December 25, 2000
New Year's is a time to 'celebrate not medicate'
Party time during the holidays can be enjoyable, but a Stanford psychiatrist cautions that when it comes to alcohol, it's important to "celebrate, not medicate."
Using alcohol to relieve stress for many people can be like taking out a loan - it satisfies an immediate need but can get you into big trouble later without resolving the underlying problem, says David Spiegel, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences.
"Think of it as short-term gain, long-term pain," says Spiegel, who adds that some confusion exists because modest drinking can leave people more relaxed - temporarily.
Drinking, says Spiegel, can be a deceptive solution, because the initial feeling is one of stress reduction and often pleasure. But the stress doesn't go away when the effects of alcohol wear off. Just like a debt that isn't repaired, the stress returns, often in a more severe form, sometimes worsened by a hangover. Unlike a loan, Spiegel says, the entire balance is due almost immediately.
Some people - whether by choice or because their bodies are biologically vulnerable - aren't aware of the boundary between a little and a lot of alcohol, so they end up drinking too much before they know it. These people probably should never drink, says Spiegel. But even people who are confident they can control their intake need to take a close look at how much they're drinking - and why.
"There is a huge difference between a single drink that represents a change of pace - an accompaniment to a holiday or recreational event - and, on the other hand, a drink that makes it hard to walk. So celebrate, don't medicate," he says.
"One of the many reasons people can drink responsibly at social occasions is because they are typically not under negative stress. A drink or two complements the relaxed atmosphere of the event, which in any case, is confined to a specific time - a few hours at most," Spiegel says. "But it's so easy to cross the line into too much alcohol, because that first drink will lower inhibitions and make it much easier to drink beyond the very modest quantities that for some people arguably might simply be relaxing," Spiegel says.
A good rule: "If you have any, even very minor impairments - slowness of walking, talking or completing any tasks - you have drunk more than is beneficial. If you have to ask if you seem okay - or if a friend or loved one observes you've been drinking - you've probably had more to drink than would be useful 'to reduce stress.'"
Spiegel points out that by numbing yourself with alcohol, you lose opportunities to rethink the situation and come up with possible solutions to whatever is causing the stress. Second, you run a high risk of creating some new problems, such as a hangover, driving while under the influence or fighting with loved ones.