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Are The Pleasures of Drinking All In Your Head?

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In my universe, Thursday night is date night, which usually means having a glass of wine or two with my husband at a restaurant or bar. Often, the mere anticipation of the buzz has me sighing with pleasure throughout the day. So is it the wine that's making me feel good, or is it the positive associations I have with the ritual?

According to a new study by researchers at The Miriam Hospital, our expectations can indeed influence our drinking habits. Lori A.J. Scott-Sheldon, Ph.D., the study's lead author, says, "If you believe alcohol gives you 'liquid courage' or that drinking helps you 'fit in' or be more social, you're likely to drink more."

The researchers aim to reduce college binge drinking by showing students that many of the great things they associate with alcohol are due to their expectations, rather than the alcohol itself.

To this end, they staged social experiments called "alcohol expectancy challenges." Students were taken in groups to a bar-like setting and given either an alcoholic or a non-alcoholic drink. No one knew which drink anyone else was given. Students then engaged in social activities, such as party games, and were asked to evaluate whether other participants were drinking alcohol versus a placebo. In the majority of cases, groups had difficulty determining who actually received alcohol and who did not.

The challenges have been designated by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as one of only three effective alcohol-prevention treatments for college students.

But these findings, published in the journal, Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, are not only useful for college students. Head researcher Scott-Sheldon adapted her research for the layperson for The Atlantic Monthly online, and created five do-it-yourself strategies for reducing your drinking and maintaining a healthy relationship with alcohol. Below is my interpretation of her strategies:

1. Make your own "alcohol expectancy" list.

List the ways you think people feel and behave when they drink alcohol. For me, the list would look like this: 1) Relaxed, 2) Buzzed, 3) Open, 4) Friendly

But what about the negative effects of alcohol use? According to Scott-Sheldon, many people focus on the positive effects of drinking alcohol and "fail to consider the negative effects." Oh yeah -- I forgot about the way alcohol can make people (read: me) sleepy, angry, even belligerent.

2. Get clear about the real effects of alcohol.

Ask yourself: How does drinking really make you feel? Try to get past that first glass, and envision yourself as the night progresses.

When I drink one glass, I feel great -- buzzed, relaxed, open. Two? I start to get sleepy. Three: I start to feel fuzzy around the edges.

3. Take stock of your alcohol education: how did you learn about alcohol's "positive effects"?

Think about your parents' beliefs about alcohol. Did they model drinking to relax after work? Total abstinence? In my house, there was no middle ground. It was either all (when my mother was drinking alcoholically) or nothing (afterwards, when both she and my father stopped drinking or bringing alcohol into the house).

What about your friends? Did they look at alcohol as something to be feared? Or something they couldn't wait to try?

And what about alcohol advertisements -- beer & liquor ads where models are shown having fun? How did they make you feel?

4. Enjoy celebrations without drinking any alcohol.

Weddings, parties and family gatherings can be a high without the alcohol. Experiment with going to celebrations and not drinking. The Miriam Hospital research showed that students who were given placebos (non-alcoholic drinks that they thought might be alcoholic) enjoyed the social events just as much as the students who were given alcohol.

Heavy or binge drinking is often associated with partying and other social events. But, as Scott-Sheldon reminds us, "It isn't only the alcohol that causes the euphoria -- it's also the positive expectancies triggered by the social setting."

5. Set Drinking Limits Before You Attend Social Events.

If you really want to drink, be realistic about how much you can drink before your enjoyment starts diminishing. To get that "partying" feeling without going overboard, you can always alternate alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages. Use the buddy system so you and a friend can hold each other accountable.

Leah Odze Epstein is a writer and co-founder of the Drinking Diaries. She is currently working on a young adult novel about a character who is the daughter of an alcoholic. She has reviewed books for BookPage and Publisher's Weekly, among other publications. She also writes poetry, and her poems can be found on the website Literary Mama.

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