Can past positive associations with alcohol, cause us to drink in the present?

How to deal with FOMO and stay alcohol-free

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Drinking with friends

It was the first Saturday of Christmas. I was four months alcohol-free and feeling great. On my walk home past the local bar, I could see the fire burning and almost feel the warm sofas. Within seconds I was overcome with desire. All I could notice was laughter, fun and the carefree Saturday Christmas vibe. All the happy, cool, social people were having fun, without a care in the world, and, without me.

I physically stopped. My mind drifted off as the winter sun warmed my back. I had spent so many great Christmas days with friends enjoying a few drinks and watching the world go by. Some of my best memories were days just like this. The lads and I would meet on Grafton Street in Dublin, then float from pub to pub chewing on Guinness all day long. We were carefree young and healthy. We were the cool kids, loving life and living it to the max. Where did the good old days go?

Here I was missing out when all my old mates, in my mind, were still on Grafton street lapping up the Guinness and Christmas glow.

A wake-up call

‘Hurry up Dad’ My daughter’s plea shook me from my vision, and the craving was gone. I smiled, broke into a jog and chased my 6-year-old on her scooter. Happy days.

When I talk about the rose-tinted beer goggles, I often use the story above. Because it’s this type of glorified vision, which paints a false picture of the truth, that can lure us back into unhelpful habits.

In reality, it was 15 years since I was running around Dublin and things have changed. A lot.

In my opinion, one of the major reasons people fall back into unwanted habits is because they make a false association between alcohol and good times.

Chasing a lost youth 

There is an argument, for the mature drinker, that alcohol becomes associated with lost youth. Symbolic of happy-go-lucky times. Perhaps this is why the underlying wisdom prevails that you need alcohol to have fun and be happy? Maybe this is why so many people are tempted back on Christmas days chasing times long gone.

When we reflect on the past, there is a readiness to make this link between our carefree twenties and thirties with alcohol. Admittedly, lots us were carefree during this time, but it had nothing to do with alcohol and everything to do with being younger with fewer responsibilities.

As time goes by, memories fade, so we cling to the happy times, which can often involve social occasions and alcohol. These past associations between alcohol and happiness create a fear of missing out, which can often trip us up in the present.

Remove the alcohol-tinted glasses and see the reality 

Are my mates still running around Dublin in their forties? Some of them are, but most of them are not. They are chasing their own little ones on scooters. To be clear, the kids are on scooters. 

The fact is that most people mature out of their drinking habits even those who are considered alcohol dependent. The NIAAA (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse) performed a massive survey of Americans drinking histories and concluded that 75% of so-called alcohol-dependent people, eventually over time, recovered on their own without treatment.

Many of those big drinking friends, who were always up for a laugh and a few pints, are now married with a steady job and responsibilities.

So my ‘happy place’ was showing severe signs that the rose-tinted picture of alcohol arcadia was faulty.

Let’s not stop there; we are still nowhere near the truth. If this vision were a movie, it would be like watching the opening scene of the insane Tarantino thriller, ‘From Dusk Till Dawn’ and assuming it was a bog standard bank robber/gangster flick. Only to miss the chaos that’s unleashed as the sun goes down and suddenly everyone turns into crazed vampires.

Admittedly they were great days, for a few hours, but what about a few hours after that. The drunken argument, unhealthy food, altercation, hangover, sluggishness. If we kept watching our movie as the sun went down, there might not be vampires, but it might look a lot different to the one that taunts us right now.

Why do we often believe the past is better?

In many ways, it’s the alcohol version of the classic line ‘When I was a lad things were so much better than today.’ So why do we glorify the good old days? Two researchers, Benjamin Storm and Tara Jobe suggest that most people have a reasonably positive self-image, which positive memories help maintain. When trying to focus on positive memories, it’s important to play up the positive and also play down the negative. This two-pronged attack retrieves the best bits, leaving the fuller picture on the cutting room floor. Interestingly, Storm and Jobe conclude that those who are better at suppressing negative memories produce more positive ones.

What can we do if the alcohol-tinted glasses cover our eyes?

Most cognitive biases start to lose some power once we’re conscious of them. In this example, a great way to combat the ‘Christmas drinks’ is to keep playing the movie in your mind. Fond memories are one of the life’s joys so let’s not trample on them but play them for a little longer.

If you are trying to stay alcohol-free and a strong feeling of missing out wafts over you in a reminiscent vision, stick with it, enjoy the good times but keep the tape running. Imagine what might happen as the day progressed and more drink flowed. How might you act and feel? And what about the day after and the day after that. Build up a powerful mental image of all the things that led you to this point in the first place. Remember all those reasons why you have decided to take a break from alcohol and insert them into your movie.

When you play the full showreel, you can enjoy the segment that looks great, but what follows is often so unappealing that any perceived upside is far outweighed with downside. This little mind trick is usually enough to create some space, and new found ‘freedom’. As desire passes, bringing with it a healthy dose of reality, you can carry on with your healthy goals and stay on your alcohol-free adventure.

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