One of the most common questions I get asked when people are struggling to quit drinking is:
“Why do I keep drinking even though I really don’t want to? I don’t even enjoy it anymore.”
It can be really demoralising when you end up drinking yet again, after promising yourself repeatedly that you’re done –
and especially when it doesn’t even do much for you anymore except leave you with a banging headache, writhing in a swamp of anxiety and shame.
So why do we do it?
The answer lies in the fact that we have – for all intents and purposes, TWO brains.
Our subconscious emotional brain and our conscious rational brain– each with a different agenda and a different way of operating.
Our emotional brain’s job is to keep us alive at any given moment. To ensure our survival – it has a radar – called the amygdala – which constantly scans our world for things that are beneficial for us and things that could kill us.
But here’s the thing – the amygdala is millions of years old and doesn’t have a very sophisticated system for making its decisions.
Its yard stick is – if it feels good then it IS good. If it feels bad – it IS bad.
This worked really well back when we lived simple lives in tribes, but today in our much more complex world there is a lot of room for judgment error.
The amygdala lives purely in the moment. It doesn’t care about our future self or our dreams and goals. All it cares about is our survival NOW.
On a day to day basis – it’s constantly trying to push us away from any kind of bad feeling – even mild discomfort – and towards anything that feels remotely pleasurable.
This is why we do things like stay on the sofa when we know we should go to the gym, procrastinate when we have an important task to do, or eat a pizza when we are trying to lose weight.
The amygdala’s power over us comes from the fact that it controls our fight /flight system – basically our stress response.
When it decides something is dangerous – it activates a cascade of stress hormones that make us want to attack or run away from something.
Even something as innocuous as cleaning the house or writing a simple email can signal discomfort to the amygdala so it pushes against doing it.
You might have felt this as an unexplained resistance.
When it decides something is good for us – it generates a craving.
This is basically a milder form of the stress response coupled with a spurt of dopamine – the motivation chemical – to get us to take action.
In this craving state- we are biologically programmed to focus obsessively on the ‘object of desire’ and the stress response only turns off when we get it.
If you are struggling to quit drinking you will know this state all too well.
When drinking starts to become excessive and is taking over our lives – we might not even like the taste anymore.
But this doesn’t matter to the amygdala.
It has been conditioned from years of drinking and associations to believe that drinking is vital to survival. And once it has made up its mind, it’s very difficult to recondition it.
So it will still set off the craving response and some dopamine frequently – especially when you experience something that you associate with alcohol.
It doesn’t care whether you actually want to drink – its job is to GET you to drink.
From its unsophisticated point of view – it’s just trying to keep you alive.
So you can imagine – if the amygdala is totally running the show we could end up a slave to all our desires.
But thankfully for the majority of the time it’s not. We also have a much more evolved part of our brain to help us – the rational logical brain – also known as the prefrontal cortex (PFC).
Its job is to plan, dream, and focus on the future. It’s concerned with our long term goals and plans and over-riding the urge to give in to our cravings, impulses and desires.
The PFC is why we have evolved so far as humans – it’s often called the CEO of the brain.
It basically notices when the amygdala kicks off and takes a good look around to see what is happening.
The amygdala will see a stick on the path and because it looks like a snake will panic and set off the fear response – then a few milliseconds later the PFC kicks in – pays attention to what the amygdala is screaming about and realises it’s just a stick.
It then calms down the amygdala by telling it there’s nothing to fear – it’s just a stick.
Its the same principle with cravings.
The amygdala is saying –
“I want, I want, I want…”
and the PFC will consider our long term goals, our future self and say –
“Well you’re not having it – think about how you will feel tomorrow – it’s actually going to harm us if we drink that drink, eat that donut, don’t go to the gym”.
The PFC is like an older wiser sibling to the toddler-like amygdala.
It’s the ONLY part of the brain that can control the amygdala.
You’ll no doubt have experienced these kinds of dialogues in your own mind many, many times.
If you’re struggling to quit drinking – there are two things very likely going on in your brain.
Your PFC is not working optimally,
the communication pathways between the PFC and the amygdala are not very strong – so it can shout all it likes but the amygdala won’t hear it.
You can read more about the PFC development here
It’s your rational conscious ‘human’ brain that wants to stop – that doesn’t like what drinking is doing.
And it’s your amygdala that wants to keep on drinking.
It’s the amygdala that ‘likes’ alcohol.
And the amygdala is extremely powerful without the calming rational presence of a healthy robust PFC.
So essentially to answer the question – there is a part of your brain that likes drinking and a part that doesn’t.
It’s not that there’s something weak, immoral or inherently wrong with you. You just need to retrain your amygdala to ‘see’ alcohol as actually detrimental to survival. And build up the strength of your PFC. Which you absolutely can do.
In my next post, I’ll talk about ways that you can re-wire your brain to change you relationship with alcohol.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post, so please feel free to leave any comments or questions in the comment box below.
Excellent, Christine. Thanks for posting.
Recovery From Addiction Online says
Thank you Mary, I’m happy you found it interesting!
This is SO ME!!! every morning, I feel great today about not drinking!!! every afternoon, hmmmm- if I have tacos for dinner, I’ll need a couple beers 🙁 help!!! I do not want to drink!!
That is me. I am awake all night worrying then do it again!
That was interesting!
I’ve been lying awake for the last 3 hours. I woke up at 2:30a.m. after 3 1/2 hours sleep. I woke with anxiety because I had to many glasses of wine last night! UGH!!!
I don’t want to drink anymore OR I just want to have 1 drink only! But I can never seem to have just 1 So I want NONE! How do I do this?!
Recovery From Addiction Online says
Seek the help you think and feel you need…
Amazing post and replies. Hope everyone gets through this. I’m on s journey to realise I’m an alcoholic and I hope I get there before it beats me. Thank you everyone for making me feel like I’m not the only one. MP from Birmingham England.
I hope you’ve managed to turn things round Matt.
I’m trying this year . I’m drinking too much and know it’s not good for me.
Daniel Phiri says
Thank you so much
I’m getting professional help and this post has made it make more sense. I cried with relief, thank you
Nichole Booker says
This is amazing! I wish my psychiatrist would have explained it this well!
Recovery From Addiction Online says
Darren Furnival says
I just feel helpless and weak toward alcohol. I don’t want to drink anymore…
Gaye Thompson says
Interesting and helpful… would like to know and learn more
marylou lawson says
This is so true. What does it take to say no more
I love the feeling of being numb. It takes me away from feeling anything especially things that I need to do. I’m tired
Amazing post and posts. Been lying here for hours reading all of your stuff and now determined to seek help. Thank you for saying it’s nit our fault and that we need to have compassion for ourselves. I am in cycle if self loathing – calming anxiety – self loathing…
Lisa Diehl says
Very informative… My inner voice seems to always be bargaining. Maybe its my Amygdala and my PFC back and forth… Weird…
Makes so much sense. Thank you!
A. Darker says
Thank you so much for this article. It pretty much answered to many questions I’ve asked myself regarding my use of alcohol. Every time I get the cravings, I almost instantly start to come up with all sorts if excuses to give in and drink, although at the same time I know it is never a good idea.
I will most definitely keep this article in mind from now on.
I have for years been through this constant state/cycle of wanting it, not wanting it. I drink alot, I cant just have one, ever, no matter what it is. Then there’s the regret, every time. And anxiety. Its abuse. And I don’t know why I do this to myself. I take good care of myself in other ways but alcohol is my poison, the love/hate relationship. I try to not have it when I work the next day, but then when I don’t, then its an opening to go crazy with it. And its always too much. I want to feel good, I want clarity, I want my whole self.
Exactly! It’s so difficult! I hope you are doing well with it! I’m still struggling.