The Alcoholic's Solution
Dr. Swami Vivekananda Saraswati, MB BS DPM MANZCP (Syd)
Why do people drink so much alcohol? How does it act? What real effects does it have on a person and his surroundings?
Actually it is difficult to discuss the question of alcoholic drinks and their consumption, because people are very rarely able to keep this subject in balance. Half the people seem to be emotionally pro-alcohol and the rest seem to be just as ardently anti-alcohol. I suppose this ranks with religion and politics as a subject that can quickly raise emotions and thereby reduce perspective. In other words, not many people can 'think straight' on the subject of alcohol, but we should try.
Effect on the Nervous System
If we go to a party or some other gathering where alcohol is being drunk, we sec many people who start out timidly and quietly. Soon, however, they are much more active and talkative, so we reach the conclusion that alcohol stimulates the nervous system. This is wrong, in fact, alcohol reduces the activity of. the whole nervous system. You may say that it is a mild anaesthetic which reduces the transmission of impulses throughout the brain, spinal cord, sensory and motor fibres, and autonomic nervous system. It is in this way that it has its varied effects on the drinker as we shall soon explain.
The, nervous system has a peculiar habit called 'rebound'. If you add anything such as a drug which affects the nervous system in one way, the opposite effect will occur when the drug has worn off. For instance, if we stimulate the brain with a drug, the next day the nervous system will rebound and become more depressed, than when we took it. This applies also when a drug (such as alcohol) reduces the activity of the system. The next day it is over-active, and the person is more tense, anxious and tremulous than before. So the physiological effect is firstly one of depression of the nervous system, and secondly, a rebound stimulation.
Effects on the Person
Society makes great demands on the people who live in it. In ancient times when we were nomadic hunters, life's problems were supplied by nature. Man had to hunt and forage for his food in lean times, during storms and in the scaring heat. It was difficult, but he was able to exhaust his primitive urges during the course of his life. His inherent aggression, competitiveness, cunning and fierceness in defending territory were given full vent and formed a necessary part of his survival.
People still have these primitive instincts, but now we all have to live in tightly knit and intricately organized groups. Thus these urges are repressed and bottled up, often causing psychological scars such as anxiety, tension, depression, resentment, rigidity of personality and general discomfort when we are with people.
It's a strange thing, but when society inflicts a problem, it also sometimes suffers a 'solution'. In many societies alcohol has come to be the socially acceptable way of temporarily relieving people of the strictures of their life. In this respect, it functions in many ways.
- The social lubricant: As we mentioned before, even the person who is usually timid and self-effacing often becomes the 'life of the party' when he has had some alcoholic drinks. In fact, the relationship within the whole group seems to function more smoothly because cause a small amount of alcohol relieves the interpersonal tensions between the individuals. When people drink more and more, however, they start behaving in an irrational way. They may say or do things that they will regret next day and generally become a nuisance. When they have even more alcohol, they may behave in a primitive way; rights may break out and nasty incidents occur. In countries where alcohol is a way of life, police state that most crimes, murders, road deaths and accidents, and family conflicts are directly associated with excess alcohol consumption.
- The social custom: In many societies, taking alcohol drinks is customary. If people visit the house of others they will be offered 'a drink’. If they are thirsty they may well have 'a beer'. Many meals are preceded by cocktails, accompanied by wine and followed by liqueurs. In fact, there are large areas of these societies where a non-drinker is not trusted and often not invited, so there is intense pressure on a person to follow the customs and drink with the others.
- The tranquilliser: Many people are under much stress from the problems of their minds, and the demands and restrictions of their environment. They find it difficult to deal with their every day problems and the tension, anxiety, depression and general inhibitions which build up as their day goes on. It is often their custom to 'unwind with a i drinks' when they come home at night. This helps them to relax, sleep and regain their equanimity for the next day. Hundreds of millions of people throughout the world use alcohol in this way and appear not to show any ill effects.
However, if the person drinks more alcohol then is just appropriate as a tranquilliser, he starts to become withdrawn from those around him, depriving them of his company as a member of the family. He is drinking to 'switch off' the over-stimulation of a busy day, but he switches off his family as well. If he drinks even more, he becomes unsteady in speech, gait and mood, and finally loses consciousness - the ultimate switch off.
- The habit: There is a tendency of animals and people which the psychiatrists and psychologists call 'conditioning'. For example, if a person is feeling discomfort and something relieves the discomfort, he will tend to use the same reliever again. Each time this happens, the habit is more firmly established until it becomes the exclusive way in which the discomfort is relieved. Similarly, if a person originally finds pleasure in an activity or a drug such as alcohol, he will tend increasingly to seek pleasure there. The habit becomes reinforced each time it has results, and it gets more and more difficult to discontinue.
This habit-conditioning is a great problem with alcohol as it is with any drug that affects the feeling of well-being. An added reinforcement with alcohol is that it works so quickly that the drinking and the effect are powerfully associated and this establishes the link in the unconscious mind.
Complications of Alcohol Drinking
The majority of people who drink alcohol know about the resulting problems, however, we will mention a few here which people don't seem to realize.
- The vicious circle of anxiety: The rebound phenomenon which we have mentioned produces a physical dependency on alcohol that is difficult to break and can form a vicious circle. For instance, if a person has a lot of unconscious conflicts and problems leading to an anxiety-tension state, this will be made worse by his day to day dealings with those around him. If he takes alcohol (or any other drugs) to tranquillise the effect, he will feel better while the alcohol is present in the system, but the next day when it has worn off, he will feel worse. Not only does he still have the problems in his mind and in his environment, but he now has general agitation of the whole nervous system due to rebound from the alcohol effect wearing off. This tempts him to drink earlier in the day and as it goes on day after day, it becomes worse and worse. This is the road to one form of alcoholism and must be stopped before it goes too far.
- The vicious circle of depression: Alcohol has the effect of making a person temporarily feel brighter by loosening his mental over- control. Hence, to a person who is depressed, it may produce some relief and help him to 'forget his troubles' for a while. However, the next day lie has more trouble. As well as the conflicts which caused the depression in the first place, he now has three more problems. Firstly, he has the agitating effect of withdrawal of the alcohol from the nervous system. Secondly, he has the 'alcoholic remorse', an intense guilt about 'letting himself go' the night before which is worse in a depressed person. Thirdly, he has the drop in vitality that follows the alcohol intake, which is particularly distressing when a person is already depressed. Thus another vicious circle is formed this time, with the depression becoming worse and worse, and possibly leading to earlier drinking each day.
There is another problem in depression; many depressed people suicide under the loosening effect of alcohol. Just this fact alone makes it necessary for people with this problem to stay off alcohol.
- Physical disorders: There are many of these associated with heavy drinking. The most common are liver disease (cirrhosis) and degeneration of the nervous system. Actually, one of the principal components of this is malnutrition, especially deficiency of the vitamin B group and protein. Anyone who drinks heavily must have an adequate diet with plenty of wholemeal grains, or the effects can be serious.
- Personality disorder: Most people who drink alcohol are considered to act normally within their society though a more sensitive person can detect a degree of grossness and lowered consciousness which still set the drinker apart from his potential. However, as the amount of alcohol becomes excessive, we can all notice the general deterioration in lifestyle and personal habits. The heavy drinker is not as tidy in his personal appearance or in his work. This change is subtle at first but becomes more obvious as time goes on. It is noticed early by others but its effect is so gradual that the person himself is not aware of it. His wife and children do not live as well unless he still has a good income, though even in that case, you can detect in them that 'something' is missing at home.
At work, the heavy drinker is seen to be less efficient and is not so productive. If he drinks during working hours, he makes more mistakes and has more accidents. Sometimes, the group of people he works with are also heavy drinkers, in which case, he and they can be far along the alcoholic path before it is even noticed at work.
Everybody can recognize the 'skid row' drunk, the untidy, dirty, drunken, physically broken individual who gravitates to the centre of the big cities. But few realize that the stages towards that degree of personality disintegration are often gradual and normally pass through all levels of 'social drinking'. Long before that is the time to take stock of the situation and make a few correct decisions.
Yoga for the Alcohol Problems
Before suggesting how to use yoga to help solve the problem of alcohol, we must discuss the following two points:
- What about your friends?
As we have mentioned in many groups drinking alcohol is the required thing. If you don’t go to the usual parties and heavy dinners you are out of the group (and often the company promotion list). If you do go along and don’t drink, the resentment they demonstrate can often be ‘cut with a knife’. What to do? Most of us who have started to live a yogic life often even completely changed our friends over a period of time! Most of us gave up our habits slowly and our group of friends changed at the same time. I can assure you that our new friends are much better fun and are working towards making a better world. They are not prudish or ‘holier than thou’, they just realise that they function better when their consciousness is not reduced with alcohol.
- Should you stop now?
If you can do it easily, do it. However, if it will cause too much mental turmoil to break such solid habits, start reducing it slowly but watch these things:
- Make it a rule not to drink before dusk.
- Don't drink so much that you get into trouble driving or with the police. Reputation is easy to break, hard to make.
- Take care of the body and eat good food. Go easy on the tobacco – if you smoke a lot when you drink at night, try to cut down on daytime cigarettes. A good trick is to delay your first cigarette of the day by an additional five minutes each successive day (e.g. 8.15 am on Monday, 8.20 on Tuesday, 8.25 on Wednesday, etc.). In this way you will find that eventually you have your first cigarette with your first drink in the evening. Then as the yoga practices reduce the drinking, the smoking will reduce also.
If you continue to drink temporarily, make sure you practice yoga or do work for guru’s mission, and the drinking will fall away by itself.
If you decide to go straight off alcohol, a stay in a yogashrams for a few weeks is a marvelous help. While there, try to put your life ‘back home’ into perspective and also your position at work.
- Cold shower on raising (important – at least three minutes)
- Kunjal kriya for three months
- Surya namaskara (or pawanmuktasana for the first month or so if you are stiff)
- Paschimottanasana (janusirshasana cautiously at first)
Nadi shodhana pranayama (progressing slowly from stage 1 to 4)
- Ajapa japa (using the mantra soham or if possible the mantra from the guru; concentration between the navel and the throat)
During the Day
- Try to live simply and according to the ideals of karma yoga i.e. working for the sake of the work, without worrying about the gains (you'll get them anyway if you work well).
- Do everything with maximum awareness.
- Drink plenty of water, fruit juice and caffeine-free coffee or tea during the day and evening.
- When anxious, tense or depressed
Bhramari pranayama is very effective in restoring equilibrium.
- Bhramari for 5 to 10 minutes to settle down Yoga nidra for 20 minutes
For the Future
If you can make a relationship with a guru, ask for his help. He may even give you advanced practices to make it easier. If you can give of your time etc. to his mission, it's even better. If you can make a close relationship with him, he will show you the way to a completely new life.
Starting to Live Again
As you practice yoga and your alcohol intake goes down (usually up and down at first), you will find that the problems for which you took the alcohol in the first place are disappearing. Actually, the peace of mind, joy, love and confidence that we try to find in the bottle are already inside us. Yoga helps us to clear away and steer through the unconscious conflicts which are keeping them just out of our reach. It's a whole new life and believe me, it's worth it!