My husband and I pretty much go to the same nearby restaurant every Friday night.
Every time I planned to not have my usual Greygoose martini with olives (they bring it with a side car), it was like my brain seized and I couldn’t stop myself.
I’d tell myself I wasn’t going to drink, and when the server asked if I wanted the usual martini, every time I’d watch myself nodding as if the person saying yes wasn’t me.
Why is it so hard to break a habit like ordering a drink at our favorite restaurant?
It turns out there’s a biological reason. One that has kept our species alive for millions of years.
When we drink alcohol, our primitive brain registers the experience as a very big deal.
It says, whoa, what was that? That was good. Very good. Do that again.
Our brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine when we drink alcohol, the same way it would if you were eating a cookie, having sex, or trying heroin.
Dopamine activates the reward centers in our brain to encourage us to repeat desired behavior.
This worked great in the ice age when dopamine encouraged us to keep eating meat to stay alive, build a fire to stay warm, or have sex to continue the species.
It helps us understand why it feels like a positive chemical reaction in our bodies when we take a sip of alcohol. I take a sip of my martini, I get a dopamine release. Bliss.
Another important thing to know is our brain releases dopamine in anticipation of doing the thing that causes the dopamine release.
So when I think about ordering a martini, my brain releases dopamine encouraging me to order one.
Even sneakier, our brains associate situations, people and places with the reward.
So not only do we get a little hit of dopamine when we think about drinking, we get another hit when we are in the same situation/place or with the same people when we normally drink.
This is our primitive brain’s cue reminding us we should drink.
These three parts—the experience of drinking, the anticipation of drinking and situational cues—make the urge to drink very powerful to our primitive brain. They make us feel like getting the drink is critical to our survival.
This is why it was so hard for me to break the habit of ordering martinis at my favorite restaurant every Friday night, even though I knew having them would interrupt my sleep, wasting my Saturday while I felt tired, groggy and dehydrated.
The good news is we can unlearn these cues for alcohol the same way our brain learned them.
Simply put yourself in the situation repeatedly without doing the activity that causes the dopamine release. This is unringing the bell, if you are familiar with Pavlov’s dogs.
Pavlov noticed dogs in the laboratory salivated when they heard the sound of the women who came to feed them. He substituted a bell, ringing it just prior to giving the dogs food.
Soon the dogs salivated when they heard the bell.
He taught them to unlearn salivating at the sound of the bell by ringing the bell over and over without feeding them. Soon, the dogs unlearned the association of the sound of the bell to food and no longer salivated when it rang.
You can do this with alcohol.
You can unlearn the conditioned response of wanting alcohol in the situations and places where you normally drink by putting yourself in those situations and places repeatedly without drinking.
Yes, it will be uncomfortable.
Go with the discomfort. Allow yourself to feel uncomfortable while wanting to drink but not drinking. It’s temporary.
Do this over and over and soon you will have unrung the bell.
At first, ordering a nonalcoholic drink felt very strange, and I still wanted my martini. However, I kept doing it and eventually it felt as natural not to have one as to have one.
Hello Saturday morning.
—Julie Ernst, CCJD
P.S. Visit www.julieernst.com to take my free course: Stop Overdrinking in 3 Steps.