You are at happy hour and maybe you think, “Ahhh, it’s happy hour!” “I love hanging out with friends and grabbing a drink, or two.” But if that drink or 2 turned into becoming more and more over time, that could lead you to a place you don’t want to be. How does that happen? Why was it becoming harder to control my drinking and how did this happen?
Here’s the over-simplified version of how (scientifically-speaking) alcohol affects the brain and causes changes in our behavior:
Alcohol causes a release of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in the brain. When dopamine is released, it stimulates the reward center, leading us to experience a pleasurable “high”, or euphoria. As a species, we are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. Naturally then, our brain seeks to repeat this behavior that brought us this pleasurable high. With repeated drinking, our neuropathways become reinforced and, as the saying goes, “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. Given our brain is now wired to seek this dopamine high, we begin to have cravings for alcohol and engage in drinking more.
Alcohol floods the brain with 2-10 times more dopamine than other natural rewards
And the reason this habit can be easily formed is that alcohol floods the brain with 2-10 times more dopamine than other natural rewards do – quicker and more reliably.
Therefore, the brain prioritizes this activity given the importance it has placed on the amount of pleasure received from the activity of drinking. Our brains have been programmed with over-desire for alcohol.
In addition, dopamine also plays a role in learning and encoding memories about a reward (e.g. how to get the reward, what factors/environment was involved in the activity). Due to this, certain environmental cues trigger the brain to seek alcohol for the associated reward. When you want a drink, your brain is doing its job. It’s responding to reward. But we know that too much drinking is not good and it can be harmful to you and others.
Just as the brain was programmed to over-desire alcohol, it can be re-programmed to not over-desire alcohol.
That is the nature of my work. I work with individuals who are not alcoholics who want to cut back on their drinking, or maybe even stop. I have used this process on me and others to reduce the brain’s desire for alcohol. I can control if I drink and how much I drink. It is a beautiful thing. My desire is to encourage others to cut back or quit drinking and have a better life.