I drink to avoid feeling upset

(Substitute ‘drink‘ with food, drugs, phones, gambling or anything else).

Did you know that we have a part of the brain that helps us to avoid upsetting things?

Our threat system makes us instinctually avoid anything that might upset us, but activity in our pre-frontal cortex (thoughts) guide us to avoid these things as well.

So as much as therapists (like me) and other well-meaning people tell you “it’s okay to feel your feelings”, and “let it out”, “have a good cry”. The brain struggles with this initially because it is setup to avoid doing this. Unless we feel safe enough.

One reason why alcohol, drugs, social media and our phones, sex, gambling, and food can become so easy to use as distraction techniques is because they help these parts of us that want to avoid and distract from anything that might upset us. In this article in Neuroscience News, alcohol addiction was found to be associated with higher activity in the part of the brain that senses unpleasant events and makes us want to avoid them. This research shows what we have known for some time, that we can often drink to escape from our feelings. But it is our brain that is ‘helping’ us to do this, guiding us to not be upset. However this can prevent us from processing events that have happened and emotions that would just rise and fall away again if we allow them too. It may not always be the right environment to feel safe enough to do this, but it is a helpful thing to do if we can find a space to offload and process. Our threat network does us a great service, it is always there to defend us from anything that might hurt us. But living on high alert all the time is exhausting. It’s important to get a balance in there, if only to free up mental space to have clarity and focus again, to re-calibrate and reset.


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