As a coach who works with successful women who struggle with alcohol, I started noticing a trend in how some of my clients described their relationship to alcohol. Their need to use alcohol to cope went beyond a lack of confidence or even what might be described as social anxiety.
Take Claire for example. Claire dreads holidays because she doesn't have family of her own. She and her husband spend holidays with his large Italian family. While she likes most of them, she finds them loud and boisterous. Claire's quiet demeanor and need for spatial boundaries don't fit well with the family, who are constantly touching, hugging, and tugging on her. She knows this is their way of welcoming her into the family, so she doesn't say anything for fear of hurting their feelings. To get through the night, she always drinks more than she would like.
Or Agatha, whose job requires her to attend numerous networking events with high-stakes clients as well as her supervisors. The thought of being in a room with so many people is anxiety-producing on its own (the noise, the proximity to other people, the uncontrollable variables), and adding the professional pressure into the mix makes it all too much. She will always beeline for the bar first thing. Then she feels driven to distraction, trying to keep her anxiety at bay without drinking too much and to "keep it together" in front of everyone.
It almost seemed as if they were using alcohol to medicate a profound sensitivity that went even deeper than an experience of trauma or reactions to painful circumstances.
Around the same time, I started to come across more articles and literature using the words "highly sensitive person." I was intrigued.
Could it be that some of my clients fit into this category? Eager to more deeply understand the experience of my clients, I sought counsel from Tree Franklyn, a coach who supports highly sensitive women in managing their overwhelming emotions.
Highly Sensitive Person (HSP) is a term used to describe those with high sensory processing sensitivity and is a genetic trait. That means that HSPs are born this way. Upon learning this, I realized my instinct was correct in that what I was noticing in my clients was indeed very deep.
When I asked Tree for input on this article (she read the intro above), and to share her experience as an HSP, this is what she said:
First, I LOVE that you're using the term 'deep,' because that's how I like to describe HSPs. Our emotional well runs deep. We're deep thinkers and feelers, by nature.
I only learned about the term 'Highly Sensitive Person' a few years ago. Before then, I knew I was different from most in the way I took in the world around me but I didn't have an explanation for it. I thought there was something inherently wrong with me. I seemed to be more affected than others when watching the news or even a Folgers commercial.
I reflected deeply on things when others wouldn't give it another thought. And at the end of the day, as an introverted HSP, I was completely wiped out from being around people. It wasn't uncommon for me to have a drink when I got home to take the edge off.
Being highly sensitive is like living with the volume turned up in the world. Everything is heightened, much more intense, and louder. This is a result of an increased sensitivity in our central nervous system and the way our brains cognitively process physical, social and emotional stimuli.
Since HSPs tend to process information deeply, feel more empathy, and pick up on subtleties that most people don't notice, it's no wonder they often feel that the world is too intense and get overwhelmed. If they don't know how to effectively deal with this overstimulation, they often gravitate to alcohol or other drugs to cope. The immediate relief creates a positive correlation in the brain and the solution feels all too easy to repeat daily.
If you identify with anything you've read so far, here are four tips that will help you ground yourself in an intense situation and moderate or find alternatives to alcohol as a coping mechanism so that your use doesn't escalate out of control.
1. Feel your feet.
If not for the metaphorical imagery of planting your feet firmly into the ground, this technique also has a psychological effect of giving you a sense of power. Place your feet apart, even if you're sitting down, and press them firmly into the floor. Once they're planted, wiggle your toes and press them down even further, as if you're trying to push through the floor. This simple action helps you feel more anchored and noticeably stronger.
Amy Cuddy, author of the book, Presence, calls this a "mind-body nudge." Mind-body nudges allow you to bypass mental stumbling blocks such as when you tell yourself to calm down, relax, or try to logically rationalize yourself out of an intense situation and your mind's not believing any of it. This physical action in your body gives your mind the nudge it needs to get grounded.
2. Touch your tips.
Some people use a talisman or a touchstone object, like a smooth rock in their pocket or a piece of jewelry. Tree told me she personally prefers simply touching her fingertips together. This way, you won't have to worry about not having an object on you when you need it most. Your fingertips will always be with you. Touch the tips of your fingers together and press firmly enough to feel it. It could just be your thumb and index finger, but you can also take your thumb and touch it to each finger on the same hand.
This can be done without anyone else noticing, especially if you're seated. You can also touch any object, like a glass, and use that to anchor you. The idea is that when the world is too intense and seems like it's spiraling out of control, you can show yourself that you still have control by touching something. It's a small gesture, but it goes far in reminding yourself that you are in charge of yourself, your emotions, and what you do.
3. Find a new comfort drink.
If you find yourself using alcohol as a security blanket, find a new comfort drink. The very act of holding a glass with something in it can often help give us some of the security we are looking for. As with the strategies above, feel the sensations associated with holding the glass, condensation or coolness on your fingers, the taste as you sip it. You may want to practice at home by trying out new nonalcoholic drink combinations and visualizing what you might order next time you're in a stressful social situation.
4. Use aromatherapy.
One of the fastest and easiest ways to "get out of your head" and change your brain chemistry from an anxious response to a calmer one is by using your sense of smell. As Dr. Axe describes,
When the scent of an essential oil is inhaled, molecules enter the nasal cavities and stimulate a firing of mental response in the limbic system of the brain. These stimulants regulate stress or calming responses, such as heart rate, breathing patterns, production of hormones and blood pressure.
I love putting essential oils on my wrists and inhaling the scent (and therefore changing my brain chemistry) as I'm sipping my comfort drink — and my social companions are none the wiser. The scents that work best for anxiety include lavender, rose, bergamot, ylang-ylang, vetiver, chamomile, and frankincense.