Why we drink, despite the hangovers

If you’ve ever tried to give up drinking at least for some time, you’ll know how hard that can be. The social pressures from friends and family, the fun and relaxation associated with just one glass and the feeling of missing out if you’re the only one not drinking can make quitting alcohol – or even just cutting back – one of the toughest vices to give away.

Most of us say we can, that we’re not addicted, but could you really give it up?

As part of Cancer Council Victoria’s new Drink Less, Live More campaign to raise awareness of the link between alcohol and cancer, we spoke with Dr Emmanuel Kuntsche, an expert in the psychology behind why we drink and Director of the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University.

According to Dr Kuntsche our relationship with alcohol starts when we’re young, very young.

“Our studies demonstrate that as young as three or four years old, kids are already socialised in the ways of adult drinking,” he says.

“Some children as young as four know whether a drink has alcohol in it purely by smell or sight.

“They know it’s not for them, they know it’s a drink for adults, but they begin associating alcohol and parties, alcohol and fun, alcohol and relaxation, etc.”

Dr Kuntsche says that for 10 years or more children observe alcohol use and learn about appropriate drinking contexts and resulting consequences.

By the time they’re adolescents, after almost a decade of being socialised into alcohol use and its effects, it is not surprising if adolescents are keen to try it for themselves, to see what effect it will actually have on them.

Dr Kuntsche says that as children mature into adults the adolescent brain essentially becomes a building site where restructuring prepares kids for their new role as an adult. Neurologically, the asynchronous maturation of prefrontal and limbic systems and the remodelling of dopaminergic pathways makes risk taking appear more rewarding for adolescents than is the case among children and adults.

For the next 10 or so years adolescents mainly drink at parties and with friends, further strengthening that learned association of the ‘fun’ aspects of drinking. They may learn to appreciate immediate effects of alcohol such as disinhibition and relaxation.

“After 20 years or more of conditioning, i.e. after experiencing these immediate effects personally and observing them among others for so long, it’s not surprising alcohol has become part and parcel of our lives, one that is so hard for many to change or to give up.

“It becomes a habit, you walk into a bar you have a beer without even thinking about it, you go out to dinner, you have a glass of wine without thinking about it. It is a conditioned response we are often not aware of, it is what we and our peers are used to do.

This is why, according to Dr Kuntsche despite the hangovers and the embarrassing behaviour, we continue to drink. It’s why we find it so difficult to give it up. As with Pavlov’s dog, where the dog was conditioned to associate the ringing bell with the delivery of food, the perceived immediate rewards of alcohol such as relaxation and conviviality becomes our conditioned response to alcohol. The hangover the next day and the embarrassing acts that might come later in the night when our inhibitions are down, come too late to form our primary response to alcohol.

“While hangovers and embarrassment might be conditions we associate with alcohol, they are not part of our conditioned response, and that’s the important difference,” he says.

“When we enter a bar, it is the unconscious conditioned responses that sees us ordering another beer and that drives our behaviour, not the conscious memory of the hangover.”

Dr Kuntsche says being mindful about drinking is important if you want to change your drinking habits. But that’s easier said than done.

“Unfortunately, after two or three drinks the effect of alcohol starts to lower our self-consciousness and self-control with the risk of negative effects to occur such as spending more money than intended or becoming aggressive,” he says.

Cancer Council Victoria Alcohol Policy manager and Co-Chair of the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol Jane Martin, says there’s one very strong reason we should be rethinking our relationship with alcohol.

Cancer.

“We know alcohol causes cancer, we have known this for 30 years now, the trouble is, many people across Australia are unaware of the link,” said Ms Martin.

“We know alcohol causes cancers of the mouth, throat (pharynx and larynx) oesophagus, bowel, liver and breast cancer after the menopause for women. There is also probable evidence that it increases the risk of cancers of the stomach and breast cancer before the menopause in women.

“Yet only 39% of Australians are aware of the link, when it comes to breast cancer, that figure drops to 19%.

“People deserve to know what alcohol actually does to them. That’s why we’re running this campaign, to raise awareness and help people drink less and live more.”

“Alcohol companies are well aware of this link and yet deliberately portray alcohol as a fun social activity, something that makes every event better.

“We believe Australians need to be better informed so they can make better decisions for themselves.”

Find out more about Cancer Council Victoria’s Drink Less, Live More campaign, and help us spread the truth about the link between alcohol and cancer.