A common question among people wanting to change their drinking habits is ‘how do I get motivated to quit?’

The situation is that you have desire for alcohol and you’re wanting to create a new additional set of beliefs to counteract that desire. You’re motived to drink, and now you want to be also motivated to quit (or moderate).

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Can you see the conflict that this approach creates?

Instead of doing this, you can go to work on reducing the desire directly. Instead of creating a battle between opposing forces, you can work on getting to a place of neutrality about it, where you can take it or leave it.   This is a far more stable - and pleasant - place from which to either quit drinking or to practice moderation.

The desire comes from two main sources. The first is a programmed feedback loop in your brain where cues that are associated with drinking – certain times of day, associations with place or people, certain feelings, that first drink – cause a dopamine release which creates a sense of WANTING. This wanting creates arousal around getting a drink, and when you react to it by drinking, it closes and reinforces the loop. There are some specific techniques you can use to interrupt this loop in a way that reduces or eliminates this source of desire, and that’s a discussion for another day.

The other source of desire results from a library of conscious and unconscious thoughts you have about drinking. The first step in unwinding this desire is to create some awareness about what your pro-drinking thoughts are.  The best way to create this awareness is to sit down write out all the thoughts you have about alcohol.  You can't really do this in your head - you have to get them out on paper where you can examine them. Then one by one you can sort out whether each thought is true and useful for you, or whether it just seems true because you’ve thought it over and over for years. The good thing about thoughts is that they are all optional – you can choose to change them. But the first step is having awareness of them, and of generally having the skill of being able to watch your thinking from the perspective of an observer.

An example from my life was the thought that ‘a buzz is always better’. I truly believed it. I saw every decision about drinking – when to drink, how much – in the context of this unexamined belief. This belief sat on one side of the scale, and weighed against it were all other considerations.

  • A buzz is better BUT I need to be legal to drive in an hour.
  • A buzz is better BUT I don’t want to be sleepy later.
  • A buzz is better BUT I don’t want to feel crappy tomorrow.
  • A buzz is better BUT I don’t want to spend $12 on a cocktail.

I was often able to make decent decisions with this approach, but there was always the conflict. However when I recognized that I had this belief and questioned it, I realized that very often a buzz isn’t better. Sometimes I like it, very often I don’t. It’s a very different argument in my mind to ask myself ‘am I going to enjoy this’ versus ‘buzz is good but what are the offsetting considerations’. The latter requires discipline and willpower and always creates some sense of deprivation.  It requires some motivation. 

But when you have the clarity of thought to know that the answer to the question 'am I going to enjoy this' is 'not right now', no motivation is required.  

What are your pro-drinking thoughts that are contributing to your overdesire for alcohol?

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