The following excerpt from my book, If You Loved Me, You’d Stop!, makes me shudder every time I read it. “Who was she?!” I’m sharing it here to help you understand what happens to a person whose fight or flight stress response system is activated over and over and over by secondhand drinking. This post is the last in my April as Alcohol Awareness Month series (see all five articles linked at the end of this post). I thank you for reading and doing whatever you can to raise awareness about the other side of the drinking equation – Secondhand Drinking.
“By the time I finally began my own road to understanding, I was one angry, frustrated, resentful person. The more Alex drank or broke his promises not to drink or to cut back on his drinking, the more vigilant I’d become. I knew the next “fix” would be the one that would finally work. When that didn’t happen, I would step up my efforts — admonishing, nagging, pleading, arguing, crying, pouting, ignoring, and so on. My common theme was, ‘If you loved me, you’d stop!’
“I honestly believed and figured if I just managed our household more efficiently or did a better job of scheduling activities or _____ (fill in the blank, I’m sure I tried it), then he’d quit drinking so much and our lives would finally be happy. And, when I couldn’t control his drinking, I’d step up my vigilance to manage the next inevitable crisis as a way of wresting control of the situation – and in a complex life of marriage, jobs, children, ex-spouses, friends and family, there was an endless source and variety. Little did I understand that focusing on the next crisis was a way of trying to control some aspect of my life, but in fact, it often created problems of a different nature (like my daughter setting aside her own needs in order to make me happy when she sensed I was upset with Alex, for example). But, as long as I focused ‘over there,’ I didn’t have to face the underlying problem right in from of me – alcohol – Alex’s use of it and MY reactions for his use.”
The Fight or Flight Stress Response System (FFSRS) – Secondhand Drinking’s Best Friend
When a person regularly deals with someone’s drinking behaviors, it changes them. It changes them mostly because the emotions it triggers (fear, anxiety or anger, for example) trigger the brain’s FFSR. The FFSRS is also part of the limbic system, the “reactionary” part of the brain.
Like other instinctual neural network wiring occurrences (puberty, for example), the FFSRS is an instinctually wired system built into the human species. It is a system that was intended to kick into gear when faced with physical danger. Again, this makes sense when we think of back in the day when the main danger humans faced was physical danger, as in, “Run or Fight but don’t just stand there!”
How the Fight or Flight Stress Response System Works
In very GENERAL terms, it works as follows. A cue (such as danger-producing emotions like fear, anxiety and anger) triggers the key stress hormones, adrenaline (epinephrine) and cortisol. These stress hormones cause a number of things to happen to help us RUN or FIGHT.
They cause blood vessels to the skin to constrict to lessen blood loss if injured. They shut down the digestive system in order to conserve glucose needed for energy. They dilate the bronchial tubes in the lungs in order to carry more oxygen to the muscles. And they increase heart rate to push blood flow to large muscles in order to “run fast!” It is truly astounding what the FFSRS does in such a short period when triggered (an average of about 90 seconds!).
The Difference Between Today’s Stress and the Stress Humans Experienced Back in the Day
Today, however, most of our stress is triggered by thoughts, emotions and memories of negative experiences, not by physical danger. There are two problems with this.
The first is that a person rarely does the physical running or fighting these changes are meant to support. Instead, all of that “stuff” (increased glucose, shut down digestive system, increased heart rate) “sits” and builds up in various body tissues until (or if) it is reabsorbed or used. The physical health consequences of regularly activating the FFSRS, but not carrying it through to RUN or FIGHT, are many. They include: headaches, upset stomach, skin rashes, hair loss, racing heartbeat, back pain, muscle aches, migraines, sleep problems, changes in eating habits (causing obesity or weight loss), dizziness and the like.
Mapping Coping Skills Around SHD-Related Stress
The second problem is that a person starts to map neural networks to engage this system when confronted with stress producing emotions, thoughts or memories, not just physical danger. When we map in the limbic system, we are mapping in the reactionary part of the brain. This is because the brain was designed to pay close attention to anything that repeatedly happens there as critical to survival. This keeps us from accessing the thinking part of the brain (the cerebral cortex), where we can pause and take a moment to decide whether the stress-causing event is really an emergency.
This means when we are confronted by anything that triggers those danger-producing emotions, such as anxiety, fear and anger, our embedded maps of coping skills and behaviors kick in. We treat the presenting event (the one that triggered the emotion or thought) as a physical threat and REACT. The brain maps we wired to protect ourselves take over. These may include:
- Yelling, crying, physically lashing out; shutting down emotionally when in conflict or facing an angry person.
- Trying to make it stop by going along with the unhealthy behavior so as not to confront the person or make them angry.
- Working hard to please everyone, being hyper aware of how others feel in an attempt to keep things going smoothly.
- Withdrawing from family and friends or activities we enjoy in order to devote all our time to fixing what’s wrong or out of embarrassment over the drinking behaviors.
- Verbally lashing out in anger, blaming others or something else for how we feel, trying to manipulate others into doing what we think is necessary to keep the peace.
- Drinking to relieve the stress. It seems to work (at least for a while) because of the way alcohol works on the brain’s pleasure/reward neural networks.
The mental health consequences of regularly activating FFSRS are equally troubling. These include: anxiety, depression, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, difficulty concentrating or a desperate need to be in control. As importantly, they change our behaviors.
If You Are Talking About Drinking Behaviors, Secondhand Drinking is a Problem
If you (or someone in your life) is talking about drinking behaviors, SHD is a problem. It is that simple. This makes sense when you think about it. You would never be worried, concerned or talking about how much water a person drinks, right?
Two Things to Remember
As a species, our brains are designed to put reaction (from the limbic system) above thought (from the cerebral cortex) when confronted by physical danger in order to survive. Our brains are also designed to focus on the negative (things that scare or hurt us) or pleasurable and map our reaction so that we recall that reaction when confronted by a similar negative or pleasurable experience. Back in the day, this was especially important to the survival of our species.
Today, this can be a problem because when we are reacting from our limbic system, we cannot access our thinking, reasoning neural networks in the cerebral cortex. And those are the ones we need the most when confronted with SHD. It is only from the cerebral cortex that we can decide, “Hmm, is there anything I can do to change that person’s brain and therefore that person’s drinking behaviors?” It is from there we can decide, “No, but I can protect myself and take control of my brain health.”
DISCLAIMER: not all stress is related to SHD, of course. Nor is this information intended to suggest it is. Stress comes in many forms, including worries about one’s job, relationships, finances and children. Often SHD-related stress gets bound up with these other forms of stress. It may also come from coping with Secondhand Drugging – the impacts of a person’s drugging behaviors on others. Drugging behaviors occur as a result of brain changes caused by misusing prescription medications, such as opioid pain medications, antidepressants or stimulants for ADHD) or illicit drugs, such as cocaine, heroin, meth or Spice.
©2014 Lisa Frederiksen – the above article shares portions from my upcoming Quick Guide to Secondhand Drinking: the Phenomenon That Affects Millions and my pocket guide, Secondhand Drinking, to be published by Quick Series Publishing later this year for use by the Department of Veterans Affairs, Army, Navy, U.S. Forest Service and similar groups.
If you have questions or would like to talk further about secondhand drinking or my SHD consulting, training and presentation services for individuals, families and businesses, please give me a call at 650-362-3026 or email me at lisaf@BreakingTheCycles.com.
In case you are reading this out of sequence, here are the links to all posts in this series: