If you think (or know) that you drink too much, you might be asking yourself why.
While there are many reasons why we drink to excess, and why many of us develop alcoholism, one symptom appears more often than any other; FEAR.
It's important to get a basic understanding of why we consume alcohol to excess in the first place if we want to address, and hopefully resolve, the problem.
Everybody's experience with alcohol is different. No two people are the same when it comes to excessive drinking and substance abuse. All of us have our own specific reasons why we do certain things.
We all make choices in life, good or bad, based on our personalities, upbringing, family dynamics, and social circumstances. There is no single answer as to why we do anything in life including abusing alcohol.
However, history as well as anecdotal evidence point to certain specific contributing factors that most people share when it comes to substance abuse of any kind, whether it's alcohol abuse or drug abuse.
One of the most common factors shared by many people around the world who have a problematic relationship with alcohol is fear. Fear is often a brutal beast that must be overcome if we are ever going to reduce or quit drinking.
Fear can never be eliminated entirely from the human psyche. It's built into our brains in order to help us survive in the world. However, it is imperative that we learn to recognize our fears so that we are able to work with them rather than trying to run from them.
Fear often plays a significant role in the lives of many problem drinkers. Fear, like anything else we’re discussing, comes in many shapes and sizes.
No two people experience fear exactly the same way or deal with it in exactly the same way. Nonetheless, fear is a very common trait amongst problem drinkers that leads them to make poor decisions when it comes to drinking.
I can tell you from my own experience, that I’ve always felt an inordinate amount of fear that started in early childhood. I was never able to completely identify what or who made me feel so afraid.
I remember always having a sense of anxiety and apprehension about most things, including people and new experiences. There was always an underlying apprehension or uncertainty that accompanied everything I did whether it was meeting new people, attending social events, trying new things, or expressing emotions.
Fear, in many ways, dominated my life for many years. I discovered at an early age that alcohol immediately erased the fear that always seemed to haunt me. Alcohol delivered the exact opposite of fear. It brought comfort and warmth encourage. It was amazing to discover that a few beers, or a few shots of vodka, would almost entirely eliminate all my fear and anxiety.
Alcohol gave me the ability to be outspoken, extroverted, funny, and brave. Most importantly, as a teenager alcohol gave me the ability to speak with girls. I can't overemphasize how important this was at the time. I had always been too terrified to speak with girls, let alone dance with them or ask them out on dates. Alcohol changed all that. If I had a few drinks in my system I became instantly outgoing, humorous, and bold, a real bon vivant!
Later in life, I discovered that alcohol could help me through all sorts of situations. In particular, social situations were improved with several drinks in my system.
I have always been a shy and semi-introverted person. This is just my nature. I have learned to accept this part of my personality and I’m completely comfortable with it now.
However, for many years, especially in my youth, my natural shyness was a source of tremendous pain and discomfort. I would do anything I could to mask it and overcompensate. Alcohol became the perfect tool for overcoming my shyness.
The trigger for fear is the threat of harm, whether real or imagined. We encounter countless perceived threats as we travel through life. Many things like flying, height, snakes, spiders, or claustrophobic spaces, elevate fear in our brain. While many of our fears are real and serve to protect us from danger, other fears (perhaps most) are simply a result of an overactive imagination. We simply conjure up certain fears and phobias as a way to avoid things that make us feel uncomfortable.
Perhaps you've experienced this type of avoidance yourself. There may be times when you don't want to do something, like go to a social gathering, party, or business event , because you know that you will be socially uncomfortable. You conjure up an image in your head that you won't know who to speak with or what to say and fear rises up, overwhelming your brain.
When this happens, you may think up an excuse to not attend the gathering, party, or event. Or, if you are like me, you'll realize that alcohol will most likely be served at the event. Therefore, you'll think, as long as I can get to a drink quickly as soon as I arrive (or have a few drinks before I arrive) then I can quickly eradicate any of the social anxiety and fear that I anticipate.
It's a simple formula that often works quite well; if there's something that needs to be confronted, something that causes fear, then alcohol is the fastest, most effective solution to the problem. Have a drink and say adios to the fear.
The problem with this formula, however, is that over time we never truly learn how to deal with whatever causes us fear. And if we keep drinking every time we're afraid, eventually we develop a serious drinking problem.
The fact is life is filled with an abundance of situations and things that cause discomfort and fear. This is simply the way life presents itself. There’s nothing we can do to avoid fear or discomfort in life. Fear, in fact, can be a great teacher. We can learn so much about ourselves if we are willing to work with fear and not hide from or run from our it.
When I was a boy, I enjoyed flying. But things changed during my college years. I used to fly frequently between California and Boston where I was attending college. At first flying back and forth never bothered me.
However, I was often hungover on the flights I took across the country. My college days were filled with a great deal of partying resulting in frequent hangovers (which would only increase in the coming years).
As most heavy drinkers know, hangovers often create anxiety. I often experienced hangovers that involved intense anxiety bordering on paranoia. While flying back and forth from coast to coast we were often caught in bad weather including snowstorms. This, combined with my anxiety-riddled hangovers, eventually evolved into a hesitancy about flying. Over time, my hesitancy devolved into a fear of flying.
Eventually, the fear of flying developed into an intense phobia. By my early 30s I was terrified to get on a plane. And when I had to fly, I would drink myself into a blinding stupor just to be able to board the plane.
My fear of flying became so acute that I went an entire decade without boarding a commercial airline. I even missed my grandmother's funeral because of my inability to get on an airplane, something that still causes me pangs of regret and shame to this day.
The first time I got back on an airplane was in 2011. I had been sober for several years and had made the decision that I was going to start flying again no matter what. Come hell or high water I was going to fly again.
I finally boarded my first flight to Los Angeles to visit the woman who later became my wife. I took my seat and felt the terror rising, overwhelming my brain. The fight or flight response was intense. Before the doors had closed, I considered getting off the plane and driving to Los Angeles instead.
A man took a seat next to me who it turns out was a rabbi. Though I’m not Jewish, I felt a sense of ease and comfort knowing that a man dedicated to God was sitting next to me.
We began a casual conversation and at some point, I revealed to him my phobia and the fact that I hadn't flown in many years. The man smiled gently and, without judgment, told me that in his experience he had found that most of our fears are only imagined, much like the monsters that live in the minds of children.
The monsters are not real, but our mind tries to convince us otherwise. If we’re only willing to realize, and accept, that most of our fears are not real we can find the courage we need to move forward and achieve whatever we want in life.
I don't know why his words were so powerful at that moment, but my fears diminished significantly. The plane took off, flew smoothly, and we landed in Los Angeles without incident. Surprise, surprise!
My fear of flying didn’t cease immediately. It still took several more years before I was comfortable flying on a regular basis. Even to this day I experience mild hesitation whenever I board a plane. But the difference is, now I board the plane, no matter what! Fear or no fear, I get on the plane and fly wherever I want to go.
Most of our fears in life are imagined, as the rabbi reminded me. Whether it's the fear of flying, the fear of people, the fear of failure, financial fear, or whatever, the things we fear the most often come from our imagination and have no real power over us unless we give them power.
If we’re simply willing to keep moving forward, walking through our fear instead of running from our fear, we have a much greater chance of success in every aspect of our lives. If sobriety has taught me anything it's that fear has been one of the most destructive forces in my life. For too many years I allowed fear to keep me from experiencing and achieving the things I wanted.
Once I finally got sober (at age 43) and was able to face my fears, my life changed dramatically for the better.
I still experience fear from time to time, like a beast hiding in my head. But I do my best to ignore the fear and keep moving forward. I try never to allow fear to stop me or hold me back.
Fear is usually just our imagination running wild. Instead of giving in to it we must do our best to ignore it, putting one foot in front of the other as we head down the path of greater experience unshackled by fear.
Best of all, I no longer feel the need to drink whenever I experience fear. Rather, I have learned through experience that fear is usually nothing more than a passing phase. It too shall pass and I will be fine.