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Beline Obeid

The illusion of drinking to reduce stress

July 11, 2013
Dear Jeff and Debra:

My husband is an attorney who experiences significant pressure in his work. We have two children in college and one in a private high school. This creates tremendous financial stress. Then we have house payments, myriad bills and an attempt to save for our retirement. I work in hospital administration, which has its own stressors. Our growing success seems to have ushered in a taxing lifestyle.

My concern is how my husband chooses to unwind: alcohol. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with a cocktail or a glass of wine a couple times a week. But everyday upon arriving home, he takes off his suit coat, loosens his tie, and pours a generous glass of scotch. I feel like I’m living in an endless loop of “Mad Men.” While the scotch melts away his stress, my stress skyrockets. I know I’m facing another evening with a husband who is out-of-touch. Not that he is drunk, but he is always moderately high.

I’ve told my husband I want a relationship with him, not a slightly intoxicated version of him. It’s tiresome and annoying, and this is how our daughter is experiencing him during her last couple years at home. He’s nodding off by 8 p.m. He tells me I’m overreacting and he does exactly what millions of other men do to relax after a hard day’s work.

I work hard too. I experience stress. But I’m not drinking every night. I have a clear head and want a family life. I engage with my daughter fully, not through the fog of alcohol. I want my husband present, too. He’s a great guy and I miss him. If it’s stress he’s concerned about, how do we meet both his needs and mine?

— Searching

­­for a Life

Dear Searching:

Alcohol is a favorite stress reliever because it appears to work so well. Down a drink and begin a psychological slowdown. Alcohol inhibits our ability to process information and tricks us into believing we feel great by increasing the chemical dopamine. Research indicates dopamine’s effect on men is greater than on women, which may explain why more men turn to drink in times of stress.

Overtime, however, the brain releases less dopamine and the depressive nature of alcohol is more pronounced. The chemicals naturally produced by the body to combat stress are released in smaller doses. The body and brain are economical. It’s as if they are saying, “Alcohol is doing our job for us, so we don’t need to anymore.”

The result is a decreased ability to naturally feel good and to combat stress, leading to a growing need to rely on alcohol for comfort. The problem, of course, is that the sense of gaining something from alcohol is an illusion. Chronically using alcohol to do something you need to do for yourself leads to a deficit.

Ask your husband to try something different to reduce stress. Take a walk together. Princeton researchers find that walking creates new brain cells and, simultaneously, brings about a sense of calm. Exercise, it seems, creates cells that specifically release GAMA, a neurotransmitter that inhibits brain activity. They nicknamed these neurotransmitters “nanny neurons,” because they hush the activity in the brain.

Thirty minutes a day is a good goal, but research recently presented at the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting shows three 10-minute walks per day provide more benefits for controlling blood pressure. Create a walking schedule that works for you. The gains you make are gains you keep.

If your husband prefers to stick with his scotch rather than make a healthy change that can also improve family relationships, you should initiate counseling with a therapist knowledgeable about alcohol and alcohol dependence.

The Jays are the authors of “Love First: A New Approach to Intervention for Alcoholism and Drug Addiction,” and Debra Jay is the author of “No More Letting Go: The Spirituality of Taking Action.” Jeff and Debra Jay are professional interventionists who live in Grosse Pointe Farms. They may be contacted with your questions at (313) 882-6921 or lovefirst.net.

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