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drinking

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Three-Martini Playdates? Time for a Chat.

Define "moderate"...

Define "moderate"...

A few weeks ago I went to a women’s meetup group here in Singapore, something I try to do at least once a month. There were about twenty of us that evening, and as I took my usual survey of the room, I noticed that I looked to be the only one without a glass of wine, bottle of beer, or fruity cocktail in front of me. There is nothing unusual about this, and I’m thankful that my days of fixating on the difference between “me- teetotaler” and “them- party animals” have come to a close. “She’s a health nut- it’s her job,” one woman said to another, in effect apologizing for me, as I poured my Pellegrino into a tumbler and propped up a sliver of lime on its edge. “Quite a good turnout tonight,” another woman commented, “but I’m sure everyone only comes for the drinks!”

I quit drinking booze four years and two months ago- finally, and after many attempts- and I have not touched the stuff since. My reasons for quitting were blandly simple- I’d become a sad lush, and alcohol no longer served me. Drinking all the guys under the table ceased being cute once my college bartending days came to a close, and my extended “happy hour” after the daily corporate grind had drained my energy, dignity, drive and wallet. Don’t let me fool you. Bidding the booze farewell was no easy feat. I had to ask for help (lots of it), sever relationships, change the majority of my habits, and rearrange the constructs of my life.

Friends sometimes ask me if I feel awkward at the usual shindigs and soirees where the order of the evening is social lubrication to the point of oblivion. Actually, I find it fascinating. I’m mesmerized by how absolutely dependent people are on intoxication in order to communicate with each other, no matter what the conversation or circumstances. It astounds me that alcohol has become the glue in business and politics, and it makes me wonder if it’s one of the contributing factors for all of the poor decision-making going on around the globe. I’m amused when a fellow adult tries to shove a drink in my hand and pleads, “c’mon, just have one.” Seriously, are we in high school again? In some ways, being the only sober one in the room is like getting front row seats to the best movie in town- but you have to wear those paper 3-D glasses that make you really dizzy and the guy sitting next to you is gnawing on fried chicken like its his last meal on earth. 

As an allied health professional and abstainer, there’s only one version of the truth I can offer you: Alcohol will blunt your discipline and control, and if you have lofty goals for fitness and life, booze has little business being in that plan. Let’s face it- you are not going to get to the gym regularly if you’re hungover, and even if you do happen to crawl your way there, your workout is going to suck. Alcohol makes people moody and dismissive. It becomes so much easier to say, “I don’t feel like it right now, I’ll do it tomorrow” when you have a few drinks in your belly. Here’s my theory: millions of women today KNOW that they drink far too much, but because it’s become so socially acceptable in our culture, they’re easily able to overlook the very real damage it causes and instead chalk it up to “normal.”

I am not alone in this idea. Alcohol researcher Sharon Wilsnack believes that we are now witnessing a global epidemic in women’s drinking. Wilsnack found that females "born between 1978 and 1983 are the weekend warriors, drinking to black out,” whereas “women in their 40s and 50s have a very high risk in terms of heavy drinking and weekly drinking.” While alcohol abuse impacts all social classes, women who have a college degree are twice as likely to have a drinking problem, and those with high-status jobs in male-dominated environments have increased risk of alcohol-use disorders over their blue-collar counterparts. Take an honest look around and you’ll notice that women are drinking more than they ever have before.

We’ve all seen studies on the benefits of alcohol. These stories tend to clog up our Facebook feeds every few months and are usually posted by individuals who drink a bit more than the average bear. Headlines assert that “moderate wine drinking is good for your health,” and “people who drink live longer than those who don’t,”or so the story goes. Sometimes I wonder if the scientists and journalists are in cahoots with each other as a means to justify their own drinking problems. All joking aside, defining “moderate” drinking has become extremely subjective, and the way I see it, too many people who believe that their consumption is within the healthy zone are only kidding themselves.

The fact is, even moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages can impede your progress by undermining your focus and drive. For most people, it’s often easier to kick back with coworkers over a few drinks than it is to hit the gym or sketch out a business plan or train for that half marathon. After a beverage or two, time and motivation have been tossed out the window. Drinking also impairs judgment, thereby drastically increasing your chances of ordering that pepperoni pizza instead of sticking with your nutrition plan. We all know that after a few beers or glasses of wine, we’re far more likely to make poor choices, which can spiral into regret the next day. This is often where a pattern starts to form- you don’t want to feel badly about failing to meet your goals and commitments, so you drink again to numb the associated feelings of guilt and shame. When we drink to drown our problems, we’ve crossed the border into dangerous territory.

Alcohol also wreaks havoc on the body in several ways.  Alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and has no nutritional value; add in mixers and you may be drinking more than half of your daily recommended caloric intake in booze. Alcohol signals the body to produce the stress hormone, cortisol, a primary cause of abdominal fat and one of the greatest impediments to weight loss. If you’re working on building muscle, all that hard work you’re putting in at the gym can be undermined by regular drinking since alcohol interferes with the body’s ability to produce adenosine triphosphate (ATP) and inhibits the absorption of muscle and endurance-building nutrients like Vitamin B12 and zinc. Many studies also show that alcohol consumption increases your risk of cancer, kidney problems, infertility and dementia, while contributing to increased blood pressure and mental illness.

I’m not here to tell you to quit drinking forever, and I do believe that you can succeed at what you put your mind to even if a few drinks a week are part of the equation. Instead, what I’m trying to say is that we, as women, are avoiding an honest and overdue discussion about how much we drink and what it’s doing to our lives. We’re hiding behind what has become an institutionalized hazard- the wide social acceptance and even encouragement of being a drunk. Yep, let’s call a spade a spade. At the end of the day, there’s nothing amusing about drinking Chardonnay from your child’s sippy cup, or getting plastered at a meeting on women’s leadership, or holding a three-martini playdate. Sex in the City isn’t all it’s cracked up to be (trust me, I lived it), you’re not really wittier three sheets to the wind, and Joan Crawford was a horrible lady. You, my dear, are worth far more than any of these played out stereotypes. Perrier, anyone? We have a lot to chat about. 

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Substituting Your Habits

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Substituting Your Habits

Steep climb, incredible view.

Steep climb, incredible view.

 
When I began my journey to quit smoking and drinking five years ago, I felt like the anchor that tethered my sense of self to the Earth had been violently yanked out from the sea bottom and hurled into outer space. There I was, drifting through the atmosphere, angry, nauseous and directionless. Smoking and drinking had been a ritual for many years, my bookends to each day.  As soon as I woke up, I’d pour myself a cup of coffee and sit on my patio stoop in my pajamas with a pack of cigarettes and a stinky glass ashtray. On my morning walk to the train, I’d puff away, rushing to finish before I reached the platform. After work was done, I could officially relax when I poured my first drink around 7pm— almost always a glass of wine in my kitchen or at a neighborhood bar. My pack of cigarettes would be emptied between the first glass and the last, and I’d usually drag myself to the convenience store just before bedtime to buy another pack for the next morning. Day in and day out, these were the habits that set the pulse of my life. Deciding to give it all up was like losing both my identity and my oxygen. There were times when I just swung there, suffocating in space. The deprivation was overwhelming.

In those first few raw weeks, I began to figure out that running around the block whenever I wanted to smoke or drink would alleviate some of the physical and mental discomfort I was experiencing. This was my personal introduction to the concept of “habit substitution,” one of the primary techniques of behavior modification. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time. All I knew was that running around the block was molding me into an actual runner (and eventually, a marathoner), and that runners generally don’t smoke and drink to excess, and that I was starting to feel better. By substituting a bad habit with one that is healthier or more positive, it's very difficult to continue to embrace the negative behavior. Can you imagine crossing the finish line with a cigarette in one hand and a bottle of wine in the other? Or racing with an ashtray mouth and a hangover? Not going to happen.

When it comes to breaking habits, too many well-intentioned people dole out the same tired advice about “willpower” and “white knuckling it” and “toughening up.” For many of us, deprivation is just a short cut to another failed attempt. Substitution, however, has shown success across all types of habits. If you’re looking to change your behavior and in essence, your life (after all, we are our habits), here are a few tips to get you started:

  • Divert yourself from your bad habit by substituting it for a more positive one that is somewhat similar in execution, movement or sensation. Smoking was my primary bad habit, and it often triggered my urge to drink. The two eventually went hand in hand. With both, I was inhaling deeply, engaged in movement and allowed some quiet time to explore my mind. I’m a fidgety, high-energy person, and smoking and drinking gave me something to do. Similarly, running gets me in touch with my breath while burning off excess energy, and giving me time to be alone with my thoughts. In “The Power of Habit,” author Charles Duhigg writes that “to change an old habit you must address an old craving. You have to keep the same cues and rewards as before, and feed the craving by inserting a new routine.” So, if you eat habitually after work, you may wish to try investing in a juicer and making yourself a fresh squeezed, tasty juice to indulge in instead. If you’re snacking at your office desk to cope with stress, consider doing a quick set of pushups whenever the urge strikes.
  • Find a community that embraces your new habit and join them! If you’ve decided to take up running, for instance, there are many runners groups from beginner to advanced levels sprinkled across Singapore. Here’s a list to get you started. If dancing is more your speed, take up some classes to keep yourself on track and make supportive new friends. There are groups for any positive habit these days, whether it be weightlifting, knitting, swimming, meditation, juicing, rock climbing or even parachuting. If you're worried about being new and not knowing what you're doing, remember that EVERYONE starts EVERYTHING they do at the very beginning.
     
  • Be gentle on yourself. If a new behavior doesn’t stick, try something else.  There’s no reason to beat yourself up. Changing bad habits takes time. It took me a full year between deciding to quit smoking and drinking and actually quitting smoking and drinking for good. While some people are able to quit their bad habits “cold turkey,” they are in the minority. For most, it requires trial and error, patience, and persistence. Make a creative list of some habits you’d like to adopt and activities you’d be interested in trying. You never know what you might become!
     

 

Have a question or comment about habits? I'd love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comments section.  

-Aimee 

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