and going thrift shopping. For you it might be building LEGO or baking or beekeeping. Doesn’t matter!
Use the money you would have spent on booze to give yourself anything else that you want for one month.
An extra effective trick here is to buy yourself a treat online. If you still haven’t strayed from your sober month by the time it arrives, buy yourself something new. Rinse and repeat!
This may all sound like a frivolous exercise in hedonism, but it is an exercise that will benefit you well into the future, even if you’re just going dry for one month. By making your reward centre do push-ups, you are reminding your brain that you do enjoy other things. This is a tool that will benefit you tremendously as you find balance in your relationship with alcohol.
Image credits: Craig Adderley, Rodnae Productions, Cottonbro Studio, Ekaterina Bolovtsova, Andrew Paul