Fear is often our friend, but alcohol makes it more difficult to quash unhelpful worries and so prolongs the ill-effects of our misfortunes.
Our sophisticated brains learn to make us wary of many things: speeding cars, public speeches, deadlines, double-dip recessions, emails from the HR department and letters delivered in brown window envelopes.
These connections are sometimes born of painful first-hand experience, but our intelligence also allows us to skip personal demonstrations and pick up our fears second-hand, from stories and images.
This pairing seems to happen in the amygdala, two almond-shaped structures buried deep in our brains (pictured). They specialise in linking emotions to memories, so informing our impressions and decisions.
Combining feelings with rational thoughts allows us to navigate the world better. Nervousness will tend to make us shy away from things which might harm us, while good vibes will attract us to positive things.
This interplay allows us to adapt to the demands of our surroundings. In the Australian outback it makes sense to fear spiders more than brown envelopes. In others places it makes more sense the other way round.
Activating our alarm bells helps us heed good advice, find objects and social connections which might benefit us, or give appropriate weight to warnings or more complex arguments.
But sometimes it goes wrong and we can be fearful of things which we needn’t be, like European spiders or clowns. A mixed up amygdala may underlie many of our most common mental discomforts.
Sometimes these are merely an inconvenience, but they can also undermine our lives by making us feel generally anxious about things, feel the after-effects of a troubling experience long after, limit our range of choices or underlie poor decisions.
Managing our fears productively is not a sign of “character”, as we have often been brought up think, based on traditional ways of looking at ourselves. It has more to do with the way our amygdala are working.
Taking care of our amygdala rather than our characters is a better way to benefit from the emotional aspect of our thinking. Doing so is a choice which benefits us and others besides.
Looking out for amygdala
We might look at ways to look after our amygdala. We can recognise the burden they take and allow them to adapt and recover, like emotional limbs, with their strengths and limits.
Alcohol drinking is no help to them, though long used to allay anxieties, from snarling pitch battles, to interview rooms and first dates. We have often used it to get over the aftereffects of stresses too, a hard week at work, defeat or nasty shock.
But, while drinking alcohol provides almost immediate relief from feelings of tension, it prolongs the nagging emotions we might feel after. It seems to hinder our amygdala in attaching the right feelings to stressful experiences.
Nevertheless, perhaps three quarters of Brits over 30 use alcohol to relieve stress with those of us who do being more likely to drink every day. If we keep it up for long enough we will develop a dependency, which shows itself in a range of ill-effects when we are not drinking, a long list which ironically includes anxiety.
Alcohol is no better when we encounter big problems than routine ones either, although we are often tempted to drink more than normal after a job loss, accident, breakup or some other unusual trauma.
But heavy alcohol use has been linked to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), where our fear response does not turn off after a fearful event. Rats plied with alcohol continue to flinch longer after a threat is gone.
Rats made alcohol dependent in the lab tend to be more timid than ones which have not, preferring to stay in less-expose parts of their environment. This anxiety might also give former dependents a motive to go back to drinking.
As with rats some of us seem to be more prone to drinking in response to stress than others. We might look at our relatives for a hint on this, but it is not uncommon. A more easily identifiable high-risk genetic group for drinking to alleviate stress is men.
Enduring stress, particularly the intense discomforts of trauma is difficult, even agonising, but it seems our amygdala have evolved to recover better if we do so without looking for temporary relief from alcohol.
Laying off alcohol can leave our amygdala working better. For those of us who have developed a dependency it might take between three months and a year, although there are benefits along the way and after. In the end there is less to be afraid of. ■