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Finding Balance in the Middle of Holiday Excess

I love the spirit of the holidays—parties, business lunches, dinners out with friends. Lots of festivities, which means plenty of opportunities to socialize, slow down, and take life a little less seriously. And plenty of opportunities to drink.

Somehow, despite my best efforts, I often struggled to find a balance.

Most years, by January 1 I’d be exhausted and in need of a recovery, which would then fuel a New Year’s “reset mindset.” I’d vow to shed that extra weight, get myself to the gym more, get myself back on track by creating new habits that would support my goals.

The holidays are supposed to be festive—the expectation is to socialize more, relax, celebrate, and take it easy after working hard all year long. We have worked hard all year long, and we most definitely deserve rest and have fun.

Is it possible, then, to have it both ways? To have fun and socialize while also prioritizing our mental and physical health?

Absolutely. One of the keys lies in our alcohol use: particularly, understanding how alcohol works and being more intentional about how we use it.

The holidays are an alcohol-soaked time of year. According to U.S. liquor store data, sales of alcohol spike drastically in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, including the top 5 biggest sales days of the year for liquor stores, peaking on New Year’s Eve (159 percent higher than the average day’s sales) and Christmas Eve (151 percent higher than the average day’s sales) . That’s a huge increase!

We all have our reasons for holiday drinking.

Some of us drink to celebrate. Some of us drink to manage increased stress and responsibility around the holidays. Some of us drink to cope with difficult family dynamics. And some of us drink to fend off loneliness, sadness, and other uncomfortable feelings around the holidays. Regardless of motivation, increased consumption takes a toll, affecting body and mind and leaving us tired and irritable.

Alcohol is, after all, a toxin, and it accumulates in our bodies, which means we need rest periods in order to fully recover and function effectively. Some people respond to holiday overconsumption by taking a break for the entire month of January to reset and restore. There are excellent programs and apps like Dry January that provide support and information for this kind of intentional reset. While I’ve done Dry January several times and highly recommend it, I’d also argue there are huge benefits to resisting the pressure to over-consume in the first place.

It may feel impossible to resist when everyone seems to be drinking merrily, and you worry that holidays without alcohol will be bland, boring, and forgettable. Or you might wonder how you can possibly get through Uncle Bob’s political diatribes without a drink in your hand to numb the pain. What few people realize is that these worries are actually false—you will be surprised at how much more enjoyable your holidays can be when you approach alcohol with intention and clarity.

How can simple awareness about our alcohol consumption actually make the holidays more fun?

Here are eight benefits that come with a more intentional approach to drinking:

1. Increased energy.

Alcohol saps your energy in multiple ways. It’s dehydrating, so once the initial rush of sugar and dopamine wears off, you feel tired, sluggish, and ill. It requires your liver to work overtime to process all the alcohol and remove it from your brain, organs, and cells—effort that is normally used for regular cellular repair and maintenance, including bolstering your immune system at a time of year when illness is more prevalent. Your body has finite energy sources, and when you force it to spend its energy allotment towards recovery, it has less energy for normal activity.

Alcohol also robs you of restful sleep. Going to bed with alcohol in your system (it can remain in your blood for up to 72 hours) means your body must spend precious sleep time processing the alcohol rather than descending into deep, restorative sleep.The result is a light, broken sleep, which causes you to wake feeling tired and sluggish. Or, if you’re like me, wake at 3 A.M. with a dry mouth and low grade headache, restless and unable to fall back asleep. Deep sleep is when your body restores and repairs on the cellular level, and your brain finally reaches a state of rest. A lack of deep sleep not only leaves you tired, but makes you vulnerable to illness and burnout. Not drinking in the first place, or drinking minimally and/or less frequently, keeps your body operating at its most efficient by promoting better sleep. Both lead to better health and increased energy.

2. Weight maintenance.

Alcohol not only adds calories to your daily intake, but also makes you more likely to overeat or make poor choices in what you do eat. How many times have you snacked on something at a party because it’s there, and you are celebrating, and nothing seems like a bad idea with a drink in your hand? I’ve done this so many times, and it always ends the same way: waking up a few weeks later with uncomfortably tight pants. It’s so much easier to get the weight off when you don’t put it on in the first place.

3. More cash in your wallet.

Alcohol is expensive, and curtailing alcohol use can save you hundreds per month. This extra cash turned out to be revolutionary for me: after reducing my drinking I suddenly found myself having money for things I’d previously been unable to afford. When you intentionally spend less on alcohol, suddenly there is money to spend on a vacation, a designer handbag, or a new Harley. Which would you rather have?

4. No hangovers.

This is an obvious one, but a biggie. Who likes to wake up suffering, head splitting, feeling ill for hours or even days, swearing to never drink again? No one. Hangovers are the worst, for a very good reason. Alcohol may not feel like a toxin going in (the sugar and dopamine rush of alcohol diverts your attention and ensures you feel good), but hangovers are nature’s way of reminding you that alcohol is deadly to your cells. A useful skill I learned recently is to play the tape forward before you over consume, and your future self will thank you when you remain hangover-free. “I miss hangovers,” said no one, ever.

5. Less impulsivity, more clarity.

Here’s a benefit which may be less obvious. How many mornings have you woken up with regret over some interaction the night before? This was me for sure, and more than once. We all know that alcohol disrupts the functioning of your prefrontal cortex, which is your “thinking brain.” This results in lowered inhibitions and self-awareness, making it more likely you will react to situations based on emotion rather than reason. What’s less well-known is that alcohol also interferes with the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala; this communication breakdown has been shown to reduce your ability to perceive social cues and respond appropriately in social situations. Which explains why you might think you’re the life of the party, but people may actually be smiling at you for other reasons.

When we drink less, we have more clarity—about ourselves and our own behavior but also about the behavior of others. Try this experiment that blew my mind and changed my perspective forever: attend a party sober and observe other people objectively while you socialize. As people continue to drink, their inhibition and self-awareness fades and you begin to see their true nature (hello, Uncle Bob). This can be incredibly enlightening and freeing, especially if you suffer from social anxiety (like me) or you’re trying to avoid someone who triggers you (also, at times, me).

When people show you who they are, they give you the gift of being able to respond rather than react, and choose your next move with intention. Suddenly I was able to understand that excusing myself and walking into the other room could be a much better choice for me than subjecting myself to behavior I don’t like, and pouring another drink in order to endure it. A clear mind brings detachment, calmness, and objectivity. These allow me to maintain my equanimity even if others cannot. And let me tell you, equanimity feels pretty darned good.

For bonus points: attend a party sober and observe yourself. Think about how you would normally behave while you are drinking, and whether your behavior while drinking is actually in line with your values. (This was enormously difficult for me—I recommend this only with the warning that you may learn things about yourself or others that may be uncomfortable or confronting.)

6. Better social interactions and improved relationships.

The clarity and intentionality that accompanies reduced alcohol use also benefits our relationships. I never realized this when I was drinking; it only became clear to me after trying the experiments above. When we are impaired, we are actually reducing our ability to form close connections—even though ironically, alcohol encourages us to believe the opposite.

The way it all works reminds me of The Matrix: alcohol creates an illusion of wellbeing and personal power. You think it helps you become a friendlier, funnier, more relaxed, likable, and sociable version of yourself. This looks and feels like the truth, but it’s not the truth. Why not? What’s the secret? Dopamine. The first sips of the first drink trigger a dopamine release in our brain, a chemical that helps us feel relaxed and sociable. It also temporarily suppresses anxiety and produces a feeling of wellbeing or even euphoria. This dopamine rush is over quickly, however, lasting only about 15 minutes. Once the dopamine wears off, anxiety creeps back in and grows, and actually becomes amplified by the depressive nature of alcohol. (Interestingly, this relationship between anxiety and alcohol has created a buzzword: hangxiety.)

What’s really happening is that we may have entered the party feeling relaxed and sociable, but as the dopamine wears off, alcohol’s negative effects begin to accumulate, including the reduced ability to perceive social cues (mentioned above) and reduced inhibition, leading you to say or do things you might later regret. You slowly lose touch with reality, your ability to read people and situations accurately, and your ability to control your words and actions. Remembering the initial euphoria of dopamine may encourage you to believe all is well, but it’s hard to know because your perception is now impaired. If you want closer, more authentic relationships, understanding what actually happens when you drink will help you make decisions aligned with your best interests. This could mean (as it has for me) choosing other, alcohol-free venues which provide more opportunities for authentic connection. Or simply electing to drink less, or not at all, even if everyone else is drinking.

7. More and better memories.

Alcohol interferes with the memory-making part of the brain, specifically the hippocampus, where short-term memory is transferred to long-term memory. Drinking can block this transfer, leading to gaps in memory of the period during which alcohol was consumed.

Time passes quickly and life is short. Our loved ones, our friends, even our pets may not be with us at this time next year. Our children will never be this exact age again. My kids are now grown and are long past the Santa stage, and while I very much enjoy who they are now, I also miss those magical Christmas mornings from their early childhood. I can unfortunately (vaguely) remember a few Christmas mornings where I regretted the extra glass of wine I’d drunk the night before because it made getting down on the floor and playing with my kids difficult. Because I wasn’t feeling well, I don’t remember the day very well, and I missed out on making more memories. If I could go back and redo things, I would.

Wouldn’t you rather fully remember and fully enjoy the time you spend with people who are important to you? There are so many benefits to slowing down and enjoying what you have while you have it. After all, there is no other moment available to us than the present moment.

8. Improved mental health.

I’ve suffered from depression for most of my life. Yet, taking advantage of each of the above benefits has significantly improved my mental health and overall wellbeing. Moderation (and for me, eventually, abstinence) also improves mental health simply because alcohol is a depressant, and consistent use over time results in a depressed mood.

By current statistics, 50 million Americans are suffering from mental illness, and of those, 55 percent do not receive any treatment. For people unable to afford treatment or unwilling to seek it out, being aware of the way alcohol works and being deliberate about alcohol use is a simple but effective step towards improving overall health and quality of life.

Looking at it this way: Why wouldn’t we want to be more intentional about alcohol intake? There is little to lose and so much to gain.

Heather Shaff

Heather Shaff is a cyclist, writer, and mom based in Boston. She's fascinated by all things growth, motivation, and learning... and will drop everything for chocolate ice cream.

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