But it is also why someone who drinks a lot becomes shaky, has tremors and can’t sleep when they stop.
“They literally are wired,” Conigrave says. “Their body has been tuned up so that they can withstand the sedating effects of alcohol and if you take away the alcohol they are left out of balance.”
Even for those who are not physiologically dependent on alcohol, the more tolerant we are, the more our brains adapt.
“Even if you’re going a bit above the guidelines your body responds by turning up your uppers a bit,” says Conigrave.
This means that when the alcohol has been metabolised, your brain is still flooded with its own stimulants and you’re left feeling edgy, irritated or anxious.
“Life’s stressful enough without adding in any other stress,” says Conigrave.
That’s before you add in the poor night’s sleep as our body “rebounds” from the sedative effects of alcohol in the middle of the night, the trips to the loo from its diuretic effect and possible reflux from the relaxing of the oesophagus, the muscle that prevents stomach contents flowing back up.
And, Conigrave adds, regardless of piss fitness: “You’re still getting all the chemical effects of alcohol – its capacity to increase your risk of cancer, its capacity to increase your risk of liver disease, its capacity to increase your risk of high blood pressure. You don’t get tolerant to any of that.”
The psychological effects of being ‘piss fit’
Professor Emmanuel Kuntsche is a research psychologist from the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research.
He explains that along with physiological tolerance, there is psychological tolerance to alcohol.
This includes learned tolerance, which he explains is essentially knowing what to expect when we drink and, to an extent, being better able to correct for the effects: “It’s ‘my speech is a little bit slurred so I have to pay attention to pronounce words correctly’,” he says.
Then there is subjective tolerance: “What your alcohol-drenched brain makes you think you can do normally but really you cannot.”
This can include drink driving or thinking we’re funnier after a few drinks.
And finally there is the interplay between psychological and physiological tolerance, which becomes problematic when alcohol is needed to feel good or to numb negative feelings.
If, for instance, a person learns that their anxiety goes away if they drink enough, they have to keep that feeling up by drinking and need higher and higher doses for the same effect.
“It becomes part of your functioning… and that’s the first step that leads to dependence,” Kuntsche says. “Of course the alcohol is not solving the depression or anxiety issues. Rather you enter a vicious circle of drinking to forget your problems but then the problems are bagged together with the hangover together with the inability to solve the problems.”
This was the experience of Jen Clements, a Northern Rivers-based mum-of-three.
Following the traumatic birth of her first son, she started drinking several glasses a night to quell her internal disquiet.
“It was over the guidelines, but it wasn’t causing any external problems – no relationship problems, no health problems, no financial problems,” the 36-year-old former solicitor says.
Still, she felt increasingly anxious and increasingly reliant on alcohol to take the edge off.
“I would say ‘OK I’m just going to drink on the weekend’ and then I would rationalise my way to drink on a Tuesday – ‘Oh, I’ve had a really hard day’. Or I’d say ‘I’m just going to have one glass of wine’ but then I’d make some sort of excuse about why I should have the second.”
Becoming less ‘piss fit’
Attempts at moderation were taking up too much mental space and alcohol wasn’t helping her feel better, so in February 2019, Clements decided to stop drinking altogether.
“When you’re drinking you numb your issues,” says Clements, who could find little support outside AA, which felt too extreme. She has since re-trained as a certified “grey-area” drinking coach and, last year, co-founded Thrivalist, a sobriety community with programs for women.
“You can’t selectively numb emotions,” she adds. “If you numb the negative then you also numb the positive and that is exactly the experience a lot of my clients and I have experienced.”
Quitting drinking doesn’t resolve the problems, she says, but it allows you to see them clearly.
Why some people can self-correct when they realise they are drinking too much and others cannot is the “million dollar question”, says Michael Farrell, the director of the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre at the University of NSW. For those who cannot, he suggests talking with your GP and for those who can he suggests a 5:2 or 4:3 drinking ratio to create breaks throughout the week.
“It’s always good to have interruptions in whatever people are consuming. Have a few days break,” he suggests. “If the consumption is creeping up, it’s one way to bring it back down.”
Kuntsche, who says we have become too accustomed to instant gratification (“Why do people drink a lot despite hangovers? Because the consequences come the next day.”), has similar advice.
He suggests finding alternative ways to relieve stress, having days off, drinking later in the evening and trying to change drinking from the default position.
“Don’t go the easy way. It’s easier to sit down in front of the telly and have a drink than go for a walk,” he says.
“Make small changes and see what happens. Often we see things that we were not previously aware of.”
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