Why Drinking Wine Is A Dangerous Way To Unwind

Here's what you should be doing instead.

2018 has been the year of self care – everywhere we hear about the importance of looking after ourselves, making space for ourselves in the midst of chaos and finding ways to recharge and boost our emotional resources.

Being able to make choices about our personal well-being is powerful and can make a huge difference to our quality of life.  It can give us a sense of control and mastery over our lives, which is important when our lives are busy and stressful.

There is a growing awareness that our busy lives and multiple commitments (especially for the sandwich generation) have resulted in a generation of people who are stressed, anxious and in desperate need of ‘me’ time – but can't find many options for this.

Some are turning to alcohol as a form of self care – a way to unwind and relax after a chaotic, stressful day. On one hand, it is kind of a great self-care tool: physiologically relaxing, pleasurable taste and often consumed when relaxing on the couch with something nice to eat.

When you're stressed, it's hard to stop at just one glass. (Image: Getty)

On the other hand it is a somewhat risky self-care tool, one that is hard to cap at one or two, largely because it is almost too effective at helping us unwind. We generally stop at one bubble bath, or one cup of tea a night – but alcohol is a self-care tool that is fairly difficult to shut off, due to its powerful effects on a stressed out brain.

Often, particularly if someone has had a stressful day, they might crave that release, but at the same time, the release is then followed by a desire to keep the feelings going. Many people also experience this effect with sugar and junk food.  The mechanism is similar, but with alcohol it is even more profound, since it is affecting multiple parts of the brain and reward system, as well as switching off the consequential thinking part of our brains.

What starts out as a gentle way to recover from a hard day, often becomes something that can make the next day even harder – someone might find themselves finishing the bottle of wine in the quest to replenish those emotional resources.

What follows is poor food choices, poor sleep and lower energy the next day, making it less likely we will have the day we were hoping for.

Many people seeking a healthy relationship with alcohol describe this conundrum, the very understandable aim to treat themselves to a drink after a long day (self care), balanced with the equally important need to look after their health and energy levels.

The perennial question: How can I practise self care in the way that I want, without taking away from my quality of life? I’m trying to relax and recharge after work, but I end up waking up the next day feeling awful and even further away from my well-being goals.

Usually just one bath does the trick, but alcohol can be more difficult to 'shut off'. (Image: Getty)

One helpful approach can be to consider the importance of rituals. Many people will describe the pleasure of coming home and pouring a glass of wine and sitting on the couch to relax. Often there are things like sound, smell, taste and even temperature that can inform the ritual and make it something that is repeated. You probably have other rituals that you do daily that have similarly grounding and comforting effects – whether that is taking a coffee break in the sun, or the process of getting ready to go to bed in the evenings.

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Perhaps we can also be a bit critical of that idea of alcohol as an actual form of self care. Some questions to ask might be: Is this really helping me to recover from the day? Is this making my life better in the long run? Is this all I need to top up my emotional resources, or are there some other things that will also help?

Rituals often ground us and provide a predictable framework for us to behave – often this is why people might start to feel relaxed when they get home and have poured a drink, even before they have had a sip.

It is not the alcohol itself that is grounding and relaxing, it is the knowledge that they are home and have the next few hours just for them.

Many self care rituals are similar. We benefit both from the activity (listening to our favourite music) as well as the action (knowing that we are doing something for ourselves).

Forming a new ritual like taking a walk after work may be a healthier way to unwind. (Image: Getty)

If you are finding that alcohol is a major part of your evening self care ritual, it might be helpful to consider what other kinds of rituals might accompany, or replace it. This might look like creating a new evening ritual of having a shower as soon as you get home, and then going for a walk - or it might involve pouring that glass of wine, but also pouring a large glass of soda water.

It might involve calling a friend or family member for a chat after you put the kids to bed, so that when you get to the couch you are in a good mood. It might involve having that glass of wine, but only after you’ve done a few other things first that have calmed you down and set you up for a good evening.

Often, when we look back on the most difficult or stressful times in our lives, we can see that often the rituals that give us a sense of safety and stability have often fallen over – we do need things like this to give our life structure and allow us to feel grounded and safe.

The good news is that if we can find rituals that actually work for us, we are likely to see improvements in our quality of life and well-being. If you are finding that alcohol is a big part of your nightly ritual, consider what kinds of small changes you can make to allow room for other things to fill some of those gaps.