The Drinking Autopilot

Let’s say you’re trying to cut back on  your drinking, but not making much progress.   You might have a cycle like this:

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  1.  Get up feeling a little foggy and say ‘I’m not going to drink tonight.’
  2.  Go to work.
  3.  Stop at the store on the way home and buy something to drink.
  4.  Drink it.
  5.  Beat yourself up, criticize, feel bad about yourself.
  6.  Go to bed.
  7.  Go to Step 1 and repeat.

It seems to happen on autopilot, right?

Of course.   That’s how our brains work.   When you do something enough times you learn it.  The activity gets delegated from your prefrontal cortex to a lower part of your brain where it can run efficiently.

Remember the 737 Max crashes that happened in 2019?  A combination of a faulty sensor and autopilot error caused the planes to go into a steep dive.  Instead of just turning off the autopilot, the crews of those planes left it on and then tried to fight it, all the way into the ocean.


You don't want to try to change your drinking without addressing your personal autopilot.

The first step to turning it off is to be aware of it, to watch it as it does it’s thing, instead of just following it blindly.  You've got to WAKE UP and pay attention.

Try something different tomorrow.   Don't tell yourself that you’re not going to drink - because that’s clearly not working.

Instead, resolve that you'll be on the lookout for your thoughts and feelings whenever you do anything alcohol related.

  • If you think about alcohol during the day – what is the exact sentence in your brain?  What is the emotion you experience?  Desire, craving, disgust, guilt...
  • As you’re driving home from work – what are you thinking - what are the sentences?  And what emotions are you feeling?
  • When you turn the car into the store parking lot – what are you thinking and feeling?
  • When you  reach into the fridge to open the first (or 2nd or 4th) beer – what are you thinking and feeling?

 You're not looking for deep thoughts here, more likely you'll notice some pretty basic stuff.  Things like:

  • I might as well.
  • I deserve it.
  • I’m ok.
  • I worked hard today.
  • Tomorrow I won't drink.
  • I was good yesterday.
  • Fuck it.

Those seem like throwaway thoughts, that don’t really matter.  

But they do matter. 

They are creating the desire that drives the action. 

They are rationalizing the emotional decision that your primitive brain has already made. 

Some of them are creating the negative emotion that you're using alcohol to get away from.

When you start to notice your thoughts and the feelings they create, you'll be taking a powerful step towards turning off your autopilot. 

 Awareness is the prerequisite to change.   

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