Alcohol’s Psychological Grip: Why We Drink

5 min read
Andrew Neel / Pexels

Source: Andrew Neel / Pexels

“Thud!” A loud noise from the kitchen woke me up.

“Not this again,” I sighed. When I turned on the kitchen light, I found trash all over our wooden floor. In front of the mess was my 1-year-old cat, looking at me sheepishly.

Unveiling Human Behavior: The Pursuit of Pleasure and Avoidance of Pain

About a month ago, my cat suddenly became interested in our under-the-sink trash can. Relentless, the little troublemaker would paw and paw and paw until a small opening let him crack open the cabinet door. There was nothing I could do to stop him.

It took me a whole week of headaches before I discovered that a can of emptied cat food had fallen behind the trash can and rolled to the back of the cabinet. The cat had been smelling the fish and thought he would find a feast if he got behind the trash bin.

Much like my cat’s relentless search for the hard-to-reach fishy treat, humans often exhibit behaviors driven by a deeper rationale that isn’t immediately apparent. Many times, we only see the troubled behaviors. We don’t realize that there is often a logical reason behind each behavior, disturbed or not.

My cat kept returning to the cabinet because he believed if he could get behind the trash bin, he would get a delicious treat. Drinkers return to the bottle because they believe they can find what they desire at the bottom.

The Dual Forces: Pleasure and Pain

Two simple reasons are at the core of our actions: trying to feel good or trying to avoid feeling bad. This idea can help explain everything from why we love chocolate to why some of us reach for a drink.

According to famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, these two simple motivations are responsible for our daily decisions. We pick up the chocolate bar for the rush of joy when it melts in our mouths. We spit out the scalding coffee and remember to blow on it the next time before taking a sip.

Instinctively, we repeat what gives us pleasure and flinch away from the pain.

The same principle may also be behind our choice to drink alcohol. The allure of a drink often promises fleeting moments of pleasure: a buzz that lifts the weight off the shoulders, a sense of confidence in social situations, or an escape from mundane daily tasks. Our brains learn to associate the fleeting joy with the liquid in the bottle, so we return, time and time again.

The Lure of Liquor: Pleasure in a Bottle

Just like my cat couldn’t resist the idea of a hidden treat, many of us find it hard to resist what alcohol seems to promise. We associate beer with bonding, wine with relaxation, and rounds of shots with party and celebration. Alcohol, for many, represents more than just a drink. It becomes a symbol of desired states of being.

Our perceptions of alcohol don’t form in a vacuum. They’re cultivated over time through observations and external influences. Think about how often we see people in movies or on TV having a great time with a drink in their hand. These scenes stick with us, associating drinking with fun and friendship. They subtly reinforce our beliefs that alcohol equals good times and pleasure.

Dodging Discomfort: Alcohol as an Escape

But there’s another side to this coin—the avoidance of pain. Beyond seeking pleasure, avoiding pain is perhaps an even more powerful force. My cat didn’t just try to get behind the cabinet door for a feast. What probably motivated him even more was his instinct to avoid hunger.

Alcohol often serves as a mild anesthesia, providing temporary relief from life’s stings, be it the numbing of a painful memory, dampening the anxiety of social interactions, or drowning the whispers of self-doubt. Alcohol promises a short-lived escape.

Preemptive Coping: Alcohol as Protective Armor

Over time, we may start to drink not because we’re already feeling bad but because we’re worried we might feel bad later, like taking a drink before bed to avoid lying awake worrying.

Someone might dread the tossing and turning that comes with insomnia. They might think, “A couple of drinks will help me crash and avoid that frustration.” It’s this anticipatory anxiety, the fear of potential discomfort, that leads individuals to reach for the bottle even before facing the situation. In doing so, alcohol becomes a pre-emptive armor against perceived threats of pain or judgment.

Uncovering the Hidden Desires Behind Every Sip

Much like unearthing the hidden cat food can was vital to understanding my cat’s behavior, uncovering the deeper motivations behind alcohol use is crucial. We often only see troubled behavior, like the cat getting into the trash at night or the drinkers who continue to drink despite doctors’ warnings, partners’ ultimatums, or loved ones’ pleas. We don’t realize that there is often an earnest desire for joy or relief behind each pour.

To resist the lure of alcohol, willpower alone is often not sufficient. I had to find and get rid of the empty cat food can to solve my cat’s trash can raids.

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