One of the benefits of quitting drinking and drugging is that we regain our sharper brain functions. You know the feeling you have when you walk into a room and forget why you came in? The brain freeze when you can’t remember what you were thinking about, or when you lose your place in a book? The good news is that that tendency diminishes as our brains recover from heavy drinking.
People who drink or use drugs (probably) tend to have a lot of nervous energy in the first place, so we would do well to find activities to occupy our brains and diffuse that energy.
Suppressing that mental chatter is probably one of the reasons we drank in the first place! Think about it: what were you typically doing by the time you were on your third drink? Drinking is essentially a very passive activity. So now you have time available, mental functioning returned, and you’ve removed part of your daily routine in which you shut down the ‘higher’ part of your brain intentionally.
It’s also been shown that mental exercises help us as we age, probably help to slow the onset of dementia, and contribute not just to longer life but also to a more fulfilling life. Think about the older people you know who seem at peace with themselves. Do they seem to have a lot of interests and hobbies, to do things that require concentrated mental energy: bridge, socializing, modest forms of exercise, and so on?
It’s interesting that behavioral approaches to depression often mention the same idea: fill your time with activities so you aren’t just passively dwelling on the things that upset you. And of course, alcohol abuse often is associated with depression. Just getting up and doing something that occupies your mind can be an important part of enacting changeČŘ”even if you don’t feel like it at the moment. “Let your body lead, and your mind can follow.”
If you tended to drink in order to ‘shut off’ that niggling part of the brain, to relax, to unwind, to ‘take the edge off’, to mark that transition from the workday to the evening—then it may be important to choose activities that you can really get absorbed in.
I became aware of the power of some activities such as video games to function much as alcohol does by watching my son. When my marriage was foundering, and we were all under a lot of stress, he and I made a point of going out to movies often. I liked the way I could simply lose myself in the movie, just set aside my brain for a couple of hours and let the story and cinematography carry me away.
But what really intrigued me was the time leading up to the movie, while we waited in the lobby, watching him play the video games there. The intensity of his concentration, the way his whole mind and body were focused on the fast-paced games, showed me that he was using it as a form of mental escape. In fact, to get his attention I literally have always had to walk up and touch him, and it takes a few seconds for him to register my presence. Is he thinking about school, relationships, or stress-filled minutiae? No—his mind’s on vacation.
Another thing I noticed at that time was that it was sometimes necessary to consciously find the happy moments that were occurring. We can blind ourselves to them when we are stressed, anxious, or depressed. Just the fact that I was going to a movie with my young teenage son (and the fact that he wanted to do that with his dad!) was something to recognize and appreciate. Feeling the comfort of a spring sunset, making the time to go window shopping or get ice cream afterwards (there’s a little more change in your pockets when you quit drinking....). Enjoying the planned activities is great. But the unplanned moments are unburdened by the stress of our expectations. They may take a special effort to notice.
So if you are having trouble figuring out the activities that might occupy your time and mind, answer a couple of questions. What are the things you do on a day-to-day basis that make you feel comfortable, or that give you at least a somewhat greater sense of well-being? Write them down. Now here’s an idea: try to do at least some of those things every day.
What do you like to do that really preoccupies your mind? Do you have trouble filling your former drinking hours? People who successfully quit drinking plan consciously for drinking situations and for the times when they got urges. Reactivate an old interest, buy a book or magazine on the way home, have your evening or weekend afternoon planned. Take yourself out of the passive drinking mode, and you can actively achieve sobriety.