I’m using Alcohol Awareness Month to share information and help for the 90 million Americans affected by a loved one’s alcohol misuse. 90 million. These are the moms, dads, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren, brothers, sister, grandparents, boyfriends, girlfriends and close friends who are affected by a loved one’s drinking behaviors; in other words, the people affected by secondhand drinking (SHD).
Alcohol Awareness Month 2016
Each April since 1987, the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD) has sponsored Alcohol Awareness Month to increase public awareness and understanding, reduce stigma and encourage local communities to focus on alcoholism and alcohol-related issues. I’m using this year’s Alcohol Awareness Month celebration to raise awareness about secondhand drinking – the negative impacts of a person’s drinking behaviors on others – impacts that greatly change the affected person’s overall physical and emotional health and quality of life.
Cause of the Drinking Behaviors that Cause Secondhand Drinking
Generally, drinking behaviors (see side bar) are not “intentional,” unless that’s how the person behaves when sober. Rather they are the result of brain changes caused by the ethyl alcohol chemical in alcoholic beverages interrupting the brain’s electro-chemical signaling process and thereby changing how the brain works.
- how the body processes alcohol via specific enzymes in the liver which metabolize [rid the body of] the ethyl alcohol chemicals in alcoholic beverages at an average rate of 1 standard drink per hour;
- standard drink sizes;
- staying within normal or moderate drinking limits; and
- the other variables listed in the side bar
can help a person avoid exhibiting drinking behaviors. It can also help a person protect themselves from secondhand drinking.
Why is Secondhand Drinking a Serious Concern?
Two reasons: the sheer numbers of people affected and its connection to stress.
The primary consequence of SHD’s impacts on a family member or close friend is stress. Coping with drinking behaviors triggers the fight-or-flight stress response system (FFSRS) centered in the limbic system, the reactionary part of the brain.
The FFSRS was “designed” in the human species to prepare a person to fight or run when faced with physical danger, and it causes a number of physiological changes to occur. For example, blood vessels to the skin constrict to lessen blood loss in the event of injury; the digestive system shuts down to conserve glucose needed for energy to run or fight; and heart rate increases to push blood flow to large muscles to allow a person to run more quickly.
The FFSRS also leads to dysregulation of the cerebral cortex (the thinking part of the brain) so that a person reacts immediately without considering the options when confronted with danger. As a result of another brain design feature – “neurons that fire together, wire together” – the brain “maps” the reaction (fight or flight) that kept the person safe. This map becomes a person’s default reaction the next time a similar triggering event occurs. This was especially important back in the day when early man’s only immediate threat was physical danger.
Today, however, and especially in families with untreated alcohol misuse, the FFSRS is more often than not triggered by things other than physical danger – emotional cues, for example, such as simmering fear, anxiousness or anger, memories and constant worry.
What Happens to the Person Experiencing Secondhand Drinking?
Coping with drinking behaviors causes ongoing activation of the FFSRS. When a person doesn’t fight or run, all of those physiological changes described above sit – “marinate” – in body organs, like the brain, heart and muscles, resulting in physical and emotional ailments, such as: sleep disorders, migraines, headaches, stomach ailments, changes in eating habits, dizziness, distracted “thinking,” depression, anxiety, memory impairment, heart disease and digestive problems.
In addition to these physical and emotional impacts, the chronic activation of the FFSRS causes a person to wire unhealthy coping skills, because their brain maps the behaviors that kept them “safe” when confronted with the drinking behaviors. These can include:
- shutting down emotionally, retreating inside one’s mind when confronted with abusive or scary behaviors
- being hyperaware of others’ feelings or actions and adjusting one’s own accordingly
- yelling, crying, blaming, shaming or verbally lashing out
- carrying pent up, explosive rage that spills out in other situations because it cannot be expressed to the person exhibiting the drinking behaviors
- attempts to be especially good to make up for or fix the problem
- withdrawing from family, friends or activities out of embarrassment over the drinking behaviors.
These reactionary coping skills and the physical and emotional consequences change the family member and interfere with their work, school, relationships and ability to see, let alone enjoy, the pleasures in everyday life. All of which explains why family members need help – not a one-size-fits-all kind of help – rather the kind of help that addresses their bio-psycho-social issues in order for them to reclaim their lives in long-term secondhand drinking recovery.
Recovering from Secondhand Drinking
In essence, repairing and healing the brain and rewiring new brain maps to change those compromised by ongoing stress is primarily centered around:
- chemically rebalancing the brain (nutrition, exercise, sleep);
- becoming aware of one’s cues and current brain maps (mindfulness);
- fully committing to eating nutrient-rich foods, exercise and sleep; and
- taking steps to change how one reacts to cues in order to wire new brain maps.
To help readers with these efforts and a more thorough understanding of SHD, I wrote a short eBook, Quick Guide to Secondhand Drinking: A Phenomenon That Affects Millions. [It comes in all eReader formats – the one linked here is to the Kindle version.]
Additionally, you may also wish to read some of my secondhand drinking and secondhand drinking recovery story as shared in my September 17, 2012 post, Behind Every Alcoholic | Addict is a Family Member or Two or Three….
As always, please know I’m happy to answer questions or direct readers to additional resources. Feel free to call me at 650-362-3026 or email me at lisaf@BreakingThecycles.com.