Do you drink to have fun or do you drink to cope? In other words, do you drink because you want something positive or because you’re trying to avoid something negative? A recent article in the journal Addictive Behaviors shows that successful quitting strategies are very different for drinkers motivated by “approach” than for drinkers motivated by “avoidance”. The article also asserts that knowing the reason you drink can help you quit.
On the other end of this spectrum is something the article calls “alcohol protective behaviors” – the strategies many people prone to problem drinking use to keep themselves in check, or at least attempt to. Just like drinking motivations come in two major types, there are two major categories of alcohol protective behaviors: strategies to guard against over-consumption and strategies that find alternatives to drinking. For example, you might limit your consumption by self-imposing a three-drink maximum, or your might find an alternative to drinking by going to a movie instead of a bar.
Picture the “approach” and “avoidance” drinking motivations as your car’s gas pedal. They are the things in your life that get you moving towards drinking. Conversely, keeping with the analogy, consider the alcohol protective behaviors as the brakes. These behaviors create self-imposed limits so that you do not over-indulge or indulge at all.
Now here’s the important and scary part: drinkers motivated by avoidance are terrible at respecting the boundaries of consumption-limiting alcohol protective behaviors. Partly because these drinkers consume to avoid unwanted feelings. They are more motivated by reducing the discomfort or using the alcohol to create a delusion the feelings are not there. They are more likely to drink alone so, without social pressure they might find in a bar, they tend to blow right past the limits they set for themselves.
The study shows that avoidance-motivated drinkers, unfortunately, are most likely to specifically use the first type of alcohol protective behaviors – those doomed-to-fail consumption-limiting alcohol protective strategies. Instead, the study shows that avoidance-motivated drinkers (again: people who drink to cope) are most successful when they use the second protective strategy: choosing alternative activities to drinking.
Now you see the problem: avoidance-motivated drinkers try to limit consumption, it doesn’t work, and they specifically avoid the strategy that would work, namely choosing alternative activities. Remember, these people are highly attracted to numbing unwanted feelings. This trumps the desire to embrace alternative activities.
This finding is especially important in the context of the many early intervention programs that teach the use of alcohol protective behaviors. Which protections should these centers recommend? It seems the answer depends on the individual reasons people struggling with addiction choose to drink. Specifically, for people who drink to cope, it may be best to focus on alternative activities rather than strategies to limit high-risk drinking. Thus, it is imperative that early-intervention programs help people discover their motivations to take that first drink – avoidance or approach.
Eric Schmidt is the CEO of New Roads Treatment Centers, affordable drug treatment programs for young adults.