Understanding Your Drinking Motivation Helps You Choose Best Quitting Strategy

Posted on April 24th, 2015
Posted in Alcohol Abuse

Research on the motivations for drinking and the approaches to quitting or limiting alcohol use suggests that understanding what motivates your drinking can help you quit—or at least help you choose the best approach. However, the same studies also show that drinkers appear to consistently choose the least effective strategies for their specific motivation to drink. So, what is your drinking motivation—“approach” or “avoidance”—and which strategy for keeping your drinking under control is best—reducing how much you drink or finding alternatives to drinking?

Drinking Motivations—Approach or Avoidance?

The two drinking motivations can be simply described as either drinking to experience positive effects or drinking to avoid negative emotions—otherwise called approach or avoidance. Drinkers who consume for positive reasons (who have “approach” motivations) are those who drink to socialize or to experience other positive effects of alcohol.

“Avoidance” motivations include drinking to avoid unpleasant emotions—using alcohol as a poor coping mechanism for stress or depression, for instance—and drinking in order to conform in social situations. Avoidance motivations are particularly relevant to addiction, because it’s the avoidance of negative emotions that drives the majority of cases of addiction. We may tell ourselves we drink for positive effects—and for some, it may even be true—but those who develop serious problems are predominantly driven by avoidance.

Just as there are two types of motivation for drinking, there are two basic approaches to reducing drinking, both called “alcohol protective behaviors.” The first group consists of the approaches designed to limit drinking, such as setting a three-drink limit on any one day or consuming non-alcoholic drinks between alcoholic ones. These simply protect you from consuming too much alcohol, but generally still involve drinking.

The other approach is to find alternatives to alcohol altogether. For example, you might decide to go for a meal, do some exercise or go and watch a movie instead of heading straight to a bar. This is a more clearly abstinence-oriented approach to drinking problems, and it is preferred by many addiction professionals.

You can think of motivations like the “gas pedal” on your addiction—pushing you toward drinking—whereas protective behaviors are more like the “brakes” that slow your approach.

How Drinking Motivations Affect Alcohol Protective Behaviors

The biggest problems come in the way motivations and protective behaviors interact, because depending on your motivation, the effect of protective behaviors can differ. Unfortunately, it has been shown that those with negative, avoidance motivations are less able to stick to the self-imposed limits associated with approaches designed to curtail drinking. This makes intuitive sense: if you’re drinking to avoid negative emotions, you are more likely to keep drinking more than intended because the negative emotions are still there. Despite how it may feel in the short term, alcohol is not an effective way to deal with negative emotions, but drinkers often think that more alcohol is what they need, rather than a new approach altogether. Moreover, avoidance-motivated drinkers are more likely to drink alone, so there is often no outside social pressure to stick to their self-imposed limits either.

A study of 300 college students aimed to look at the strategies for reducing drinking used by drinkers with different motivations. The researchers found that those with negative, avoidance-based drinking motivations were less likely to use the “alternatives to drinking” approach, which would be more effective for them, and more likely to use the “limiting drinking” approach, which doesn’t work as well for them. The reverse was true for those who drank for positive reasons (with “approach” motivations): they were more likely to use the alternatives to drinking strategy, despite the fact that limiting drinking approaches would be more relevant to their situation.

The consequence of these choices, particularly among avoidance-motivated drinkers, is immediately obvious: people have less chance of kicking their addiction or managing their drinking problems. The reason for this might be that the desire to avoid negative emotions means that these individuals believe that finding an alternative would allow the negative emotions to come back, because they’ve learned to attempt to control these emotions primarily through alcohol. Although the research focused specifically on drinking, the same is likely true for other addictions, too.

If You Drink to Avoid, Choose an Alternative

The simple lesson from this research is those who drink for avoidance-based reasons should fight their desire to try a “limiting drinking” approach and instead look for alternatives to drinking altogether. It falls right in line with the approach of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): those who are addicted will always struggle to stick to self-imposed limits, so abstinence is the best strategy for beating addiction. While alternative approaches might work for people with a less serious issue with alcohol, if you drink to chase away negative emotions, you’ll probably have trouble saying when you’ve had enough after you’ve stepped into a bar or opened a bottle.

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