Drinking from boredom may be a trend. That’s one implication of a recent survey by the national behavioral health provider FHE Health. When we asked survey respondents some questions to better understand how Americans were coping during the pandemic, 76 percent said they had “stockpiled” alcohol in preparation for quarantine, and 40 percent said they were drinking because they were bored.
That’s worrying because self-medicating feelings of boredom with alcohol can invite health problems. Drinking substitutes alcohol for other forms of stimulation that are better for health and fitness, and, in some cases, it can escalate into alcoholism and require professional detox and treatment. On that note, the following pointers for ending a boredom-induced alcohol habit are for those who want to take their health, diet, and fitness to the next level.
Here it’s helpful to have a working definition of boredom. Simply put, boredom is a lack of stimulation.
So often, our lives are full of distraction, social interaction, entertainment, and things we consider fun. In the midst of these stimuli that keep us busy, engaged, and upbeat about our lives, it can be easy to assume that life of its own accord is here to entertain us.
This is a false assumption. When a person is restricted—as so many of us have been or continue to be, on account of the pandemic and lockdown and social distancing laws—they may be tempted to say, “Life entertain me.” But life doesn’t reciprocate that way. Boredom is what can occur when you feel like you’ve got nothing to do and no real agency in changing that fact.
Drinking as a way to cope with boredom indulges in and perpetuates that passivity. It’s hard to think of a more passive activity than lying on a couch with a six-pack of beer. You may think you’re going to feel better after boozing, but in actuality, you’re reinforcing the notion that you need to wait for life to entertain you. Over time, this pattern of behavior can inculcate a kind of learned helplessness, so that every time a person drinks to relieve boredom, they reinforce this learned helplessness.
What we do—the behaviors we choose to engage in—heavily affect how we feel about ourselves. What this means is that we have personal control and responsibility for reducing boredom in our lives. At any given moment, everyone has something they can do to improve their life, yet many of us lack the proactivity and/or self-discipline to follow through with these things—hence the passivity of drinking from boredom.
There are literally countless things one can do to relieve boredom: Get serious about getting in shape; invest in certification in a new job skill or hobby; look for a new job; volunteer for a service organization; the list goes on. Take a good look at your life and the things that give you a sense of purpose or encourage personal growth. Even the smallest tasks or activities can, when completed, foster a sense of satisfaction, accomplishment, or self-enrichment. For example, I get a sense of satisfaction from getting my car washed. It’s pretty insignificant, but it goes to show that even little things can make us feel better about ourselves.
Boredom has an emotional quality to it, and cognitive behavioral therapy teaches that feelings are an outgrowth of thoughts. Someone who’s bored and drinking on a couch probably didn’t get there by accident. Typically, whether they’re aware of it or not, there was a thought or a sequence of thoughts that preceded this outcome.
Say, for example, that it’s Friday night and you’re alone with no plans. You might think, “This is great! I get a free night all to myself to do whatever I want.” Or, on the other hand, you might think, “It’s a happening Friday night, and I’m all by myself with nothing to do. I’m a loser.” In the second case, boredom is going to feel much more painful—and a drink (or two, or three) may prove harder to resist.
But these judgments that we can make about ourselves are rarely fair or accurate. Instead, try to reframe times of boredom as opportunities to do the meaningful things you’ve not had time for until now. Whether it’s the novel you’ve wanted to write, the family scrapbook that needs assembling, an attic full of boxes, or even that large pile of laundry, there are countless projects and activities that, upon completion, can bring varying degrees of pride, fulfillment, and/or satisfaction. Boredom is the best excuse to finally getting around to doing these things that can enhance one’s life.
Unrealistic expectations can exacerbate boredom. If someone expects that every Friday night they should be out on the town with friends, but they’re alone on a couch, it may be easier to justify boredom and self-pity, followed by booze. Managing our expectations can relieve boredom as well as the unhealthy compulsions to relieve it.
Remember, how one adjusts to the circumstances of their life is more important than the circumstances themselves. Drinking is an easy solution to boredom, and it takes effort not to be bored. Rest assured that the effort pays off.
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