If you’re drinking more alcohol than you were before the COVID-19 pandemic, your “caveman brain” could be to blame.
Way back in the day, this part of the brain helped prehistoric people survive super-stressful experiences—sabre-toothed tiger attacks, say, or mammoth hunts—by releasing adrenaline and other chemicals that prepared cavemen to take action and helped them recover.
Mammoth hunts aren’t part of our lives anymore, but your caveman brain still has the same extreme response to all stressful situations, including low-level chronic stress, which is very common today. From day-to-day work and parenting pressures to managing your finances and health, constant low-level stress confuses your caveman brain. “Okay, I need to take action!” it shouts, but adrenaline-fuelled life-or-death action isn’t needed for most forms of modern stress. Doing your taxes isn’t going to kill you—although it may feel like it sometimes—and dealing with a surly toddler is likely less stressful than running from a sabre-toothed tiger.
That’s why many people today feel stuck with their stress and can’t figure out how to get rid of it. That’s also why many people drink alcohol: to deal with the stresses our caveman brain can’t handle. The pandemic, meanwhile, has only made matters worse. With our caveman brains sidelined, we increasingly look to booze to relieve chronic COVID-related stresses and rampant boredom. Just look at a 2020 NANOS poll, which found that 25 percent of Canadian men and women aged 35 to 54 are drinking more while at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Lacking a regular schedule and added stress and boredom are cited as the main contributing factors. For men aged 35 to 54, the number jumps to nearly 35 percent.
Using alcohol for coping with stress
I work as one of the registered counsellors providing private video appointments at TELUS Health MyCare™. As part of the booking process, we ask clients to include a short summary of their reasons for booking. Anxiety, stress, depression, and relationship conflicts are often mentioned, but alcohol? It’s rarely there, although it is an extremely common struggle.
When I start talking with a client, alcohol often shows up as a coping mechanism. It’s no secret that alcohol provides a feeling of relief at first. It’s one of the things that makes drinking appealing. Anyone who’s had a drink can relate to the “aahhhh” feeling that comes with sipping beer, wine, or cocktails. Alcohol is a biochemical depressant that really does trigger a feeling of relief.
However, that feeling is usually short-lived. Research shows that drinking too much ultimately causes or worsens the problems people think it solves: anxiety, stress, depression, and relationship conflicts.
Representing as a modern caveman, Homer Simpson nails it. “Here’s to alcohol: the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.”
Does alcohol reduce stress and anxiety?
When the initial effects of alcohol subside, most people actually start to feel increased anxiety and stress. This happens for two reasons. When you consume alcohol, it initially has a sedative effect, and that makes you feel good. But after the initial feel-good sedative effects wear off, the brain tries to get the body back into balance by increasing the excitability system; this process causes anxiety, hangovers, and poor sleep. The second reason has to do with the social consequences of long-term or excessive alcohol consumption: friction with family and friends, irresponsible or offensive behaviour, neglecting family and workplace obligations, and the guilt shame that accompanies all of it.
In short, alcohol is bad news when it comes to handling stress and anxiety. The good news: there are plenty of easy ways to lower stress that don’t involve drinking too much or escaping from a prehistoric predator.
How to cope without alcohol in a pandemic
Create a daily routine
Structure and routine give us a feeling of control that counters the uncertainty fuelling stress. This is especially important during the pandemic, with so many people working from home and changing their usual routines.
This can be as easy as getting up at the same time each day and setting a start time for work with regular breaks and meals. When you have lunch, leave your work area and eat it elsewhere, and at the end of the workday, shift gears by shutting off tools and electronics. Meanwhile, a brief walk after work can replace the de-stressing effect of the commute home and help you shift from work to personal life or family life. On that note…
Go outside for at least 20 minutes every day
A 20-minute walk outside each day or a half-hour of backyard playtime with the kids and/or dog can strengthen your mental and physical health. It doesn’t have to be vigorous exercise—by getting active regularly, you’re sending messages to the reward centre of your brain that says, “Hey, that felt good, let’s do it again!” By sending that message over and over again, the urge to get active will become automatic. Here’s the kicker: if you’re feeling a bit off, you will be less motivated to get active, but the benefits will be even greater.
Meet and greet
COVID-19 is also causing epidemics of ‘Zoom fatigue,’ social isolation, and loneliness. That’s why it’s so important to explore different ways to safely make connections with people.
Try picking up the phone and having a conversation. Or going out and getting a coffee. Then, when the counter staff or barista is making your coffee, try to start a conversation. “Hi, how are you?” is all it takes to connect to a community of people larger than ourselves.
Simply feeling lonely is the only reason you need to reach out. Connecting with another person in an authentic and safe situation is a very therapeutic and healing thing. This can include friends, family, or a counsellor.
Get a good sleep
Regular bedtimes and wake-up times are essential to getting the seven to nine hours of nightly sleep you need to stay healthy. Our bodies need to know when to prepare for sleep and when to prepare for waking, yet the lack of a regular routine is causing people to stay up and sleep later than they normally would.
Laugh it off
Like drinking alcohol, listening to a funny podcast or watching a YouTube video will release the feel-good dopamine hormone. But unlike drinking alcohol, having a good laugh will have longer-lasting benefits without the negative consequences.
By their very nature, stress and anxiety are focused on worries and doubts connected to the future. Mindfulness, on the other hand, is about being present in the moment.
Deep breathing and meditation are highly effective ways to achieve mindfulness, yet people often think they require too much time and special skills. But they don’t! In under two minutes, a breathing or visual meditation exercise can reduce your stress. This activates your brain’s reward centre system, so it becomes more appealing and beneficial every time you do it.
That said, mindfulness doesn’t have to involve breathing or meditation. It can be anything that brings you into the moment: reading a book, listening to an audiobook, painting, drawing, or building model aircraft. Anything that slows life down. For men, one of the most popular in-home activities is cooking. Choose a recipe, and spend half an hour in the kitchen focusing on each step. You’ll send stress packing and get a tasty dinner to boot!
If you can’t find mammoth steaks at the supermarket, a nice piece of salmon will do just fine.
Need to talk with someone?
Dealing with COVID-19 is a stressful time for everyone right now. Feeling stressed, lonely, or just having an overall dissatisfaction with life are great reasons to reach out. I work at TELUS Health MyCare, where you can book a private video conference appointment. If you’re interested, you can download the TELUS Health MyCare app (iOS or Android) to book an appointment. TELUS Health MyCare is currently available in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Ontario.
What are some of your favourite stress-busting activities that don’t involve drinking alcohol? Share with the rest of the guys here in the comments below!
If you’re thinking about increasing your energy and waking up happy, we’ve got your back.
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