How Does Increasing Awareness and Self-Regulation Relate to Drinking?

~3 minute read

We all have made decisions or said something impulsively that we later regret. Adding alcohol into the mix lowers our impulse control and increases the chance that we might say or do something we’ll regret. If you find yourself feeling tempted to drink or regretting the decision to drink or specific actions you did or things you said while under the influence, focusing on awareness and self-regulation can help. 

Lower levels of self-regulation increase the likelihood that you’ll take risks or engage in behavior you later regret. When it comes to drinking, low self-regulation is associated with higher rates of alcohol-related consequences. Low self-regulation also makes it tough to resist the urge to drink. Awareness and self-regulation are crucial to developing a healthy relationship with drinking. 

Awareness allows you to notice when you are feeling the urge to drink – whether it’s to relieve stress, to fit in, to feel more comfortable in a social situation, to have fun, or to explore what drinking feels like. Awareness also allows us to take stock of how we are feeling when we are drinking and how we feel afterward. It’s important to remember that as we consume more alcohol our ability to remain aware of our thoughts and actions decreases. Awareness is a key part of self-regulation – it allows us to notice what we are feeling and to take that crucial pause between an impulsive thought and action.  

Even if you feel comfortable with your relationship to alcohol now, be mindful that the earlier in age and more often you drink, the tougher it is to monitor and control your relationship with drinking over the long-term. Here are a few ways to practice self-regulation when you feel the urge to drink:

1. Stall

Extend the pause between the urge and the impulsive action. Urges are generally time limited. Remind yourself that if you wait it out, the intensity of the temptation to drink will probably pass. Try filling up your cup with water or seltzer. This is a great option especially if you feel pressure to drink at a party or feel awkward not having a drink in your hand. Drinking water can also be a cue to check in on how you are feeling and how much you have had to drink. 

2. Distract yourself

This is another way to extend the pause between the urge and the action. Take some time to text with a friend or family member. If you’re at a party, step outside for ten or fifteen minutes or start up a conversation with someone. 

3. Remove temptation

If you’re drinking at your house or at a friend’s, avoid having drinks easily accessible. If you’re at a party, try not to stand close to the table where the drinks are. 

4. Be mindful of high risk situations

If you’re going to a party with older kids, practice a few ways to say no if you feel pressured to drink or engage in activities you aren’t comfortable with. If you’re just finishing up a stressful or exciting task – like finals period or a major championship game, know that your peers are more likely to engage in binge drinking. You can celebrate without going all out. It’s important to pace yourself, especially when you’re unloading a lot of stress or excitement and your self-regulation resources are already pretty depleted from having to lock-in for a game or a test. If your teammates are engaging in drinking after a hard practice or competition, remember that you’ve recently burned a lot of calories and might be dehydrated. Drinking on an empty stomach or when you’re dehydrated is a bad idea. 

5. Develop alternatives for stress relief and relaxation

It’s easier to resist an urge when we know there is a compelling alternative. Opt to go to the movies, watch Netflix, hang out with friends in a non-drinking setting, go for a walk, or exercise to relieve stress. 

If you find yourself consistently regretting decisions you make with a certain teammate or friend group, try to identify those moments where you make an impulse decision you later regret. Did you feel nervous or pressured in that moment? Next time you feel nerves or discomfort, try to use those feelings as cues to pause between thinking about doing something you might regret and actually doing it. The more you practice pausing between an impulsive thought and an impulsive action, the more you can practice staying grounded in your values and feeling a sense of control over your actions.

No single step can guarantee self-regulation or self-control and especially when drinking is involved, controlling our actions gets much more difficult. Practicing awareness and self-control in various aspects of your life can help improve your ability to practice awareness and self-control when it comes to drinking. It’s not always fun and can be a grind to choose long-term goals over impulse desires. But just as muscle strength increases with exercise, awareness and self-control will increase when you exercise them on a regular basis. 

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