Breaking an "Unbreakable" Drinking Habit
In Episode 10 of “Breaking the Bottle Legacy” Molly Watts shares her mission to assist listeners in establishing a peaceful relationship with alcohol, delving into real science and leveraging self-coaching techniques. Molly reflects on her personal journey, including the challenge of overcoming imposter syndrome and the belief in an unbreakable drinking habit. She dispels myths about genetic predisposition, the need for relaxation through alcohol, and the false dichotomy of unhealthy drinking versus total abstinence. Exploring the neuroscience of habits, Molly discusses the limbic system’s role, dopamine release, and the impact of alcohol on neurotransmitters like glutamate and GABA. Emphasizing the importance of the prefrontal cortex in rewiring the brain, Molly sheds light on neurogenesis and addresses the complexities of cravings and urges, reassuring listeners of their capacity to break free from ingrained drinking patterns.
You’re listening to breaking the bottle legacy with Molly watts, Episode 10. Hi, I’m Molly, after a lifetime living under the influence of family alcohol abuse, spending more than 30 years worrying about alcohol and my own drinking, believing I had an unbreakable daily drinking habit, I changed my relationship with alcohol forever. If you want to change your drinking habits than breaking the bottle legacy is for you. My goal is to help you create a peaceful relationship with alcohol, past, present, and future. Each week, all focus on real science and using your own brain to change your relationship with alcohol. Nothing has gone wrong, you’re not broken, you’re not sick. It’s not your genes. And creating peace is possible. I’m here to help you do it. Let’s start now. Well, hello, and welcome or welcome back to breaking the bottle legacy. I’m your host, Molly watts, coming to you from a very gray, gloomy, cloudy, foggy and wet I should say, Oregon, it’s in the middle, you know, mid end of February, we just came out of a week of snow ice power outages everywhere. So I guess in comparison, this weekend is mild and relatively what we would expect for February in Oregon. So you know, it’s all good. It’s okay. The good news is I’m up early, got the whole day ahead of me going to finish some writing today. And so you know, it’s a good day, right? Today on the podcast, I’m going to be talking about unbreakable habits, and specifically, specifically some of the science behind how I was able to finally break my own unbreakable drinking habit. It’s the science behind how I have created a peaceful relationship with alcohol. And why I’m not worried about drinking, trying to use alcohol to numb away negative emotions, and how I am able to include alcohol in my life without feeling an overwhelming desire to drink more. So really, it’s kind of this science behind all of it right. And I just want to take a quick second to say if you’re new here, if you’re new to the podcast, and you have not already gone to www dot Molly watts.com. That’s Molly with a why watts with an s.com and grabbed my free ebook called alcohol, how much is safe? I would really recommend it, it’s free. And you know, just grab it. You can also come join my free private Facebook group, no one has to know you’re in there. But I mean, no one will see any of your posts. But it’s a great place for learning more diving in a little deeper accountability, hopefully some, some camaraderie. And it’s you can look for it on Facebook, breaking the bottle legacy, just search by name. It’s a private group, but it’s searchable and send me a request to join. We’d love to have you. So back to breaking unbreakable drinking habits. If you’ve listened to Episode One of this podcast, you know that I’ve previously hosted a podcast and it’s called live happier longer. And it was all about building the habits of a happier longer life. You will also hear that while I was working on that podcast and the project behind it, I was dealing with severe case of imposter syndrome. And I it was all because I knew that my daily drinking habit was really preventing me from living my best life. And even though I had watched my mother’s life spiraled downward over the last 20 years of her life, and ultimately end after an alcoholic binge, I didn’t want to talk about my own drinking, because I genuinely believed I could not change it. That habit was simply different than other habits that I had that didn’t serve me. And some of the reasons I believed my drinking habit was different or unbreakable even included, one that I was genetically predisposed to desire alcohol more, making it impossible to change. I was dearly afraid of what failure to change meant about the future for me because of my alcoholic upbringing. I also number two believed that I needed to drink to feel relaxed to take the edge off. I never really wanted to drink to be altered but I did drink every day to forget about my stress and anxiety. And I three believed that I just simply love the taste of beer too much to give it up. Yes, that’s right. I really liked the flavor of a good IPA. And I believed that I like it. I liked it way too much to never have one again. And I fell into the trap of thinking that the only options available to me were to keep drinking at the unhealthy level that I was, or total abstinence, right. That’s kind of what the, the alcohol free people, you know, alcohol free life means never again. So I had all these reasons that I couldn’t stop drinking, but I also had very strong beliefs that I was drinking more than I wanted to, and more than I knew was good for me. So let’s talk about where I developed my ideas of how much alcohol was good for me. I basically looked at the guidelines set forth by the National Institute of alcohol and alcoholism, Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and Ay ay ay ay ay ay. And it was pretty easy to conclude that my drinking was not in a healthy category. The NCAA National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says that guidelines for moderate drinking for women is up to one drink per day, and two for men up to one for women. So before I decided to break my unbreakable habit, the I drink idea of drinking only one drink per day seemed absolutely impossible to me. And understand that this is the maximum threshold for moderate and I was drinking a lot more than that. Heavy drinking as designed as defined by the NAA, I say that forays and Ay ay ay ay, sorry, is three drinks per day for women and for drinks for men. Now, that’s three standard drinks. And I want to be clear about that too, because I was routinely drinking at least three higher alcohol by volume beers nightly. So with a 7% alcohol by Val by volume, which is what probably is pretty typical for a standard IPA, the standard drink is eight to nine ounces, not 12, which by my quick math would mean that I was actually at four drinks per day. So I was already was well past heavy for women. And this is when I was at home drinking, you know, drinking out of a 12 ounce can or a bottle, not on a night when I went out to bars or out to a restaurant, because there I would be drinking three pints of IPA and three pints of IPA is closer to six standard drinks, my friends. So drinking and just by the way, drinking two pints of IPA within two hours would also two pints to 16 ounce classes, right two pints of IPA within two hours would also be considered a binge drinking episode for women as well. And I was likely hitting that benchmark too when I was out drinking at bars and such. So So suicide note here. I’ve been researching alcohol since I was in junior high as a way of trying to both understand and fix my mother’s addiction. So for me, looking up scientific information and researching alcohol is just always been second nature. Over the years, those guidelines have changed. But for a long time, I never looked at the guidelines to try to apply them to myself. I actually believed that by avoiding hard alcohol like my mom drank, I could avoid becoming an alcoholic. And really, that was my only goal. At that point. I didn’t look at the other cost, risk reward analysis, I just didn’t want to have to become an alcoholic like her. When I ultimately decided to change my relationship with alcohol, I finally acknowledged that my drinking was impacting my overall physical and mental health and had been negatively impacting me for decades. I never hit some rock bottom moment, I didn’t have some monumental hangover, that I said, Oh, this is the last time I simply wanted to get rid of that cognitive dissonance that was so uncomfortable for me, and was the result of all the research that I had done on alcohol throughout my life, as well as the work I had put into five for life and the live happier longer podcast. So cognitive dissonance just so I don’t throw out terms that are fancy, without defining them is defined in psychology as the psychological stress that a person experiences when they participate in an action that goes against contradictory beliefs, ideas or values they hold. For me all the knowledge I had with the self coaching model all the research I knew about alcohol and its health impacts pushed me from slight discomfort to the decision to change my lifestyle to match my new knowledge of neuroscience habits and the negative consequences of drinking alcohol. And once I committed to changing my relationship with alcohol, understanding that none of these reasons I believed before about my unbreakable habit were true. But they were simply thoughts that I had practiced over and over again. That became my beliefs. I realized that I could create new beliefs by changing my thoughts, and I could break my habit with those new beliefs. So over on the live happier longer podcast, I did a whole series of episodes on habits, and I will link them in the show notes. Because there are several. And understanding how and why our brains create habits was really important for me in changing my daily drinking habit. So just, you might want to check those out. And there’s books that I’m going to link as well down here, James clears atomic habits. Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit. Both of those books are just awesome, and were great resources for me. In Episode Two here on breaking the bottle legacy, I talked about how the science of alcohol challenges your power over alcohol. And I touched on the neuroscience of habit formation, I want to dive a little deeper into the habit of drinking and breaking an unbreakable habit. Back in episode two, I shared the triune brain model and its three parts, the primitive or reptilian brain, the Neo mammalian brain, or limbic system, and the Neo mammalian brain or prefrontal cortex. I shared how learning about these three different areas of the brain specifically the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex helped me unwind my habit of drinking, the limbic system, and the and the lower part, the reptilian or primitive brain, those two parts of the brain or what we call the subconscious brain. And the prefrontal cortex, part of the neo cortex is the conscious brain. All right, so with all habits, think brushing your teeth, driving to work, making toast, I don’t know, whatever, you know, those basic habits, the limbic system always gets involved because it’s focused on our survival. And one way it can do that is to conserve energy. So when we repeat a pattern of behavior, the brain initiates the habit system, and moves the whole routine into the limbic system where the subconscious takes over. Using our conscious brains requires more energy. And by design, our brains want to conserve that energy as a survival function so that it can use the prefrontal cortex for more advanced thinking, right. The limbic system or subconscious evolved to ensure survival of the human species. And beyond conserving energy, it’s also motivated to seek pleasure and avoid pain. These three survival instincts, conserving energy, seeking pleasure and avoiding pain have been coin, the coin the motivational triad, and it is the core of it’s at the core of your drinking habit. If you think about those three areas, seeking pleasure, avoiding pain and conserving energy, you can see pretty easily that alcohol a daily alcohol habit, meets all three of those criteria, right? seeking pleasure. So we talked about this in episode two, but alcohol interrupts your brain’s neurotransmitters, and one of those dopamine is also known. It’s known as the feelgood transmitter is increased by alcohol. dopamine is released during activities like having sex, eating favorite foods, exercising, sleep, these are all things that are good for us, right? These natural and healthy activities perpetuate our species. And the chemical contributes to the feelings of pleasure, pleasure and satisfaction, we feel thus motivating us to do it again, right? So the brain wants us to learn that sleeping is really good for us, exercise is good for us. So to keep us surviving at the fittest best level, it releases dopamine to motivate us to do those things. Again, it’s all a part of the evolution of the brain and the limbic systems survival mode specifically, the thing is habits like drinking that involve the release of dopamine, are more difficult to change. And additionally, because of that dopamine release, alcohol tricks you into thinking that it’s actually making you feel great with the dopamine, right? Maybe just better if you’re drinking to get over something emotionally difficult. And the effect is that you keep drinking to get more dopamine release, but at the same time, you’re altering other brain chemicals that are enhancing feelings of depression. So the the depressing so it’s an it has a biphasic effect both stimulant and depressant. And that’s one of the problems for why it stimulates at the the reward system. The seeking pleasure part is one of the things a survival instinct, right? One of the reasons it makes it hard to get rid of Number two, it also oftentimes helps you avoid pain. Alcohol directly affects brain chemistry by altering levels of neurotransmitters, as we just said. And the thing is it effects different neurotransmitters in different ways. And it and these neurotransmitters are basically our brains messenger system throughout the body. And they control thoughts, processes, behaviors, emotions, and alcohol affects both excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters, and exists example of an excitatory neurotransmitter is glutamate, which would normally increase brain activity and energy levels. So your glutamate is responsible for making you feel alert and alive, right. And alcohol suppresses the release of glutamate, which results in a slowdown along your brain’s highways. An example of an inhibitory transmit neurotransmitter is GABA, which reduces energy levels and calms everything down. So you’ve got this unique balanced homeostasis system in the brain of GABA and glutamate, right? And alcohol comes in and affects both of them. Drugs like Xanax, Valium, but all of those those benzo Dias zo pains is what they’re called. That’s a weird i don’t even know if I said that right. Anyways, they it but you know, Xanax and Valium. They increase GABA production in the brain reducing and sedation. So alcohol does the same things by it same thing by increasing the effects of GABA. So it suppresses the release of glutamate, and it increases the effects of GABA. So it basically does both of these things. And what it means is that your thought, your thoughts, your speech, your movements are all slowed down. And the more you drink, the more of these effects you’ll feel. This is the numbing effect of alcohol that our limbic system quickly associates with avoiding pain. So we’ve just talked about seeking pleasure avoiding pain. And we already talked about the fact that once you do things repetitively, your brain commits it to habit, which is a way of conserving energy. So that’s the third part of the motivational triad, right? Luckily, we are not at the mercy of our limbic system, the human brain kept on evolving and we have something that makes us uniquely human in our prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, or sometimes people call it the adult brain is widely recognized as the executive function area of the brain. Executive functions include planning, decision making, problem solving, self control, and acting with long term goals in mind. They are higher level cognitive processes that people tend to display at greater proficiency than other animals. Thus, you could argue that some of the functions that truly help they are some of the functions that truly helped to make human brains unique. It is the prefrontal cortex, where we need to start to rewire our brains and change our drinking habits. And that involves another awesome science term called neuroplasticity. It’s a good day when I get to throw around lots of science terms, friends just telling you. So the human brain is composed of approximately 86 billion neurons. Each early researchers believed that neurogenesis or the creation of new neurons stopped shortly after birth. But today, it’s understood that the brain possesses the remarkable capacity to reorganize pathways, create new connections, and in some cases, even create new neurons. This is called neuroplasticity, or brain plasticity. Our brains have the capacity to build new neural pathways. It has created a neural pathway basically, for drinking alcohol that you can rewire. Instead of simply focusing on stopping the behavior. What we have to do with the habit of drinking is create new neural pathways and learn new behaviors. But it goes just beyond changing the action of drinking. To create a strong new neural pathway, you need to use better thoughts. mental activity strengthens the neural pathways in your brain. Every thought you think and feeling that you feel strengthens the circuitry in your brain known as your neural pathways. It’s also important why it’s also why it’s so important to uncover the subconscious thoughts that you have around drinking and find new thoughts that support a peaceful relationship with alcohol. Okay, so now that we have the basic science down, we know why our brains have built a habit around drinking, and we know that our brains are also capable of changing that habit. The devil as they say is in the details. So you’re listening to this podcast, presumably because you’re trying to or have tried to change your drinking habit and haven’t been successful, or you’ve been able to be good for a while, but ultimately, you fell back into the habit or off the wagon as it were. And I want to just remind you that it’s not because you’re broken or sick, or because you have alcoholic genes. It’s not even because of the alcohol itself. Just because you haven’t been successful before does not mean it’s not possible. I am not a special snowflake, I don’t have a stronger Constitution than you. And I certainly haven’t mastered every habit I have. That doesn’t serve me. But I have figured out alcohol. And I 100% believe that you can do this too. In the next episode, I’m going to talk more about what I call the results cycle. It’s my spin on Burke Castillo’s self coaching model. And it is absolutely key for changing your drinking habit and ultimately, your relationship with alcohol. As a small preview of the results cycle, I want to look at one more component of habits that seems to frustrate and bewildered many people who decide to take a break to break an unbreakable habit, like drinking, and that is urges or cravings. So what exactly is an urge? And does an urge mean that you are physically addicted to alcohol? Are you just doing it all wrong? Again? Why when you’ve truly committed to changing your drinking habit, does this counterproductive urge appear. One of the things that prevented me from changing my drinking habit for so many years, was believing that the only option I had was to quit drinking, and to still want to be drinking. I imagined myself with this insatiable urge to drink and gritting my teeth to endure the suffering. And all the times that I’ve tried to take even a day off before that was exactly what happened. I felt this total desire and I felt like I was white knuckling my way through it. I knew that there was no eight or no way I’d ever be able to resist the temptation to drink forever. Sound familiar to people? So while there isn’t scientific agreement on the definition of a craving, or an urge, I want to define it as a broad range of thoughts, physical sensations or emotions that tempt you to drink, even though you have at least some desire not to. I think this definition resonates because it even inside it, you can see that an urge or craving to drink only happens when you have a competing desire not to. And it’s important to understand that distinction because it recognizes the conflict between your prefrontal cortex your logical brain versus your subconscious, your primitive brain, right. Another reason this definition of urge an urge or craving resonates is it says for me is because it says broad range of thoughts, physical sensations or emotions, urges and cravings are hard to articulate because they are experienced. So individually, the strength of an urge how long an urge lasts, how it manifests itself in your body is going to vary from person to person. And for many years, that individuality factor convinced me that my urges and cravings are stronger than other people’s because of my alcoholic genes. And I used that flawed thinking as another reason I was incapable of changing my drinking habits. What I failed to recognize was that my cravings and urges were dynamic and changeable. They were not who I was, they weren’t a fixed genetically caused part of my being, and they could be changed by changing my thinking. Yep. So right inside the definition, you can see that one of the components of an urge or craving is your thoughts. And there in lies, the rub, urges and cravings at their root are really just the feeling of desire. And while they seem to happen to us almost automatically or completely out of the blue, it simply isn’t true. There is always a thought that happens to stir the strong feeling of desire we call a craving or an urge. For habit drinkers like me, those thoughts are often running in the subconscious. They’re hidden from our conscious brain because we have committed the drinking to habit. unwinding a long standing habit means taking time and energy and redirecting the brain to find a different thought and urge or craving does not mean that anything has gone wrong with your efforts here. On the contrary, it just simply means that your primitive brain is doing exactly what it has been wired to do avoid pain and seek pleasure. And because you’ve created the habit changing the habit sounds very painful to the primitive brain. And because it’s being trained to expect the dopamine reward that alcohol releases, it doesn’t want to give up that pleasure either. So, an breakable habit and mean an undesirable habit like drinking alcohol that increases dopamine really does and can seem to feel almost unbreakable. It certainly felt that way for me for many years. And one of the reasons that it seemed unbreakable was because of how I responded to those urges and cravings. And I did it only in the only ways that I knew how at the time, number one I reacted to them and drank so I had an urge or craving and I fulfill it right. Number two, I resisted them, which of course, never lasted very long. That’s the white knuckling. Or number three, I distract myself from drinking with other activities. But eventually, I’d run out of distractions and just choose to drink some more. So regardless of how an urge feels, and how ingrained a habit is, learning how to allow an urge to be there is the best way to change any habit that doesn’t serve you. allowing an urge is very different than how you’ve previously responded to urges and cravings. Now that you understand that an urge or craving is actually just the feeling of desire, and because you know, you know, I’m telling you that your thoughts create your feelings, you can work on allowing your urges and cravings to be there without distraction or resistance. So how often have you lamented with yourself over your own lack of willpower? I know that I believed that my lack of willpower was again, just an inherent part of my personality thought it was who I was right. And much like I believed my urges for alcohol were stronger. I believed that I just lacked willpower. The truth is that willpower isn’t an action or an inaction. In the case of breaking an undesirable habit like drinking. Willpower is actually the ability to allow an urge or craving. The problem with most constructs of willpower are that they focus our attention on the action and on our behaviors. We are told to resist giving into temptation, as a way of strengthening our willpower, like a muscle we can supposedly build willpower by repeatedly exercising it. And we can weaken willpower by reacting to our urges and cravings. In reality, we change our willpower by understanding the feelings that are driving our actions. And to understand the feelings we have to find the thoughts that are creating them. Once we find old thoughts, or whatever thoughts that are existing now, we begin practicing new thoughts to create new feelings on purpose. We have an unlimited willpower, when we focus our attention on our thinking. And there is nothing about improving willpower that we cannot learn intent. I’ve just outlined the results cycle for you. So next week’s next week’s episode will be you’ll learn more. Our thoughts create our feelings, our feelings drive our actions, we get the results in our lives from our actions, hence why I call it the results cycle. All right, my friends, that is a lot of information. The key takeaway I want you to hear is that you are completely capable of breaking your unbreakable drinking habit. I’m going to help you learn new ways to handle urges and cravings. We’re going to rewire your desire for alcohol by changing your thoughts around it. And we’re going to work on taking new actions that because we feel differently, we’re going to take different actions. Is this all going to happen overnight? Sorry, hell no. It’s probably not even going to happen in a month. But I promise you that it’s not going to be nearly as hard as you think it will be. And you may even come to enjoy the work and the process of change. That’s possible to Alright, until next week, she’s pleased my friends. Thank you for listening to breaking the bottle legacy. This podcast is dedicated to helping you change your drinking habits and to create a peaceful relationship with alcohol. Take something that you learned in today’s episode and apply it to your life this week. Transformation is possible. You have the power to change your relationship with alcohol. Now, for more information, please visit me at www dot Molly watts.com