If you’re anything like me, then there are times when you start thinking about something…. then something else… then that same thing you first started thinking about again… around and around in circles without getting anywhere and you wish your brain would just shut the hell up! Especially at night when I’m done with work and chores for the day, and all I can think about is what I have to do at work over the next few weeks, all the chores I haven’t gotten around to yet, that bill I haven’t paid, and the fact that it’s library day at my daughter’s school tomorrow so I must remember to put her library book in her school bag. Fun.
Then there’s the longer-term and more serious kind of rumination (basically a fancy term for overthinking) that my brain appears to involuntarily indulge in. I am definitely a ruminator. I can have conversations with people and still be thinking about something stupid I’ve said hours later and what I should have said instead. I also ruminate about work. A scientific career is one ripe for rumination: about how I’m not good enough, how I should have X many publications and grants by now, how people are going to rip me apart next time I give a talk, how people don’t take me seriously because I’m female in a still relatively male dominated field, how if they do take me seriously then they end up finding me pushy or arrogant or resting bitch facey.
If you like being happy (because so many people love being sad), then rumination is a problem. In fact, it can lead to quite serious anxiety and depression. Or maybe it’s caused by anxiety or depression, or maybe its both caused by it and causes it. Regardless, it is highly correlated with anxiety and depression.
This is why alcohol can be so appealing for people who like to overthink. Just a few sips of alcohol and suddenly, all those unnecessary extra thoughts go away. You get to be present in the moment and stop worrying about tomorrow, as put so elegantly by Sia in her song Chandelier: “IIIIIII’m gonnna swing from the chandelier…. I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist”. A kind of alcohol-induced mindfulness.
*Warning sciencey bit*
Like most things (everything) in life, there’s good reason why alcohol helps us quiet our thoughts. This is because it is a GABA A receptor agonist, meaning that it activates GABA receptors, and GABA is the primary inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain. Activation of these receptors therefore causes hyperpolarisation of the neuron. In lay terms, it means that alcohol makes the neuron less likely to fire and therefore slows or reduces its communication with other neurons. This is similar to what anxiety medications such as Xanax or valium (or other benzodiazepines) do. (As an aside – some neurons that release GABA are known as “chandelier cells”. I wonder if Sia knew this when she wrote her song?)
These effects of alcohol on GABA are further compounded by the fact that it seems to suppress glutamate, the main excitatory neurotransmitter of the brain. This is another way in which alcohol depresses neural transmission. Thus when people say that alcohol is a depressant, and they don’t mean that it makes you feel depressed, they actually mean is that it slows neural transmission. In fact, because it can cause your brain to shut the hell up for a second, it can make you feel happier, especially for those prone to rumination.
*End sciencey bit*
It is this reduction of neuronal excitability that makes alcohol particularly appealing for overthinkers like me. All those thoughts, worries about what you said yesterday, about what you have to do tomorrow etc, get dampened down and all that neural noise just shuts down for a little while. Want to sleep? Just lay your head down on the pillow…. And voila. Sleep. Aaaaaah bliss.
But there’s one more piece of this puzzle that I haven’t explained yet, but that is really key. Alcohol only shuts your brain up for a little while.
What happens when the drunk feeling goes away? The overthinking and anxiety and depression come back stronger than before. The thing is, the body and brain don’t like being artificially ‘thrown out’ of their normal state of equilibrium by alcohol or any other drug, and it will fight to get back to where it was when the alcohol wears off. This means that although when you are drinking all that neural noise shuts up for a minute, the next day it comes back harder, stronger, and more forceful. Not only that, but you are now possibly also dealing with a hangover so you are overthinking whilst your body feels like shit. Not only that but you also have to deal with the very possibly stupid things you did last night that you regret, or have the vague feeling that you might have done something stupid but you can’t remember. I certainly spent many ‘next days’ trying to piece together what I said to whom, or did the night before (getting in bed with my parents naked anyone? Nope just me).
Of course, because alcohol can make your brain shut up for a little while, many people who suffer rumination in anxiety and depression are drawn to drinking it. But then when the effects of it wear off the next day, you feel more anxious, and if you’re like me, you drink again to get over it. Before you know it BOOM you have both anxiety and a drinking problem. FUN FUN FUN!!
When I got into recovery, I was very pleasantly surprised to find that many of my anxieties just went away by themselves. At social events I stopped forgetting what I said to people, and was more sure of what I did say because it was under my control. Therefore I didn’t need to ruminate over it later. I also just learnt to put the thought out of my mind before giving into rumination. If I start thinking about the stupid thing I said to someone, I just immediately counteract that thought with “that person will not still be thinking about it, so you don’t need to”. Sometimes this works better than others of course, but ya know. Progress not perfection. At work too, I’ve found that I believe in myself a lot more. I also work harder and my thoughts are clearer, so that helps a lot. Plus I have been more successful at work in sobriety (who knew right?) so I have received positive reinforcement from my successes.
The one final thing I will say with regards to overthinking is that, in sobriety, I do think it is very important to find some kind of mindfulness in life so that you have a certain amount of time each day when you are completely absorbed in a task and not thinking about what you have to do tomorrow or what you did yesterday. Science has shown that we are happiest when we are totally absorbed in a task. I have never been particularly good at meditation or tried particularly hard to get good at it, but that’s one avenue that a lot of people swear by. The science about meditation in particular is overall a little mixed but certainly there’s some positive studies and plenty of anecdotal evidence out there suggesting it works. What works best for me, however, is exercise, particularly vigorous exercise at the gym with other people. When I am working out, my mind is completely focused on how many reps I’m doing/what weight I’m doing/how gassed I am etc. Working out with other people also provides a social aspect, and lots of people who aren’t that into drinking go to the gym. Exercise is also amazingly good for your brain and general fitness etc. I really couldn’t have gotten sober without it.
So whatever you do in sobriety, my advice is find something to do that helps you shut your brain up for a second in a healthy way. Exercise, meditation, singing at the top of your lungs, or even watching a scary movie. All great things to do with the added bonus of not producing a hangover tomorrow.