Liberty includes the freedom to think clearly

Restricting alcohol use can dramatically improve our decision-making, the key to our personal freedom.

Our choice to consume alcohol is often coerced, through social pressure and misleading ideas. And alcohol reduces our ability to assess our options. Continue reading “Liberty includes the freedom to think clearly”

Alcohol: Go with the flow🗼


Being alcohol aware can help us to be brain aware too, by going with the flow from which all our thoughts and feelings arise.

Continue reading “Alcohol: Go with the flow🗼”

“Losers” is a Netflix winner

Losers”, an eight part series on Netflix, offers welcome and uplifting insight into the rich rewards of failing.

There are hardly any winners among us so it is extraordinary the extent to which they hog our attention.

The exceptional is curious and curiosity attracts audiences, but making an exception a media staple makes for an exceptionally warped outlook.

Comparing our running to Usain Bolt’s, our business to Warren Buffett’s or writing to Mark Twain’s is a recipe for feeling pretty ordinary.

There are necessarily 99.999%, or more, losers in most rankings, most of which we never even get a chance to join.

It is inaccurate and harmful to believe we operate in a meritocracy. Luck plays the largest part in any success we have.


Redressing the balance
“Losers” helps by telling the story of sportspeople who were near the top of their field, but were lucky enough to miss the number one spot.

It offers joyful tales of the suboptimal from boxers, ice skaters, dog sledders, curlers, ultra runners, footballers, golfers and basketball players.

Being denied the pinnacle in one narrow area, we learn, is often a helpful reminder its pursuit comes at the expense of other things.

French ice skater Surya Bonaly (right) found it impossible to secure Olympic gold, I knew. The fact she prospered afterwards, I did not.

So the heroic failures in this series led to new types of goal and new forms of success, typically better than being breifly number one.

Dominant winners will typically only get this chance when they get over the hill. Losers get this chance handed to us early.

Reevaluating dedication
Our dedications are praised, while our addictions are often scorned, but they can be seen as two sides of the same coin.

Dedication to something, just like an addiction, can obscure the negative effects it can have. Losing is a lucky chance to take stock.

“Losers” offers a range of inspiring and engaging stories about how our misfortunes can turn into new kinds of winning.

Point-scoring helps keep us entertained and motivated, but is an extremely unreliable measure of success. ■

Alcohol Companion, video, March 2019

This episode: We should not be surprised alcohol harms poorer people so much more; Toasting brewing giants’ alcohol-free successes. And the unique challenges of alcohol’s popularity. And the unlikely comforts of cold showers.
– Book and resources
http://philcain.com/alcohol-companion
– Poorer Scots 13 times more likely to be treated for alcohol-related psychiatric disorders
https://twitter.com/philcaincom/status/1101091152558784512
– The unique challenge posed by alcohol’s popularity
https://www.smartrecovery.org/embedded-alcohol/
– Finding joy in cold showers
http://www.philcain.com/sto…/cold-showers-resilience-on-tap/

The unique challenge of alcohol’s popularity

“If you are trying to change your approach alcohol and feel a bit out of place in the world, little wonder. It isn’t just you. This is alcohol’s unique challenge, which is not matched by other drugs, which do not stir such near-universal affection.”

Cold showers: Happiness on tap?

What I thought were eccentricities born of writing a book on alcohol turn out to be a “thing”—a thing called the Wim Hof Method.

It is surprisingly easy to slip into a daily routine that, on first impression, might not seem out of place in a Victorian lunatic asylum.

I had learned regular deep, diaphragm breathing and breath-holding exercises can calm our nervous systems. So I did them.

And an intrepid friend lured me into distinctly nippy sea swimming off Brighton, having a clear mood-boosting and soothing effect.

It tallied with some research suggesting cold water exposure might also help downshift our nervous systems.

Sea-less, I improvised with cold showers, applying the key pro tip of starting slowly and, above all, relaxing.

Literary inspiration
The connection to my book is that these methods may help tackle two common drivers of alcohol consumption, anxiety and low mood.

A bid to overcome these two are among the most common reasons we choose to drink alcohol. Fine, except it makes them worse.

Knowing this gives a strong motive to look for new ways to soothe our woes, one or two might actually work.

Like for Tigger, it is our ability to bounce which seems to make us feel sustained happiness, not simply accumulating highs.

More than any one thing, for me this has meant making a habit of saying Yes to things which might add some boing.

Less than outlandish
After outlining my penchant for heavy breathing and cold showers over coffee the other day, I expected at least a raised eyebrow.

But, no, far from being taken aback, my companion just said, “Oh, you mean the Wim Hof Method?” I was a little crestfallen.

It turns I had concocted a homespun version of a routine popularised by Dutch daredevil Wim Hof, who has ascended Everest in just shorts.

The official routine involves more vigorous breathing and a super-long breath hold. Mine was over three minutes this morning.

And the cold exposure is longer than mine was too, as one might expect from a record-breaking “iceman” rather than a weakling journalist.

Gearing up my homespun routine using the new method has lead to some noticeable improvements.

On a scale of one to ten, where ten is running around, arms in the air, my anxiety/gloom level was about four. Now it’s about three.

One thing missing from any self-made regime is the support and community. It is good to be part of an actual thing now.

As an outrider to Wim Hofers worldwide I will take heart from a shared experience and gladly draw on ideas, knowledge and enthusiasm.

It is great to know similar ideas and inspiration land and grow in separate places, and can come together and reinforce one another.

Cold comfort
Cold water and breathing exercises, Hof or otherwise, are by no means a unique way to boost our bounce.

But what is perhaps special is their accessibility, being almost free to anyone in decent respiratory health with access to a bathroom.

The science which grows up around this type of practice will surely help explain and increase their effectiveness.

My guess is the mood boost comes from pain relievers our bodies release to counteract the cold, rather as they do in strenuous exercise.

We might also be cheered by notch up an achievements. And the calming effect may come from learning to suppress our alarm response.

The long breath hold and the water may also help trigger our innate water diving responses which could low our nervous responess.

It may not actually stop us getting ill, as some claim it does, but they may well help us endure the symptoms. That would be good enough.

We should also be alert to potential downsides too. Being more resilient is great, but not everything. Sensitivity has a place too.

After trying it for a full 31 day I can see enough upsides to continue to invest the 20 minutes it requires most days, if not every day.

My goal is not to explore extremes or test my limits, but I am more than happy to defy my initial wariness to harness the positives. ■

Alcohol Companion, video, January 2019

What next after Dry January?; Welcome news of the possible return of guideline labelling in the UK; And why alcohol is an important subject. Links mentioned
Alcohol Companion book and resources
Why it’s worth considering carrying on after Dry January
Guideline labelling’s welcome return in the UK
Support independent alcohol journalism

Are we missing an emoji?

This would be, arguably, a very good time to ensure we have a way to show compassion at our fingertips, but there is currently no emoji for it.

We have all had a friend text us and say they had some bad news. This is the time to show sympathy and compassion, right?

Far too cheerful

A comforting hug is one way to show it. But, as it is, the only hug on offer in the emoji lexicon is grinning (right).

It does not fit the scenario. Someone in distress is not going to appreciate a hug from someone smiling from ear to ear.

The answer is a new “compassionate hug” emoji, like the mock-up in the main picture (top), combining a hug with a concerned face.

Perhaps it is just me? But, if there is wider demand for this new hieroglyph, it could be proposed to the emoji committee.

This is, arguably, a very good time to ensure an ability to show compassion and sympathy is at our fingetips. ■

The best Dry January reward may be continuing

After a Dry January the best reward may be to continue to drink within low-risk guidelines, so safeguarding the hard-won benefits.

If we normally drink regularly the last few weeks of not drinking (or nearly) are likely to have brought significant positive changes.

We will typically notice improved overall mood, lower anxiety, clearer thinking, better recall, and improved sleep, on top of sizable cash savings.

These are significant benefits worth retaining. They are also things which often improve more if we stick to a low-risk drinking pattern long-term.

They often improve for months, up to a year or more. And the first few weeks of low-risk drinking are often the hardest. So why waste them?

Carrying on can also help stabilise our mood and resilience, and help quosh anxiety and any “flat” feelings, called anhedonia.

Sticking to under 14 UK units (140ml) of alcohol a week is typically enough to have this effect, but only if we do so consistently.

Many of us find consistent low-risk drinking is more easily achieved if we do not drink at all, part of what makes Dry January a sound investment.

Why change a winning strategy, particularly one which gets easier over time? An arid February and parched March will cement our gains.

If we do try an alcoholic drink, this is also a chance to see it from a new perspective. Just one drink can spark a fitful night’s sleep in some.

For many of us, Dry January offers a unique chance to make a clear, positive choice around alcohol and gain personal insight.

Banking the hard-won gains of taking this opportunity and enjoying the positives for the long term is at least worth considering. ■

Guideline labelling’s welcome return leaves open question

Health minister gives UK the alcohol industry until September to introduce health guideline labelling

So it is welcome news that the government is pressing for the official guidelines to return in September (see video), albeit two years after they were quietly dropped.

I have joined calls for official health guidelines to appear on all alcoholic drinks labels since revealing that they had been dropped from the UK’s voluntary code in my reporting in late 2017.

It seems extraordinary that robust, scientific information about the safe consumption of a product could ever omitted from packaging, so undermining our right to make informed choices as consumers.

If official health guidelines do reappear on labels in September, as the government hopes, some can be forgiven for looking back and wondering whether self-regulation is an effective way to safeguard consumers?

The responsibility for such concerns about the current system of regulation lies with the alcohol industry. ■

The key alcohol theme of 2018: dementia

Dear Reader

This year offered a steady stream of confirmation of the merits of low-risk alcohol drinking, reckoned to be less than 14 UK units (140ml) a week.

There was also welcome reassurance that not drinking alcohol at all, which many find the easiest form of low-risk drinking, comes with no added risk.

But the biggest news was confirmation of a massive underestimate of alcohol as a factor in dementia. This too was followed by confirmation that low-risk drinking should spare us from it.

It is a discomforting finding, no doubt. But it also offers hope that changes to our drinking habits can spare millions from mental health problems, as I wrote here.

Thank you for your support over the last year. I wish you a happy New Year’s Eve and a great start to 2019.

Yours faithfully
Phil