If you find you’re drinking more alcohol during the COVID-19 pandemic or starting to drink alone, you’re—well, not alone. Maybe you used to drink only occasionally, but now it feels like there’s permission to make drinking a daily ritual.
Working from home makes it even easier to turn to alcohol in the evening (or earlier). Why not have a drink (or three) every night when you don’t have to get up early to make yourself presentable and get to work on time? Pouring a drink can be especially appealing after a stressful day, which is pretty much every day now.
But what if you’re not entirely comfortable with your recent pattern of alcohol use, and part of you worries it might become a real issue? Even if you’ve never had a problem with drinking, you might be concerned about the long-term effects, and whether you’ll be able to step away from this higher level of consumption once the pandemic is behind us.
If you suspect your relationship with alcohol is moving in an unhealthy direction, don’t be hard on yourself. Turning to familiar ways of coping is a common and understandable response to this bewildering situation. As you’re assessing your relationship with alcohol, look for the following warning signs that your drinking may be going too far:
So how to avoid developing a serious problem with alcohol? The only surefire approach is to avoid drinking altogether, but the following recommendations can lower the risk. In general, these preventive measures are the flip side of the risk factors.
If you’re wondering whether to change your drinking behavior, take care to ask yourself the right question. Most commonly we’ll ask ourselves if we’re “addicted” or if we’re “an alcoholic,” but those questions are usually too black-or-white to offer meaningful answers. The better question is, "Is the way I’m drinking a net positive in my life?" If not, talk with a qualified substance abuse psychotherapist or someone you love and trust about the concerns you have. Explore with them whether it’s time to change your relationship with alcohol, and how they might support you along the way.
Fight-or-flight is the instinctive physiological response to an external threat. It is a reaction that no doubt has early evolutionary roots. When fight or flight kicks in, the brain does not take time to weigh the circumstances, because a very quick response can mean survival. Of course, this lack of reflection means that in many cases, the body is overreacting. With experience, most of us learn to quickly recover from the first flush of fight or flight and find an appropriate response. It is a balance.
Fight or flight, or something akin to it, can also come about when a person experiences sharp, chronic romantic trauma. Those who have had relationships in which they were emotionally abused, physically or sexually threatened, or assaulted understandably may have developed an acute sensitivity to the cues that preceded these events. Even if they have managed to extricate themselves from a bad relationship, they may retain the learned impulse to react without reflection to any hint of a repeat.
As a result, the distress they experienced in bad relationships now gets triggered, inappropriately, in new situations with other people. If this describes you, you may in the moment feel a dreadful sense of deja vu and react negatively. While it may feel like the exact same situation, as you reflect later, you recognize that it was not the same situation at all. This often makes people feel ashamed or guilty for mistreating a current, healthier partner.
Here are some ways to assess if your past romantic trauma is being triggered in your current relationship — and how to start processing the original trauma:
If you suffered a betrayal through cheating in your past romantic relationship you may find yourself thinking that your current boyfriend is fooling around behind your back, whether it is flirting or cheating. Do not allow yourself to engage in making assumptions. Ask yourself how well do you know this person and is this something he or she would do? Take a step back and work through the hurt you suffered in your last relationship. Consider talking to your new partner about how you were betrayed and what you need to feel safe in your current relationship. Talk with him/her about how you are working on not letting this old experience taint your new one.
If your past partner was controlling or domineering, you'll likely become triggered when a partner tells you what to do, how to feel, or how to act. Your new partner may not actually be trying to control you, but merely expressing an opinion. Nonetheless, the triggering may send you into flight or fight. You may tune out while they are talking, ignore them, or appear paralyzed. Instead, try to communicate with your partner about what you're noticing about yourself and how loaded the idea of control is for you.
Instead of blaming, see if you can understand where your partner is coming from and if they will consider ways to communicate opinions and desires that feel less threatening to you and are less likely to trigger an overreaction.
If you suffered emotional abuse in past relationships, it would not be unusual for conflict in a new relationship to trigger an overreaction. Your current partner may just be expressing normal feelings that need to get out, but for you, it feels as if the walls are caving in. You may panic or live in a state of fear about upsetting your partner. The possibility of an argument paralyzes you. Instead, work on noticing how your partner is communicating upset to you; instead of assuming it’s the same old thing, look for differences: Is he or she more sensitive to you, or are they still able to see the good in you even when upset with you? Remind yourself that all couples have conflict, and even if someone is upset, you can work things through without it becoming a crisis.
If you suffered physical or sexual abuse in past relationships, you may be susceptible to having negative emotions triggered by physical closeness or touch. If your past partner hurt you physically or made you feel as if you were physically disgusting or had no worth, then sexual interactions may become emotionally painful. Many in this situation leave an encounter by disconnecting and tuning out. Before entering a new romantic relationship, consider that your body and brain need time to heal to feel safe again. It is unrealistic to go from physical mistreatment to feeling safe while being physically vulnerable with a new partner. Take a break, talk to a therapist to help you work through the trauma. Do not force yourself to engage physically: If you are not fully on board, each new sexual experience will only add to that original trauma.
Neurofeedback is direct training typically provided by health professionals such as psychologists, family therapists, and counselors. We observe the brain in action from moment to moment and that information is brought back to the person by way of the sensors. Neurofeedback is also called EEG Biofeedback, because it is based on electrical brain activity, the electroencephalogram, or EEG. Neurofeedback is training in self-regulation. Self-regulation is a necessary part of optimal brain performance and function. Self-regulation training allows the nervous system to function better.
The LENS is a specific kind of Neurofeedback that operates much more rapidly than traditional Neurofeedback and has qualities that make it much easier to use with people who can’t sit still. With the LENS, the client doesn’t need to “do” anything, and there is nothing to learn. The typical session with the LENS lasts 3-4 minutes. This means that the LENS works well for people who either cannot or will not pay attention to a computer screen for longer time periods. Additionally, the LENS works much faster than traditional Neurofeedback with the number of sessions ranging from as few as 1 to an overall average number of sessions of 20.
The LENS works well with problems of the Central Nervous System, which can be numerous. These include symptoms of anxiety-depression spectrum, attention deficits, behavior disorders, various sleep disorders, headaches and migraines, PMS and emotional disturbances. It is also useful for organic brain conditions such as seizures, the autism spectrum, and cerebral palsy. These are all signs of Central Nervous System dysfunction which result in the body’s difficulty regulating itself.
How does the LENS work?
We apply sensors to the scalp to listen in on brainwave activity. We process the signal by computer, and extract information about certain key brainwave frequencies. Through a patented process, we then bring this information back to the client down the sensor wires to the person’s skin. The results are reduction and/or elimination of the symptoms which previously interfered with the client’s quality of life. The sessions are brief (usually 3-5 minutes), gentle (usually the client feels nothing during the session), and the changes are lasting with some exceptions: with symptoms of progressive conditions such as Parkinson’s and MS, the treatment needs to be ongoing to sustain the improvement.
What conditions does the LENS help with?
It works extremely well with the symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury, no matter how long ago the incident occurred. The trauma can be from a physical blow, a concussive injury, a psychological incident (PTSD), or any other incident(s) which results in a decrease in cognitive ability.
Many children have sleep problems that can be helped such as bed wetting, sleep walking, sleep talking, teeth grinding, nightmares, and night terrors.
The LENS can also be helpful with many of the symptoms of adolescence including drug abuse, suicidal behavior, anxiety and depression. The LENS can also help in maintaining good brain function as people age.
Do the results of LENS last?
If the problem being addressed is one of brain dysregulation, then the answer is yes, and that covers a lot of ground. Neurofeedback involves learning by the brain and if that brings order out of disorder, the brain will continue to use its new capabilities, and thus reinforce them.
At times there are unknown issues such as early-stage degenerative disease, allergies, strong reactions to some foods or pollens, or spills and falls leading to bumps on the head. In these instances longer courses of the LENS may be needed. And it may also be that some direct medical help may be the best course of action. The LENS can’t do everything for everybody. But it can and has made a difference that other approaches have not provided, and in general, in a much shorter time. Matters are different when we are dealing with degenerative conditions like Parkinson's or the dementias, or when we are working against continuing insults to the system, as may be the case in the autism spectrum. In such cases, the LENS sessions may need to be continued at some level over time. Allergic susceptibilities and food intolerances may make it more difficult to maintain the gains. Poor digestive function will pose a problem, as does poor nutrition. A child living in a toxic environment (in either the physical or the psychological sense) may have more difficulty retaining good function.
What is the success rate with neurofeedback?
It turns out that among the vast majority of clients (>95% in one clinician's experience,) the actual outcome exceeds the prior expectations. Against such low expectations, the changes that can be produced with the LENS may even appear miraculous. One EEG Biofeedback office has a sign on its front desk: "We expect miracles." If none occur, something has gone wrong." What appears miraculous in all of this is really nothing more than the incredible capacity of the brain to recover function when given a chance.
Is neurofeedback a cure?
In the case of organic brain disorders, it can only be a matter of getting the brain to function better rather than of curing the condition. When it comes to problems of dysregulation, we would say that there is not a disease to be cured. Where dysregulation is the problem, self-regulation may very well be the remedy. But again, the word cure would not apply.
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Imagine a train racing towards you at top speed, and there you are, stuck on the tracks, a human target. Your heart races, your muscles tense, your body starts shaking, and your breath becomes labored as worry consumes your mind and manifests throughout your body. Intense, right? For the nearly 20 percent of people in the U.S. affected by an anxiety disorder every year, this is what anxiety can feel like: Anxiety is a dreadful feeling of unease and worry, perpetuated by fear, that often comes with repetitive negative thinking.
As you’re experiencing it, you can have difficulty concentrating and making decisions. Even if you haven’t been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder, chances are you’ve felt the heart pound at some point and know the struggle is real.
What’s Going On In The Brain?
In states of anxiety, the brain is affected by stress hormones like cortisol and excitatory neurotransmitters, such as norepinephrine. These factors can lead to a decreased ability to regulate negative emotions, excessive negative thinking, and difficulty relaxing,” he says.
At the same time, the amygdala, or the emotion center of the brain, becomes overactive, which makes it harder for higher brain centers (those in charge of cognitive functions like learning and memory) to regulate emotional and physiologic states to calm down mentally and physically.
The amygdala decides what emotions to give you from moment to moment by providing a constant threat assessment about your environment. When it determines something isn’t dangerous, it does nothing and you feel calm. When it looks at something it perceives as dangerous, it rings an alarm to warn you about the danger and motivates you to do something about it—that’s what anxiety is, it’s the alarm system.
For someone with a fear of dogs, for example, when they see a dog, the amygdala rings the alarm and tells them the dog is dangerous, and the person becomes anxious. That motivates them to get away from the dog. When the danger is gone, the alarm shuts off and the anxiety goes from high to low.
As humans we are wired to repeat actions that make us feel good and stop actions that make us feel bad. Because the anxiety went from high to low by running away from the dog, this kind of avoidance behavior becomes reinforced and we’re more likely to repeat the same behavior the next time we see a dog. It’s an evolutionary response; the body says, ‘anxiety kept me safe, I better get anxious again.’”
Why Does Anxiety Keep Coming Back?
When the body experiences symptoms of anxiety, the brain interprets these signals from the body as cause for concern, worsening anxiety by creating a vicious cycle. The more anxious we get, the more nervous we feel; the more nervous we feel, the more anxious we get.
The important thing to know is not why you have anxiety in the first place, but what’s maintaining it now. The basic idea is short-term avoidance of anxiety leads to long-term maintenance of anxiety. When someone tries to make themselves feel better in the moment (avoiding a dog), it guarantees more anxiety the next time they’re in a similar situation.
How to Calm Anxiety When It Arises
By practicing a few helpful strategies on the regular, when a bout of anxiety strike, you’ll be more likely to get in the habit of doing them automatically—and dial down your angst.
If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety there are many ways one can learn to overcome chronic anxiety.
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Maybe sex is the last thing on your mind when you’re stressed out. But it might help lower your anxiety. Sex seems to lessen the amount of hormones your body releases in response to stress. And an active sex life can make you happier and healthier, which might also help keep anxiety at bay.
Research says people who have sex once a month or less get heart disease more often than those who have it twice a week or so. Part of the reason could be that you get a bit more exercise and are less likely to be anxious or depressed. But it could also be that if you have more sex, you’re physically and mentally healthier in the first place.
Sex typically burns about 5 calories a minute. That’s about equal to a brisk walk. And you use a bit more oxygen too -- about the same as digging in the garden or walking down the stairs.
That may not seem like much, but it starts to add up over the long term. And because sex can improve your mental health, you might be more likely to do other types of exercise like the neighborhood kickball team, hiking, or housework.
Well, not so much lose them as forget where you put them. That’s because regular sex seems be linked to improved memory, especially if you’re between ages 50 and 89. It’s not clear why.
Weekly sex seems to boost your immune system compared to those who have it less often. Part of the reason may be that it raises levels of a germ-fighting substance called immunoglobulin A, or IgA. But more is not always better here. People who had sex more than twice a week had lower levels of IgA than those who had no sex.
Sex bathes your brain in a chemical “afterglow” that lasts about 2 days and helps to bond you to your partner over the long term. Without it, you could lose some of the satisfaction of your relationship. A healthy, happy sexual relationship -- couples who do it at least once a week seem to be happiest -- can help build trust and understanding between you and your partner.
The reasons aren’t exactly clear, but in at least one study, men who ejaculated less than seven times a month were more likely to get prostate cancer compared to those who did it at least 21 times a month.
But unprotected anonymous sex and multiple partners can also raise your chances for the disease, so when you do have sex, take care.
Without sex, you’ll miss out on the hormones that promote restful sleep, like prolactin and oxytocin. Women get an estrogen boost that helps even more. The reverse is true, too: If you decide you want to start having sex again, a good night’s sleep is just the thing to keep you feeling frisky.
Sex can be a good way to take your mind off of any aches and pains you have. But it does more than that. Orgasm causes your body to release endorphins and other hormones that can help ease head, back, and leg aches. They may help arthritis pain and menstrual cramps, too.
It may seem odd, but “use it or lose it” may apply here. For women at menopause, vaginal tissue can get thin, shrink, and dry out without regular intercourse. That can make sex painful and weaken your desire. And some research says men who have sex less than once a week are twice as likely to have erectile dysfunction (ED) as those who have it weekly.
Sex seems to help keep your blood pressure down. That makes sense when you consider what it does: It adds a bit of aerobic and muscle-building exercise, and it can ease anxiety and make you feel better. Both of those can help keep your numbers where they need to be.
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Start out slow. It may be the last thing you want to do when you're feeling down, but exercise releases feel-good chemicals in your brain and can help ease depression symptoms. You don’t have to do too much, maybe just go for a short walk. If you can push yourself to do it a few days in a row, you may not need as much of a push the following day.
Walk or Run
You don’t have to run a marathon or be a speed demon. You don’t even have to run. Start with walking, and you can decide if you want to go faster as you get stronger. It’s not just the exercise that helps -- the great outdoors can lift your mood, too.
The fixed and moving poses of this meditative form of exercise can make you stronger and more flexible. That can give you energy and a sense of well-being. The breath control involved in yoga also can calm your emotions. You can look for videos online, but a class gets you out into the world and around other people.
Touching soil may boost a key brain chemical called serotonin, and that can help lift depression. You'll also be active and outside. If you don’t have a patch of dirt of your own, call a local community garden to see if you could work a plot there.
It’s good exercise and a great opportunity to let out some emotion without talking about your feelings. You can just hit the ball against a wall, but if you want it to come back across a net, you’ll need someone on the other side. That's a chance to socialize. And if you commit to a time with someone else, you’re more likely to stick to it.
Exercise at Work
If you need a distraction to get your mind off negative thoughts, take a few minutes and step away from your desk. Find a quiet place and do some stretching, or go up and down a flight of stairs -- anything that gets you moving can boost your mood.
It’s a great, whole-body workout, and some people find the water helps calm them. It doesn’t have to take a huge chunk out of your day: Just 30 minutes of exercise 3 to 5 times a week may be all you need.
You can get good exercise on a stationary one, but hitting the bike path is a great way to take in the world around you. You don’t need anything fancy -- any two-wheeler will do. Ride it to the store, the coffee shop, or your friend’s house. Just make sure to get it checked by a mechanic first, and don’t forget to wear a helmet.
You use weights, machines, or your own body resistance (like with pushups) to build strength, muscle mass, and flexibility. A simple set of hand weights will work, or even just the floor. The workout isn’t the only thing that improves your mood -- a sense of accomplishment and better body image can help, too.
Walk Your Dog
Fido can help ease your stress, and he may be just the motivator you need. Grab a leash and maybe a Frisbee and get out there. The fresh air won’t hurt, either.
It’s a win-win-win: exercise, social engagement, and fun. All those can lift your spirits, and you can start at home. While nobody’s watching, turn on a favorite track and let your body move to it. Even short dance sessions can feel good. As you gain your footing and confidence, check for classes at local dance schools or look for a group that gets together to dance.
You may need to work up to it, but three 20-second sprints, with 2-minute breaks in between, may be as good for you as 50 minutes of moderate jogging. And they can be a quick way to release some pent-up emotion. Just make sure you warm up -- and ask your doctor if you don’t know if you’re healthy enough for that kind of high-intensity workout.
It’s a great workout: You jog, sprint, jump, and throw. You can do it indoors and out, winter and summer, and in a large group or with just one other person. You can even shoot hoops by yourself.
The focus needed for a long game can help distract you from negative thoughts, and being part of a team adds a feeling of connection. And when you’ve got a whole team that expects you to show up, you’re more likely to, right?
Thomas Kessler, LMFT, RAS
Marriage & Family Therapist and Registered Addiction Specialist