Day 13 – Cognitive distortions: Three tricks our minds play on us, and how to beat them

jussithoughts

If you want to improve your relationship with alcohol – whether you’re giving it up for a bit during a Sober Sprint / MOB, giving it up permanently, or just hoping to cut down – you will also need to change the way you think about alcohol.

Unfortunately we are often far from rational. We make decisions based upon faulty logic and fall prey to cognitive biases and distortions that are often unhelpful.

Here are three different ways people think illogically about alcohol and/or being sober, and some suggestions for how to challenge your own illogical thinking.

Euphoric Recall

Do you only remember or exaggerate the good times that you had when using alcohol, and forget about or minimise the bad times?

When people ask for help with their drinking, or make a decision to do something about it for themselves (e.g. sign up for a Sober Sprint / MOB), they have often reached a point where they realise that the amount they drink is out of control and is not helpful. Booze is holding them back from achieving things they want to do, is causing problems with family, friends or work, is creating money worries, or is impacting on their physical or mental health.

By making a change to your drinking many of these problems that motivated you to want to cut back or stop go away. They are no longer relevant because life has improved. You are getting more done, relationships are better, you are starting to feel good about yourself.

This is a potential danger zone because the reasons that spurred you on to change have gone. Life is now a lot better.

A totally rational, logical person would think “Ah, so it WAS alcohol that was causing all these issues. I am glad I have learnt that I need to drink a lot less, or nothing at all. I definitely won’t be drinking as heavily as I used to again”.

Sadly, we aren’t always this logical. The problems are all in the past so we are prone to downplay or even forget just how bad things had got and how bad we felt about ourselves before we made the change.

Alongside this, we are also are more likely to focus on more of what we remember as the positive side of alcohol. This is called euphoric recall. That warm buzz after a couple of drinks, the pleasure in having some cheese and wine with a film, great parties, being more chatty with complete strangers, feeling more confident etc.

At this point although you do vaguely remember that you had once wanted to stop or cut down on your drinking, you are also making it harder to maintain that positive change because you are seeing booze through rosé-tinted spectacles (shout-out to October 2015 MOBster Sobersteps for that gag!).

The thinking is flawed of course, because if you could stop at and enjoy the warm buzz of two drinks, if you loved how hungover you felt after parties, and if you were always excellent company when you were drunk, you probably wouldn’t be here, wanting to completely stop drinking for a month.

Awfulising Abstinence

Once you start to rewrite your alcohol history with euphoric recall, you are also more likely to be awfulising abstinence – focusing on what is difficult, challenging, or uncomfortable about cutting down or stopping drinking, rather than noticing and valuing all the positive aspects of the changes you have made.

We’re not saying that being alcohol free during your MOB is always going to be a lovely walk in the park. As we spoke about earlier, we do need to be able to tolerate a bit of discomfort whilst we are learning to deal with life, emotions, social situations, lonely evenings, etc., without alcohol. But it’s only a bit uncomfortable. It is not awful, terrible or unbearable, and it won’t kill you.

With practice and time any change becomes easier, more habitual, comfortable and natural. And that includes living life without alcohol, or with a lot less of it.

Accepting a bit of discomfort is also going to be a lot easier if you notice and value what is positive and great about being alcohol-free during your Sober Sprint / MOB. This also relates to the importance of measuring stuff that we keep talking about. If you are tracking change on a regular basis – whether that is productivity, sleep, energy, moods and emotions, relationships, or whatever is important for you – then it will be harder to accept the belief that abstinence is awful, or to deny what is GREAT about it!  

Magical Thinking

When we start to believe that alcohol is somehow imbued with special and unique properties that can fix all our problems, heal our pain, make us feel less lonely, more confident, and generally cope better with life, we are indulging in magical thinking.

Magical thinking can occur as a result of cognitive dissonance. This occurs when we hold beliefs that contradict each other. To overcome the discomfort of holding conflicting beliefs, we adapt our thinking to rationalise the conflict.

For example, a person believes that drinking every night is unhealthy, but also believes that it is OK for them to drink every night because they aren’t doing anyone else any harm and they aren’t an alcoholic. To feel better about holding these conflicting beliefs the person might start juicing and cutting sugar from their diet, creating a new magical belief that these healthy behaviours will prevent them experiencing the ill-effects of daily drinking.

This type of thinking creates a false logic that people use to defend and justify their unhealthy behaviours.

Magical thinking might be one of your possible pitfalls if you are starting to think of ways to justify why continued drinking (or picking up a drink halfway through your Sober Sprint / MOB) makes perfect sense:

  • I’m a much nicer person with alcohol.
  • I’ll be in a better mood with my kids, and therefore a better parent, if I have a few drinks.
  • I won’t get that business deal if I don’t drink at the corporate event.
  • Unwinding and relaxing is more important right now and alcohol is the only way I can achieve that.

Magical thinking also prevents us from recalling honestly what we didn’t like about alcohol and accepting that not only was it not a magical solution to life’s problems, it was often the cause of some.

A more destructive magical belief that I repeatedly encounter in my work in addiction services with people who have been physically dependent is:

  • Now I’ve had a few months off and had a bit of a health MOT (*), I’ve got this sorted, I can can go back to occasional use and enjoy and control it (note: I have never met anyone yet who has successfully returned to occasional controlled drinking having once been physically dependent).

You might also have some magical thinking that one booze break per year is enough to undo all of the damage of heavy drinking the rest of the year. This puts you at risk of returning to your pre-Sober Sprint / MOB drinking levels (which I know many of you weren’t happy with).

A Sober Sprint / MOB is great for your health, a real achievement, and helps you examine, challenge, and change your thinking and behaviour around alcohol. However, just doing a Sober Sprint / MOB whilst making no other changes to heavy drinking the rest of the year probably won’t be enough to protect you from the damaging effects of heavy alcohol use. It’s not just about health either. For me, one single productive booze-free month a year is never going to be enough to get done what I want to get done. I have to reduce and control my drinking throughout the year too.  

You have hopefully already debunked many of the myths that alcohol is magic. By measuring stuff (yes, that again!) it is harder to avoid the fact that in several areas of life things are hopefully improving without alcohol. What’s more, many of those issues you had were possibly caused by alcohol in the first place (tiredness, low productivity, low mood etc).

Why Make it Harder on Yourself?

If you indulge for any length of time in these three types of thinking, part of you is probably trying to set yourself up to have a drink before the end of the Sober Sprint / MOB, by mentally rehearsing plausible reasons to justify why this makes sense. In the language of addictions, this is considered to be “relapse prone” thinking.

The three steps to challenging illogical thinking about alcohol

We are all prone to illogical or irrational thinking. Often there’s no harm in it and we get by just fine. But if we can learn to think more critically and challenge our illogical thinking around alcohol we will be less at risk of the type of thinking that might make us fall off the Sober Sprint / MOB wagon.

There are three steps to challenging an illogical thought or belief, and these involve asking yourself three questions:

  • What is the EVIDENCE for this belief?
    • Is it 100% true that you have never had a good night’s sleep in your entire life unless you have had a drink?
    • Was drinking always 100% of the time great fun?
    • Is everything about not drinking awful? Have you had absolutely zero positive benefits of stopping drinking?
  • Is this belief LOGICAL?
    • Does it make sense to say that there are no other solutions to relaxing at night other than alcohol? Are people who don’t drink in the evenings always tense?
    • It is logical to say that it is so unbearably difficult to go without drink for a few days out of your entire lifetime that you can’t possibly do it?
  • Is this belief HELPFUL?
    • Is believing that you can’t get to sleep without a drink going to help you have a successful Sober Sprint / MOB?
    • Is remembering only the positive side of drinking and ignoring the negative aspects going to help you resist cravings and urges?
    • Is believing that it is far too difficult to avoid drinking every night, and that it is totally unpleasant to be sober, going to make your Sober Sprint / MOB easier?
You are going to make it SO much harder on yourself if… So why not….?
You choose to remember an exaggerated version of how great alcohol is, and… Reflect upon and remember the reasons you had for wanting to take a booze break, and what you didn’t like about your drinking (Day 1). Were you imagining those reasons, or were they real?
…ignore all the negative aspects of drinking that you used to worry about and hate.
You focus on what is difficult and uncomfortable about not drinking, and resent the fact that you need to learn other ways to cope with life’s problems. Don’t be a discomfort dodger (Day 7). Accept that it won’t always be plain sailing, that it might feel a bit niggly at times to say ‘no’ to alcohol and that you will experience some cravings and urges now and then. But tell yourself that this is merely discomfort. It CAN be tolerated and YOU can tolerate it. It won’t kill you.  
You ignore what is good and what has changed for the better since stopping. Measure stuff! (Day 13) Pay attention to the positive changes that are happening during your Sober Sprint / MOB. Don’t disregard or downplay the good things. At the very least you can feel proud of yourself for what you are achieving and proving to yourself. At best lots of other things are improving too – sleep, energy, productivity, work, mood etc.
You think alcohol is a good solution to some of your issues, and that no other solution will work better than alcohol. Challenge the logic of this thought. Where’s the evidence that this is true. How do other people who don’t drink cope? How have you coped in the past? Is alcohol always a solution? It there evidence that alcohol can also be a problem too?
If you want to carry on drinking occasionally post-Sober Sprint / MOB (as opposed to stopping forever) you believe that whatever was wrong about your relationship with alcohol before is now ‘cured’ and you can return to drinking again without consciously making an effort to control it. Although limiting what you drink and having plenty of days off alcohol does get easier and more habitual with practice and consistency, if you take your eye off the ball you may well slide back to a place that you are not happy with. If you can accept this you will be happier and more in control than if you feel angry and hard-done-by that this is the case.  

Your actions for today

  • Have you experienced euphoric recall, awfulising abstinence, or magical thinking during your Sober Sprint / MOB, or in the past? Visit the Facebook group and tell us how you are trying to think more logically about what is good about the Sober Sprint / MOB and what you didn’t like about your drinking before.  
  • If you know you are prone to any of these thinking errors, use your daily ritual to plan a response to these thoughts if they crop up.  

(*) For our non-British readers: an “MOT” is an annual inspection of a car to make sure it is safe to drive!

4 Responses to “Day 13 – Cognitive distortions: Three tricks our minds play on us, and how to beat them

  • Anonymous
    7 years ago

    Great post ! Thanks

  • I’m prone to magical thinking – and I had no idea! I’d never put the matter to words. Thank you for helping me debunk harmful thinking!

    • Helen O'Connor
      5 years ago

      You’re welcome! I’m glad you’re finding the MOB content helpful.
      I think we fallible humans will always be prone to thinking errors – its more efficient to accept as correct every thought or idea or belief we hold. But knowing that we are prone to thinking errors, we can take steps to challenge ourselves, even though that can require more conscious effort!

      Warm regards Helen

  • Anonymous
    4 years ago

    These daily posts really help keep the focus as the novelty of AF/cutting down wears off.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.