Boozing too much builds unhealthy neural pathways. It’s fair to say that most of us stop regulating our emotions in healthy ways when we routinely drink through life’s ups and downs. In my case, I was managing all my emotions with alcohol. There wasn’t a single feeling that I didn’t think would be better filtered with wine. Drinking through everything was eventually a firmly learned coping mechanism. The behavior established a well-maintained superhighway of neurons, fast-tracking to my reward centre. Amongst other things, this screwed over my nervous system.
Luckily the body and brain’s pathways can change. They’re mega dynamic. And no doubt, if we did nothing but stop drinking, and stay stopped, we would slowly find other ways to regulate our emotional systems. But the more conscious about it we are, the more active and dynamic we are about replacing the destructive behavior of drinking with constructive behavior, the quicker we can build those new pathways and hopefully avoid trading booze for many other unhealthy choices, or secondary addictions, in the process.
When people stop drinking they often are disappointed that everything in their lives does not change suddenly for the better. Like young children in the back of the car on a long road trip … Are We There Yet? … is a common sentiment in early sobriety. At six months sober, one thing that I am learning is that getting past the Are we There YET feeling is all about moving up to the driver’s seat and getting active. Stretching my body and working my brain A LOT, toning my vagus. Taking the wheel is essential to sustaining and enjoying this alcohol free life style.
The human body utterly floors and amazes me. No one element of our body is isolated. One part can repair another. Its empowering to feel it happening alcohol free. It’s empowering to creatively MAKE it happen alcohol free. That is how I’m ensuring that my sober momentum keeps going at a steady flow. That’s how I’m making sure that although I might not be there yet.. I’m loving the journey.
For example. Think of your nervous system. Think of your nervous system as two people. One is your sympathetic nervous system. She is the one that makes you stressed and anxious. She is the fight or flight reaction to stress and trauma. Her sister is the parasympathetic nervous system and acts as a counterpoint. Your parasympathetic nervous system is the rest and digest to the fight and flight of the sympathetic. If allowed, she restores order and calms the neurotic sibling down.
You need your parasympathetic nervous system on your side if you are going to enjoy the journey.
Your parasympathetic nervous system primarily consists of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve is like a big antenna in your body, and can have good tone and bad tone, and everything in between. Its fair to assume that someone who has just stopped drinking will likely have low vagal tone.
You can benefit from stimulating the vagus nerve and increasing its tone.
High vagal tones means we are:
– generally healthier
– have better concentration and memory
– more empathetic
– more likely to have close relationships
– more able to relax
– have reduced inflammation
– have reduced likelihood of loads of different disease
Exercise and deep breathing are among the best ways you can increase that vagal tone. Also something as centering as finding out what relaxes you, like listening to music or knitting, and then doing it. Repeat… and then doing it. Sticking your face in cold water stimulates the vagus nerve too. Simply massaging the sides of your neck helps. The vagus comes down from your brain and wanders down either side of your neck.
Tone your vagus. Your then improved parasympathetic system makes all sorts of exciting road trip plans with your cognitive brain to places you haven’t been before. It tells your fight or flight system to stop fighting with her sister, stop asking are we there yet, to sit down and be quiet in the back.
Getting sober and staying sober is not a passive occupation. My sober momentum has been supported by an exercise of body and mind – educating myself, being curious, connecting with a community of peers, yoga, ballet, walking, listening to my body and resting when I need, noticing beauty in small things. Laughing.
Are we there yet? Life is a glorious journey. Putting down the drink to live it fully is just the beginning.
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