Alcohol consumption is prevalent in South African culture. Picture: Pexels/Anete Lusina
Alcohol consumption is prevalent in South African culture. Picture: Pexels/Anete Lusina

A conversation about sobriety and mindful drinking with psychologist Victoria Harris

By Lutho Pasiya Time of article published Jul 30, 2021

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Alcohol consumption is prevalent in South African culture. Hardly ever does one go out and not see people drinking.

Amid all the booze is a burgeoning movement pulling in the opposite direction: Sobriety is having a moment in the spotlight. For the sober-curious crowd, this can mean taking a break from alcohol for a set period or quitting altogether.

Either way, psychologist Victoria Harris says, stopping drinking, even for a short period, can be beneficial, because it allows us time to explore our relationship with alcohol with a clear head.

Harris says humans have always used addictive psychoactive substances.

She says alcohol is a socially approved way of helping to calm the system and feel some relief from the stressors of life, and in addition, it has permeated society, serving as a vehicle of social interaction.

“Alcohol has such a tight grip because it is deemed acceptable by societal norms, as well as inducing pleasure by activating a mesolimbic dopaminergic reward system that triggers dependence.

“As those social norms change, so too will habits. There is a shift happening in societal norms, so there is less pressure on some people to drink when socialising. We live in an age of information like never before. Culturally there is a shift toward understanding ourselves better. To be more in tune with our internal motivations. Alternative ways of calming our system have become more readily available such as yoga, meditation, mindfulness, grounding, breathwork, kind self-talk, and affirmations. There is more awareness about coping strategies that nurture the body or mind rather than harm it. Self-care has become a buzzword.”

If you are questioning your relationship with alcohol, what should you do? She suggests you make it a choice if you want to cut down or cut it out. Harris says we are more likely to follow through if we are invested in it.

“Talk about it to others; getting support from family or friends can be helpful. Understanding the role alcohol plays in your life is important. Reflect on how you use it and for what purpose. Does it serve a deeper need? For example, perhaps it is linked to the need to fit in and be accepted in a social group, or used as a way of coping with stress or emotional pain.

“Have compassion for yourself. Having challenging feelings is normal and we all need to support ourselves when we feel overwhelmed. Yet, if you are using it as a coping strategy it is important to seek new, healthy alternatives and practice them. Try using a journal to track and reflect on how you are feeling when you feel like using alcohol. Writing down feelings in a journal or in a poem or short story is an expressive technique that can help you to release and process emotions.

“Gradually reduce your intake of alcohol as you try out new healthy coping strategies. When you find something that works and repeat it, the experience of it working to calm your system will, over time form ,a new healthy habit. But if you feel you are struggling and it is negatively impacting you or others it is important to seek professional help in making a change,” she says.

“When we take a break from alcohol we disrupt the feedback loop. If we are stressed and we use alcohol, it can actually increase our stress and exacerbate the problem. After a break, we can find ourselves with more energy and clarity.

“Everyone is different, so some may need to cut down before taking a complete break. Seek medical advice if unsure.

“As everyone's experience is unique, how long it takes to feel a difference can vary. Some people may experience withdrawal symptoms. After reflecting on your alcohol use and building new coping strategies, taking a break from alcohol may become a regular part of life and your consumption may reduce naturally.”

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