Discover more from Exploring Sobriety
Can You Relax Without Alcohol?
Why I thought I needed alcohol to relax, and what life is like sober.
A Life of Stress
I used to be an absolute bundle of stress and anxiety.
I woke up each morning already feeling overwhelmed by the day ahead of me. This wasn’t just a light, back-of-the-mind stress. It was so bad that I’d dry heave in the shower and rely on cigarettes just to “settle me down” enough to get out the door and go to work.
And the stress only built from there. It always felt like I had a thousand tasks hanging over me and at least a handful of problems with no obvious solutions. My mind would hop from one of these problems to the next, and I’d end up more and more anxious as the day went on.
When it was finally time to head home, I’d be exhausted from stressing out so much. I typically felt “wound up,” and the first thing I wanted to do when I got home was “relax” and “unwind.”
Unfortunately, in those days, I only knew one way to relax—drinking alcohol. I was a “high-functioning” alcoholic, in the sense that I made it through the work day without drinking. However, I almost always stopped to buy beer on the way home and started working through my daily purchase just about the second I walked through the door.
I’m not claiming that stress and anxiety were the only reasons I drank. But, they sure provided a convenient excuse for it. I told myself all the time that I needed to drink to relax. When I considered getting sober, I imagined that without alcohol, I’d be a wound-up ball of stress 24/7—a thought which terrified me.
Unfortunately, this pattern led to me romanticizing my alcoholism. Even while I was still at work, I’d often catch myself daydreaming about getting home and sinking into my couch with a beer. It always felt so satisfying and calming.
My evenings were my unwinding time. Life felt hard, but at night I could get drunk, forget all my worries, and for a few hours just feel happy and relaxed. If I had known the term “self-care” back then, it’s probably how I would have described my drinking habit.
Of course, like with many alcoholics, my feelings about alcohol weren’t anything but straightforward. While I was busy telling myself that my drinking was a great way to unwind, another part of me was sick and tired of my addiction. Fortunately, it’s the latter half that finally won out.
A Life Without Alcohol
After I quit drinking, I worried that I’d never be able to relax again. I know that sounds like an exaggeration, but that’s really the thought that kept running through my head. It seemed like the only times I was ever really stress-free were when I was drunk. What would happen to me if I actually stayed sober?
To my surprise, my sobriety experience has been exactly the opposite of what I expected. Yes, my stress skyrocketed during my early days sober. But then, as I stuck with it, a strange thing happened: I found myself feeling more relaxed than ever before.
As a drinker, my only truly relaxed times were at night when I was drunk. After getting sober, I started to feel relaxed even in the morning and the afternoon.
Again, I’ll emphasize that it took a while to reach that point—about a year of sobriety. I’ll also add the clarification that I wasn’t relaxed 24/7, and I’ve still had plenty of stressful times in my life since quitting drinking. Overall, though, I was far more relaxed when sober than I was as a drinker. In fact, the feeling that I needed to “unwind” at the end of each day had disappeared entirely.
What was going on? I had taken away the only stress-coping mechanism I knew, so why was I feeling more relaxed than ever?
The truth is that I think I had been misunderstanding my feelings for years.
The Connection Between Alcohol and Stress
It’s true that alcohol can reduce feelings of stress, and there’s even research suggesting that this is a contributing factor to alcoholism. (Source.)
However, what I didn’t realize as a drinker is that alcohol was having two simultaneous effects on my stress: Reducing it in the short term while exacerbating it in the long term.
This is a pattern that many of alcohol’s harms follow, and I think that it’s one of the most important patterns for any recovering alcoholics to watch out for. I saw the same thing happen with my depression, my social skills, and my anxiety. In each case, getting drunk provided a short-term benefit, but made the underlying problems far worse as I continued to drink for years.
This is one of the reasons that alcoholism is such an insidious disorder. It often appears to “fix” the very problems it caused!
In the case of my stress, it’s true that when I got drunk each night I was able to forget my problems and “unwind.” What I didn’t grasp, however, is that alcoholism had been directly and indirectly causing most of my stress in the first place.
Getting drunk every night left me no time for healthy ways of dealing with stress, like exercise or reflecting on the day. I was basically just forgetting about my problems instead of trying to work through them.
It also interfered with my sleep and kept me exhausted all day long. This made every problem that I faced at work feel exponentially harder to deal with. I was able to grind through and do a good job, but it left me emotionally drained and incredibly stressed.
Lastly, and most surprising of all, I think that a lot of the feelings that I had been characterizing as “stress” might actually have been the initial onset of alcohol withdrawal symptoms. This never occurred to me at the time, but in retrospect, it makes a lot of sense.
I was drinking every night, sometimes going years without a single night off. There’s no question that I had developed a physical dependence to alcohol. When I finally quit drinking for good, I went through an entire host of withdrawal symptoms—from insomnia to shaking to increased anxiety.
I think that back before I quit drinking, I was putting myself through something similar, but much more scaled back, on a daily basis. I’d get drunk at night, then start going through the withdrawal the next day as I remained sober throughout work.
When I was craving a drink to “unwind” at the end of each day, I was also craving it simply because of my addiction. I suspect that a lot of the “relaxation” that I felt was actually just the elimination of my minor withdrawal symptoms.
The Relaxation Myth
Now that I’ve experienced life as a daily drinker and life as a recovered alcoholic, I can say without hesitation that sobriety is more relaxing. I still have stress, but it’s not a normal, daily occurrence. I don’t need to devote hours every evening to undoing the psychological damage of the morning and afternoon.
When I do get stressed, I’m able to relax through healthier hobbies. My main go-to is exercise, but creative work like writing and drawing also helps. When I’m not feeling up for any of that, I just play video games; it’s not the most productive use of time, but it sure is better for me than slamming down beers.
Like many alcoholic excuses, I think that the idea that alcohol helps us relax is based in part on truth. Back when I used to drink, I really did experience a short-term reduction in stress.
But I allowed that grain of truth to turn into a giant myth: That I needed alcohol to relax.
I’m five and a half years alcohol-free and more relaxed than ever.
Exploring Sobriety is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.