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Mental wellbeing is one part of our overall wellness, and it can have a powerful influence on how we approach each day. How and why we drink can play a strong part in our quality of life.

Why we drink

In Aotearoa, it’s normal to see alcohol used to connect and to cope. 

Some of us drink because we like the way alcohol makes us feel: fun, closer to those we are drinking with, happy, or light-hearted. For some, it is a way to dull pain or be less stressed. 

Alcohol is easily available and seen as acceptable in most settings. This makes it a common solution for the bigger challenges or social issues we may be dealing with, such as:

  • feeling low or moody
  • coping with health problems
  • money problems
  • relationship breakups or divorce
  • loneliness 
  • discrimination 
  • problems within whānau
  • homelessness
  • unemployment

Drinking to cope with life is something a lot of people do, but it can have impacts on your mental wellbeing. The way you treat your whānau and friends may also be different when you’ve had alcohol.

Alcohol can make you feel better, but in all cases, these effects are temporary. Get to know your own reactions and look out for those around you.

Effects on mental health

There are links between drinking and conditions such as depression. While these links are not always direct, regular drinking does make a person more likely to develop mood disorders or memory loss over time.

Many people who drink heavily for a long time in their lives will not feel as healthy and well. Long-term drinking can lead to some physical conditions that can lower your quality of life. This can have direct impacts on mental health, create feelings of guilt and shame, and cause concern to your whānau.

Drinking to ‘mask the pain’ means that others might not notice you feeling or functioning differently. Any conditions, especially mental or emotional, can stay hidden, even for people who know you well.

For many health providers, the concern is for anyone who feels like they need alcohol to get through life. 

For example, someone experiencing anxiety may feel more relaxed after a drink, but the effects are not permanent. If this keeps happening, they may always rely on alcohol to feel better. This may lead to more serious issues, such as addiction

If you think that you or someone close to you may be developing a dependency on alcohol, try this challenge: try a day, and then a week without drinking. See if you can do it and how you feel. There are paths to finding help if you realise there may be an issue.

Alcohol can have side effects on different mental conditions or medications, so being aware is a good way to keep yourself and others safe. Drinking is known to make some symptoms worse or create dangerous reactions when mixed with some medications, such as antidepressants. 

Discuss alcohol use with your health provider if you have a mental health condition. Be mindful of how any drinking at all can affect your mood. Being open about this can give you more certainty about what’s best for you and your whānau. 

"It took me a long time to feel like I belonged somewhere. My own head was telling me, “I can’t drink anymore,” and then the other part of it was saying, “All right, so …” I was trying to find people who didn’t drink, but I didn’t feel like I fitted in any of those places. And that’s what it was like when I was drinking as well, I didn’t feel like I fitted anywhere."
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Staying well

Being aware of how alcohol affects you and those around you can help you catch any problems sooner rather than later.

There are some common signs that alcohol may be affecting your mood:

  • not sleeping well
  • feeling tired often
  • feeling anxious or stressed in a way that does not seem normal

If you are experiencing these, it’s a good idea to think about easing up and the next steps. If you notice these signs in someone you care about, it is natural to be concerned. If you are comfortable and safe, you can approach them about their drinking. This can be hard to do at first, but can be the best outcome for the safety and wellbeing of your whānau. 

Some of us use alcohol to ‘mask the pain’ of mental health issues or something going on in our lives or relationships. Using alcohol to solve problems can make things worse. 

When we drink, we do not respond to what goes on around us as well. Alcohol can make anxiety and stress worse. Sometimes our brain interprets certain actions as threats and we may miss out on information. This may cause some people to overreact and lead to unwanted situations such as physical violence or relationship breakdowns. 

If you are experiencing family violence or feel unsafe, get help immediately. 

Get your whānau or friends you trust involved to support you through a hard time. It’s always easier to not do things alone. You can also contact a helpline or professional. You do not need a doctor’s referral, and will not be judged or get into any trouble for reaching out. 

Sleep is valuable to help us feel well. Our bodies find this time to heal and repair, and we often notice when we have to wake up after a bad sleep. 

If you’ve been having issues with sleeping, think about cutting back or stop drinking. Alcohol can make you need to get up in the middle of a sleep cycle to pee. It also makes it harder for you to go back to sleep after that.

You may also consider finding other ways to help you sleep better. Having a good rest will refresh and energise you, and is linked to better wellbeing.

Try some different activities to get the feeling you used to gain from drinking. You may find that the connections feel deeper and more authentic without alcohol involved.

Some examples are: 

  • suggesting that you and your friends socialise by doing activities that don’t involve drinking
  • finding other ways to calm yourself down if you are anxious or stressed, such as taking walks or deep breathing 
  • filling the same glass with a non-alcoholic drink at events where everyone around you is drinking

You can also try other common ways to cut back

Making changes to your own life and changing routines can have an impact on those around you. If this can give you a sense of relief, be open about this to your whānau and those you see often. They are an important part of your wellbeing journey.

Get help

Change can take a lot of time, patience, and support. 

You may have tried to cut back or stop drinking before. This can be a challenge for everyone, and sometimes the timing or strategy may not be right for you. It is always a good idea to try again, with a different approach or plan. 

Sometimes it can be useful just to talk about it. Ask someone who has been on the same path for ideas and tips. Bring whānau on the journey with you if that makes you comfortable. Get professional help and see if they can introduce something different you can try.

If you are supporting someone who is trying to make changes, look out for your own wellbeing too. This can sometimes take a lot of patience and it is important to know you are not alone. Professional support is also out there for people who are caring for their whānau going through alcohol harm.