Christmas, booze, and the brain

Christmas brainI have seen a lot of recovery-themed blog posts around about the particular challenges facing us addicts at this time of year and have thought about writing something, however I have hesitated so far because there’s already a lot of excellent posts about how to cope etc, and I’m not sure I have much to add. So I’ll just tell you about my experience. Personally, this is my second sober Christmas (although I did briefly relapse since then, in March). If this is your first sober Christmas/holiday period and you are struggling, then please hang in there because the second one is soooooooooo much easier than the first. This is because, in addition to having been sober for longer and reaping all the benefits that come with that, I have been through the festive season sober once before and have already extinguished some of the associations between Christmas stimuli and drinking, as I will explain in more detail at the end of this post. First I will share my experience.

Like most addicts for whom alcohol was their drug of choice, Christmas has been inextricably linked with drinking for me for around 20 years, and especially so for the last 10. This is the time of year that suddenly people turn a little more of a blind eye if you start drinking at lunchtime (or earlier ) – hurray! – and it’s a bit more socially acceptable to be stumbling around drunk at any time. “Tis the season to be merry/smashed” after all. As much as I could get away with at this time of year, I would often start drinking around midday, continuing on late into the night, punctuated by periods of eating and snacking. Then I would start off the New Year feeling bloated, unhealthy, and miserable.

Last year – my first sober Christmas – honestly wasn’t that much fun. It was just so hard. As soon as the tinsel started to appear and the Christmas parties began, it took a ridiculous amount of willpower to resist drinking at every social event. And because I’m a stubborn bitch, I decided I wasn’t going to miss out on Christmas parties just because I was sober. So I went to almost everything, sat and watched everyone drinking whilst sipping on my soda and lime whilst feeling bitter and resentful. By the time it got to Christmas day, I was so angry with the world and everyone around me that seemingly everyone else could drink except me, that I spent the day in an agitated stupor.

This year has been VERY different. As a general rule, I love Christmas. I’m not religious in the slightest (as you know from my posts) and have never been a Christian, but I love Christmas nevertheless. I love the carols, the cheesy Christmas movies, the decorations, the dressing up, and the festive mood. I have been so glad to realise this year that I can still enjoy all that without alcohol. Indeed I enjoy it more, and remember it, and still make it to the gym in the morning so I don’t feel like a bloated mess. I am far more organised and get more done.

I have also learned to prioritise: I don’t have to go to every social activity. No idea why this didn’t occur to me last year, but hey, you learn right? So I still might go to a lunch, dinner, or a special Christmas workout at the gym, but if the point of the outing is simply to go to the pub and drink, then I’d rather be at home watching “the Christmas chronicles” on Netflix (how good is that scene when Santa gets everyone in jail to sing with him? Love it!).

This year, I bought Christmas presents early so I didn’t have to go at 11pm on December 23rd with all the other stressed out parents, and wrap them at the last minute whilst being annoyed with my husband because yet again, I had to do all the shopping (to be fair to him, he always does a lot of work on the house at this time of year that I don’t help with either). Also this year I don’t have to worry too much about cooking for Christmas Day because we’re going out for Christmas lunch! Not cheap, but then again I won’t be spending any money on alcohol this year, so overall I will still come out on top. I’ve also embraced the parts of Christmas that are fun and don’t require booze: I have done Christmas themed arts and crafts with my daughter, and made Christmas jellies and other Christmas snacks. I have a santa dress, two different pairs of elf leggings, and some bejewelled raindeer antlers that I’ve been wearing which has been a lot of fun. It is very hard for someone not to smile when they look at you while you are wearing a pair of elf leggings.

So to the brain. Just a little bit of fun neuroscience for you today. Did you know that there has been a study that has identified a part of the brain that represents the ‘Christmas spirit’. No way? Way! People who don’t celebrate Christmas didn’t have the same level of excitation in the primary motor cortex, the parietal lobule, and sensory motor cortex when exposed to Christmas-themed images. Of course, this network didn’t evolve solely for the purpose of Christmas spirit, but rather these parts of the brain are activated by the associations of Christmas-related stimuli with positive emotions, recognition of emotions in others, and spirituality (among other things). Back when I was drinking, and on my first sober Christmas last year when I still thought a lot about booze, these associations would have also included relations between Christmas stimuli and booze. However, having been through one painful Christmas without drinking would have meant that the expected outcome (i.e. an expectation of sparkling wine) did not match the actual outcome (i.e. soda and lime), which would have weakened the neural pathways underlying that association between Christmas images and sparkling wine. As a result, Christmas images this year are not making me think so much about sparkling wine, so I don’t have to fight so hard against that craving, and I can just relax and enjoy myself with less effort.

Finally, I should mention (as I have in other posts) that although these associations become weaker or replaced by other things, there is also a ton of evidence that they never go away completely. I certainly have had my moments of looking at a colourful cocktail for example, and imagining just one sip… but then I never did manage to ‘just have one sip’, so I have to also imagine the inevitable sips after that, and the obnoxious behaviour that would inevitably fall close behind, and the terrible hangover the next day, the drinking to get over the hangover, and… anyway, you get the point. Instead, this year I’ll just stick to my lime and soda (preferably with some fresh mint – no reason not to fancy up the soft drinks and make them feel special).

MERRY SOBER CHRISTMAS EVERYONE!!!

2 thoughts on “Christmas, booze, and the brain

  1. Great post, neuroscientist! This will be my 3rd alcohol free Christmas and it’s ALL real, which is great. I now try and spread cheer throughout the year, recognising how very lonely people are these days. We’ve just moved house, so I’ve been focusing on decor, rather than parties. It’s great to take people out and about and see fab plays and concerts this time of year though – because I’m not drinking. The Freedom is indescribable!

    Like

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