Ep #2: Unlearning Your Desire for Alcohol

By: Dr. Sherry Price
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Unlearning Your Desire for AlcoholWelcome back to the podcast everyone!

Today I want to talk about desire and overdesire.

 I used to really desire alcohol. Even though I dreamed of the day I would become someone who could take it or leave it, I still oriented so much of my life around drinking.

But I wasn’t an alcoholic; I wasn’t struggling to get things done or keep up with life & family. My desire for alcohol had just grown to the point that it was affecting the way I thought about myself and the way I experienced my life.

In this episode, we’re diving deep into desire and how we learn to desire things like alcohol. We will explore the neurological and chemical pathways that underpin desire and talk about how this can help us reprogram our brains. And we will talk about why so many people drink more than they want to even though they have thriving, happy lives.

If you like what you’re hearing so far and you think others would benefit from Drink Less Lifestyle, please take a couple of minutes to rate and review the show in Apple Podcasts (or wherever you listen to your podcasts!). Click here to learn how to enter for your chance to win one of four $100 Amazon gift cards that I will be giving away to celebrate the launch of Drink Less Lifestyle

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How drinking started to affect me differently as I got older & my body changed.
  • Why alcohol started to weigh on me emotionally and affect my ability to handle life’s little stressors.
  • Why I think a cognitive approach to understanding alcohol and desire is such a game-changer.
  • What exactly desire is and how our brains learn to desire alcohol over time.
  • Why concentrated substances like alcohol and processed foods give us huge dopamine hits.
  • How our brain prioritizes big dopamine hits over small ones and how this makes us overdrink.

Featured on the Show:

Full Episode Transcript:


You are listening to the Drink Less Lifestyle podcast with Dr. Sherry Price, episode 2.

Welcome to Drink Less Lifestyle, a podcast for successful women who want to change their relationship with alcohol. If you want to drink less, feel healthier and start loving life again you’re in the right place. Please remember that the information in this podcast does not constitute medical advice. Now, here’s your host, Dr. Sherry Price.

Well, hello, everyone. Welcome back to the show. Last week we picked up our newest edition to our family, we picked up a puppy. He’s a yellow lab and if you follow me on Instagram and my handle is @DrSherryPrice or if you follow me on Facebook, and you can follow me on Facebook as Sherry Price Coaching, you’ve seen this little guy’s cuteness. Oh my goodness, he’s been so much fun.

My daughter named him Cody and he is so stinking cute. She has been wanting a dog for such a long time, I can’t even remember. It’s been on birthday lists and Christmas lists and we were wanting to wait until she was a little bit older and more mature so she can handle some of the responsibility. So, we figured now is a good time. We feel she is mature enough and now that school is part-time at home and part-time in school so she has this hybrid model, so she’s able to help with him and his responsibilities when she is doing online school at home. Also, as an only child I just thought it would be great for her to have a furry, little friend.

So, we’re super excited for Cody to join us and as I mentioned, if you follow me on Instagram or Facebook you could comment and see, oh my goodness, his cuteness. As I mentioned, she’s been really wanting this dog for many years and that’s the topic of today’s podcast, we’re going to be talking about desire, this wanting. I’m also going to be talking about overdesire.

I remember I had so much desire to drink when I was deep into my drinking career and, yes, I do refer to it as a drinking career because it felt like one. I drank excessively for many years of my life. I got better and better at overdrinking as time went on so I would joke and say, “I’m moving up the drink count ladder of my career.” I pretty much operated my career of drinking on regular hours. It would start during the week right after work around 5, 5:30 and go until the rest of the evening. Then, on weekends, why wait till 5 o’clock if you can start earlier?

So, it seemed very regular. It seemed very routine. It really seemed like how I would treat my job and go to a career. I also envisioned and dreamed of a day when I would be able to hang it up and just really not overdrink and, fortunately, I’ve achieved that. I did it. I don’t overdrink now whenever I desire to drink.

But when I was drinking copiously, I was perplexed why I had so much desire for it when others around me didn’t. I got to a point that my drinking started to bother me, particularly because I was getting older and my hormones changed. My drinking was waking me up in the middle of the night. It was affecting how foggy I felt during the day. It was affecting my weight and it made me unproductive when I started to drink and it really zapped my energy and my motivation.

Not only did I feel the lack of productivity at night when I was drinking but also certainly the next day, particularly in the morning. It didn’t make me feel good about me. I knew my drinking was too much. I could tell by the way I felt. I could tell by how it made me feel mentally exhausted. Physically, I felt lazy and unmotivated, and emotionally kind of numb. It also made me feel emotionally that I couldn’t really handle the minor stresses of daily life as easily.

I found that I would get grumpy at my husband or my daughter if they asked me just simple questions like, “When’s dinner?” Or, “What’s for dinner, Mom?” Or, “Have you seen my car keys?” And I’d get so annoyed at these questions thinking, “I just need another drink to get out of this grumpiness and this annoyedness.” But it really never made me escape from the grumpiness or the annoyedness unless, of course, I had way too much and I passed out.

Have you been there with your drinking where you kind of just feel, “Meh”? Kind of just, “Blah”? Kind of just getting through the day? I felt I needed alcohol to get through the day, but what I didn’t realize it was really weighing on me emotionally in that I felt I really couldn’t handle the stresses. I would tell myself, “I need more to handle these little stresses in my life.”

Everything just felt a bit heavier. Everything felt like a bigger task than what it really was. Like, “I have to clean up the dishes, and I have to do laundry,” and it just felt like a bigger task than it had felt back in the day when I wasn’t an overdrinker. I recall doing these things even with a buzz going that I felt a little empty inside. Those feelings of despair like, is life going to get better? Is this as good as it gets?

It didn’t make sense to me because I had this great, fulfilling life. I had all these wonderful things, beautiful people in my life. I was successful. If you were to look at everything on paper, you’d be like, “Why would you have feelings of emptiness or despair?” It just didn’t make sense to me.

I had achieved success in so many parts of my life, but yet here I am still wanting to numb out and drink and take the edge off. So, as I continued my drinking career I noticed my cravings and desire for the alcohol happened earlier and earlier in the day. It was annoying. I would have all this mental chatter around my drinking like should I start now? Should I go buy some more? How much will I drink today? It was extremely frustrating that I couldn’t figure out how to cut back.

Now, I didn’t identify as an alcoholic. I had no interest in calling myself an alcoholic and I didn’t feel that it was the right label for me. I didn’t have any interest in terms like recovery or abstinence or sobriety or even calling myself alcohol-free. I didn’t and I still don’t even really like the term sober. I didn’t want to go to meetings and I didn’t want to have a sponsor looking after me. I just wanted to end this annoying struggle that I had around drinking.

The only two tools that I knew about at the time were AA and abstinence and neither of those options appealed to me. They didn’t feel like they fit where I was at and what I wanted to accomplish. What worked for me was learning why I had so much desire for alcohol and how to change my desire for it. This is the work I do with the women I work with. I work with women who want to stop overdrinking. They want to drink socially or maybe they want to quit drinking altogether, but not in a way that they have to claim that they have a disease or where they’re told they are powerless.

They want to learn how to not desire it and if they do choose to have some, that they are in control. For me, I needed the science and the cognitive-based approach because it made sense to my brain on what was happening and exactly the steps I needed to take to make it stop. That’s my program.

Now, my program isn’t for everyone. It’s not for alcoholics or now they use the term severe alcohol use disorder. It’s for women who have a similar story to me where they’re feeling kind of empty and this tugging inside that they’re really not happy and they turn to wine to suppress it or escape from that. They are women drinking more out of habit and very high functioning in life.

So, what I’ve come to understand through this journey is that my brain is what creates my desire for alcohol. The only reason I couldn’t cut back before is because I didn’t know how. I didn’t have the right tools to understand how to change my desire.

As you may recall from the last episode, we talked about drinking not really being a drinking problem. I talked about it being a symptom of something else going on and that it makes sense that most women use alcohol as a way to escape the stress of the day or a way to numb out from their responsibilities. Let’s face it, as women we have a lot on our plate. It’s the way we are conditioned to think about alcohol that makes us want that glass of wine at the end of the day.

I previously shared with you many of the ways I was thinking about alcohol that kept me attached to it. By attached, I mean, it kept me in this intimate relationship with it because of how I was thinking about it which was causing my wanting or my desire for it. So, desire is something that we learn. But most of us think that desire is something innate. We’re born with it or we acquire it somehow along the way, but it is completely learned.

You can’t desire something that you don’t know about. Your brain just won’t desire it. Let’s take an example. If I asked you do you want a choocaloopa power? Your brain would be like, “What? What did you just say? What’s a choocaloopa power?” It’s confused. Our brain is totally confused and of course it’s not going to want something if it’s confused.

So, your brain has to learn about something and therefore desire becomes learned. I also want you to know that desire is something that we have control over. This is really an important concept that I want you to see. Desire is learned by having repeated thoughts over and over about something. We may not even be aware of those thoughts or even how they got there. They come in through subconscious programming or subliminal messaging.

When the brain desires something it will seek it out. We have desires for things based on how we think about them. So, it is our thoughts, whether they’re conscious or subconscious that create our desire. Think about if you desire a mountain vacation or a beach vacation. Maybe you would choose a mountain vacation because you like that it’s cooler or that you like to be among the trees or that the scenery is beautiful. Maybe you would choose a mountain vacation because you don’t like the sand or it’s too hot at the beach or you aren’t into sunbathing or the ocean or the crowds or whatever the reason.

Your desire for one location over the other is based on your thoughts about it. So, your desires come from how you think about something and most of the time we have these desires programmed subconsciously. We’re not even aware that we are programming our brain for desire. So, think about all of the thoughts that you have about alcohol.

You may have some thoughts like, “It provides relief. It’s relaxing. It’s sophisticated. It’s fun. It’s celebratory. It turns my brain off. I like it because I like to take the edge. I like to numb. I like to not feel responsible.” We pick up these thoughts from our environment like TV commercials, parents or friends, the social media, everything our brain comes into contact with as well as our previous experiences with alcohol. Maybe we had good times with alcohol back in the day in our 20s. Maybe it served us then and we didn’t have any of the negative ramifications from it.

We recouped quicker, or the recuperation time didn’t bother us as much as it bothers us when we overdrink later in our life. Now, as we repeat a behavior over and over the brain recognizes, “Hey, there’s a pattern here.” Once the brain establishes a pattern it will take it out of the pre-frontal cortex part of the brain which requires more energy and move it to the mid-brain so it now can become automatic.

When it moves it to the mid-brain and it’s more automatic then it requires less energy. So, we really don’t need to think about it. The behavior becomes automatic. We programmed our brain for desire subconsciously. So, when someone asks you if you want a drink you might immediately say yes. Think about it. When you hang out with a certain group of friends or go to a party on your block or on your cul de sac or you head to a certain restaurant and somebody offers you a drink, and if you’ve said in the past you’re more likely to say yes in the current, present moment.

Your brain is like, “Yes, this is what I do when I’m with these people or at this restaurant. I drink.” So, you just automatically follow suit. Let me just say that this is how our brains are supposed to work. A normal, human brain is supposed to recognize, look for patterns and make it automatic so we don’t have to use so much energy, so we can conserve energy for running away from a lion or some other danger that is presented to us.

So, if we keep repeating a pattern, of course our brain will make it automatic. That’s what it’s supposed to do. Your brain’s not broken, you’re not broken. It’s actually a highly efficient organ in the body. Think about the things that you do daily, like brushing your teeth, driving your car, making your bed, or making a familiar dish for dinner where you don’t even have to follow a recipe, it’s all automatic. Your brain knows how to do it. It doesn’t have to think that hard. It’s on autopilot.

Just knowing this piece alone can be life-changing because for a long time when I didn’t understand this and I didn’t know why I was getting those cravings and I such intense desire to drink I would often think to myself, “Am I an alcoholic? Why can’t I seem to control my drinking? Why do I keep pouring more when I only intended to have one? Why do I feel so out of control and so frustrated over my drinking?”

I didn’t understand about this unconscious desire that I have programmed my brain for. And when you begin to understand that this is how your brain is designed to work, that nothing has gone wrong, it’s just your brain that was trained with some unconscious programming to have desire for alcohol. The best news is it can unlearn this or as I like to say, you can retrain your brain for less desire.

Just because you’ve practiced drinking for years and years and that you’ve become so good at it doesn’t mean that you have to keep doing it even if you feel that intense desire. Now, why does this desire feel so intense? It feels intense by the way alcohol works in the brain.

I want to briefly describe how alcohol works in the human brain. We know alcohol is a concentrated substance, right? It goes through fermentation, distilling, clarification, the whole process. When this concentrated substance is consumed it caused a huge spike of dopamine to be released in the brain. Now, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that has numerous functions within the body, but to make it simple I just want to focus on dopamine’s effect on the reward system pathway in the brain.

This is a critical area of how we keep repeating the process of overdrinking. So, dopamine is associated with pleasure and it’s also involved in learning and memory. It has been dubbed as “The do it again chemical,” right? Because who doesn’t want more pleasure? And it’s learned, so it’s dubbed as that do it again chemical.

Alcohol causes this flood of dopamine to be released in the brain. Now, this heightened dopaminergic response leads to an intense or heightened feeling of pleasure. Of course, pleasure creates wanting it and liking it, and this all happens again inside that reward system pathway in the brain.

Now, you guys know I’m a pharmacist and I study drugs and their interactions within the body for a living, so this is my jam. Because I love science so much and I love it when things make logical sense I’ve created a document describing this process of how alcohol works in the brain with some great, easy to understand graphics. This document can be found in the show notes of this podcast. You can go to www.sherryprice.com/2 or it’s also under the Free Resources page on my website which is sherryprice.com. Either place you can download this awesome PDF.

So, in essence, we have a greater dopamine response, then the brain feels greater reward, greater pleasure, and that’s learned because of dopamine. So, we have this significant reward, hence the reason we get a greater desire. I like to term that overdesire.

Now, we’ve created this overdesire because the brain experiences this exaggerated reward and now the brain will begin to prioritize drinking over other natural pleasures in life. So, let’s say you get pleasure from taking a walk or hiking or doing yoga. Those cause dopamine to be secreted in small amounts in the brain. Now, when the brain experiences a high amount of dopamine and it gets more pleasure from drinking, of course it’s going to start to prioritize that activity over other activities that used to bring us joy or that maybe still bring us a small amount of pleasure.

I found that this happened to me. I loved having my wine at night and when it was time to put my then-little toddler girl to bed we would read several books together, but over time my brain started prioritizing alcohol over the pleasure of reading her books. So, instead of reading her four or five books at night, I would start reading her just two or three and I would tell her that it was too late to have another book. Now, at those days she didn’t understand the concept of time so she just believed my little white lie and the reason I was telling it was so that I could get back to my glass of Chardonnay because, to me, that brought me more pleasure than reading another book.

This exaggerated dopamine response is caused by other concentrated substances out there like cocaine, heroine, and even sugar. Again, your brain is working exactly the way it was designed and it’s responding to these concentrated chemicals in an exaggerated way. That gives us an exaggerated response and that makes us have these intense desire or cravings for alcohol.

So, this is the reward system in the habit brain and we’re going to talk more about how to break the habit in the next episode. But this is why my drinking felt so out of control and I couldn’t stop once I got started. But the truth is, you’re really never out of control. You’re always making the decision to pick up the glass and drink. You’re doing it because of this strong desire.

But that overdesire can be changed and the habit can be broken. What most of us try is to have more willpower or more self-discipline, but that’s not required to break a habit, and actually that prevents you from breaking the habit because white-knuckling and willpower won’t last very long. Maybe you think you have to avoid alcohol or the drinking friends for the rest of your life, but you don’t have to do that either because alcohol is not the enemy.

Now, when you consider cutting back, of course, the brain is going to have fear. It’s going to be uncomfortable not to have the drink when you want another one. You’re going to possibly have thoughts like I did, like, “This is going to be boring. This is going to be hard. This isn’t going to be fun. What will I order when I go out to dinner? Drinking is part of the experience for me.”

It’ll fear that your current experiences where you usually drink will be radically different and when our brain thinks things will be radically different they oftentimes think bad. It’ll think it’s radically different in a negative way, that we will be bored, we won’t be buzzed, we won’t be able to tolerate things, we won’t be able to fit in. Or people are going to ask us about why aren’t we drinking when we normally drink and that we’ll have to tell everybody or come up with some lame excuse every time we decide not to drink. I promise you none of that is true. Your life can bloom so much more when you learn to break the overdrinking habit. You’ll feel more alive and more vibrant, and the little joys and the big joys enter your life again.

So, that’s what I have for you today, my friends. I will be back next time with a deeper dive into how to break this habit of overdrinking. But before you go, I’m excited to celebrate the launch of this podcast by giving away 4 $100 Amazon gift cards to lucky listeners who subscribe, rate, and review this show on Apple Podcasts.

Of course, I do hope that you love the show, but it does not have to be a 5-star review. I want your honest feedback to make sure I continue to provide you tons of value. So, visit sherryprice.com/podcastlaunch to learn more about the contest and how to enter. I’ll be announcing the winners on the show in an upcoming episode. Bye for now.

Thanks for listening to Drink Less Lifestyle. If you’re ready to change your relationship with drinking now check out the free guide, How to Effectively Break the Overdrinking Habit at sherryprice.com/startnow. See you next week.

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