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Am I right?" My nonconfrontational Ã¢â‚¬” but certainly not sexist Ã¢â‚¬” boyfriend just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Um, I don't really know." Now, had I not had a fourth glass of white wine that night, I would have been annoyed, but I also would have understood that it was my boyfriend's way of staying out of trouble. But I was drunk. And when I'm drunk I often get: 1) easily offended, and 2) bold to a fault.
I proceeded, in a voice loud enough to turn a few heads, to tell Ted he was a tacky creep who every woman over the age of 20 clearly had the sense to avoid like the plague. Then I glared at my boyfriend and added that he was a wimp for not saying so himself. After that, I stood up and stormed out. Maybe a few of you would say "right on" to that little tirade. But I learned the hard way that drunken righteousness, when seen by the sober light of day, looks a lot like hotheaded immaturity Ã¢â‚¬” especially to your boss. Oh, and then there's the part that took place 20 minutes later, which involved running after my boyfriend's car in 3-inch heels, spraining my ankle, screaming out his name several times at the top of my lungs, and finally slumping down on a curb and crying. Yeah. So who's tacky now?
You'd think that after years of social imbibing, from office parties to weddings to casual nights with friends, I'd have figured out how to keep negative drinking experiences at bay. But given that alcohol is a bona fide personality-altering, judgment-impairing drug, it's not that easy. Every once in a while, most social drinkers suck down one too many and end up overreacting to a jerk, having an emotional breakdown, snapping unfairly at their significant others, or running out of a morning meeting to regurgitate one of last night's apple martinis. For most of us, these glitches happen too infrequently to anticipate and need steps to avoid. But avoiding them is crucial, because getting "bad drunk" can have serious consequences on relationships, reputations, and careers, not to mention health. The following information is dedicated to putting an end to all drunken fiascos. Here's to occasionally getting tipsy Ã¢â‚¬” but never trashed.
The Very Bright Side of Having a Drink
Science is finally backing what you already knew Ã¢â‚¬” that alcohol can play a positive role in people's lives. A new wave of research shows that moderate, low-risk drinking Ã¢â‚¬” defined as approximately one drink a day for women, but we'll get to that later Ã¢â‚¬” is a good thing, maybe even better than not drinking at all. Here are the proven perks of lightly hitting the sauce:
It pushes your "play" button.
Dangling an alcoholic beverage in your hand is the liquid equivalent of wearing a bikini Ã¢â‚¬” it makes it perfectly clear that you are in relaxation mode. A study by the Social Issues Research Centre in the United Kingdom found that the association of alcohol with festivity exists in nearly every culture around the world. As you may have noticed at various international airports, the universal symbol for kicking back is the martini glass.
It chills you out.
Alcohol causes the release of dopamine, which increases brain activity related to pleasure seeking, and a substance known as GABA, which is thought to reduce anxiety and enhance relaxation. As a result, you feel at ease yet pleasantly stimulated Ã¢â‚¬” a very nice combination.
It makes flirting easier.
A moderate blood alcohol concentration (BAC) has been shown to diminish shyness. In one study conducted at the University of Georgia, 50 single women ages 21-28 were individually served a couple of drinks by a guy. While sober, some women were quiet and anxious. After a rise in BAC, they became more confident and chatty.
It spices up sex.
Many sex therapists, like Boston-based psychologist Aline Zoldbrod, Ph.D, encourage couples to get tipsy together because of alcohol's ability to reduce inhibitions. "Drinking and having sex with a steady boyfriend or a husband can be a huge amount of fun, because you might try things that you wouldn't have the nerve to do otherwise," Dr. Zoldbrod says.
It has health benefits.
The highly respected opinion of the Harvard School of Public Health is that while heavy drinking seriously increases health risks, "moderate drinking seems to be good for the heart and circulatory system and probably protects against type 2 diabetes and gallstones." Small amounts of alcohol have been proven to raise levels of good cholesterol, which helps protect against heart disease and is linked with factors that aid the prevention of the blood clots that block arteries and cause heart attacks and strokes. Another recent study shows that moderate drinking might help maintain bone density in women, protecting against osteoporosis. Nobody is recommending that young, healthy teetotalers who aren't at a high risk for cardiovascular disease start boozing for the health benefits, but the attitude that alcohol is all bad is definitely changing fast.
What Comes Up When Too Many Go Down
The problem with moderate drinking is that after one drink, sometimes nothing seems as appealing as another just like it Ã¢â‚¬” in part because of the dopamine rush that stimulates the reward center of the brain, and in part because of the deep-rooted association between continuing to drink and continuing to have fun. You start with one delicious, cold sip, but just a few cocktails later, you're looser Ã¢â‚¬” and maybe loopier Ã¢â‚¬” than you intended. "Alcohol directly interferes with several brain processes," says Larina Kase, Psy.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania. "Physically, it causes your motor skills, coordination, reaction time, and speech to deteriorate. Psychologically, it leaves you prone to making some very specific cognitive errors." The sloppy part is a no-brainer; what's interesting is exactly how your thinking becomes warped under the influence. Chances are that every drunken argument, sobbing session, or regrettable hook-up you've ever experienced was due to one of the following cognitive slips, as explained by Dr. Kase:
Your emotions take over.
As you get tipsier, the way you feel begins to color what you see and hear. If you're in a good mood, you perceive the people around you to be happier, friendlier, and even more attractive. But if you're feeling something negative, like insecure about your relationship, for example,when your husband smiles at the hot waitress, you're more likely to want to slap that grin right off of his face. And, if you're drunk enough, you just might.
It has to be all or nothing.
Alcohol drowns out the gray areas and leaves only the black and white. For example, if a friend won't agree with your exact point of view, too many cosmos might cause you to keep arguing until the discussion escalates into a full-blown fight.
You can't stop obsessing.
When you've had one glass too many of wine, it's all too easy to home in on one aspect of life Ã¢â‚¬” usually the most negative aspect Ã¢â‚¬” and refuse to let it go. Every moment of a recent breakup might play over and over again in your head until you start bawling your eyes out.
You're convinced the worst will happen.
Risks that seem minimal when sober can start to loom like Russell Crowe in a room full of David Spades. If you're nervous about blowing a big work presentation, or concerned about something with one of your kids, each drink only makes you more fearful.
Molehills become mountains.
Booze works like a magnifying glass, transforming little mishaps into major issues. A girl blows her cigarette smoke in your face, and the liquor in you might take it as a personal insult and then convince you to snatch the butt out of her hand and drop it into her wine Ã¢â‚¬” which she then pours in your lap.
Sometimes the price of such twisted thinking is a few unpleasant minutes or a couple of down days; sometimes the recovery period is much longer. "The last time my martinis got the best of me, I was out on the town with my husband, and we happened to bump into his college girlfriend," says Laura, a 27-year-old advertising executive in Chi-cago. "For the rest of the night, all I could think about was them having sex, and I started to grill him about whether he was still attracted to her, refusing to take no for an answer. It was awful, and it took weeks for us to get over the whole thing and feel close again."
Many of the major risks associated with alcohol are caused by that first cognitive error Ã¢â‚¬” being too clouded by emotion to evaluate a situation clearly. In a national survey, 33 percent of female infrequent "binge" drinkers Ã¢â‚¬” five or more drinks on a single night Ã¢â‚¬” reported driving after drinking alcohol (not necessarily after binging), and 22 percent rode in a car driven by someone who was high or drunk. Why? "Because it's just a short drive that I've done a million times before," says Alicia, a 34-year-old obstetrician from Philadelphia. "It's so stupid, because I've seen endless people come into the hospital in pieces, and several die, because they were driving drunk. But when I'm the tipsy one, I never think it'll happen to me."
When you consider all of the potentially miserable results of having a few too many and compare them with the benefits of moderate intake, there's only one sensible conclusion: Drink in a way that delivers all of the perks but none of the pitfalls.
How to Be a Happier, Healthier, Safer Drinker
So what is moderate drinking? The loose U.S. guidelines for women are no more than one glass of wine, beer, or cocktail on a daily basis, and no more than four on any one occasion (after that, it's considered a binge). But you and I and all the docs out there know that a woman who drinks three or four cocktails every other night is probably putting her health at risk, while a woman who has five drinks every other Friday probably isn't. "How much drinking is okay depends entirely on the individual," says Joel Ingersoll, Ph.D., a staff psychologist at Lehigh University and coordinator of the school's alcohol and other drug services. "If someone has a family history of alcoholism or any kind of health problem, or a personal history that involves problems related to alcohol, even one drink a day is too much." For those of us who are at low risk for developing a drinking problem (see the "Warning Signs") to gauge your status), it's a matter of finding your own formula and sticking to it.
Know Your Weaknesses
Let's say there was a short film festival that featured every scene from each of your last dozen big nights out. That's every single one Ã¢â‚¬” and no exceptions. Yes, some might be too blurry to remember in full, but you probably still have an overall sense of how they went, so count them in. Why subject yourself to this trip down memory lane? Because it can provide you with a lot of useful answers about why some of your experiences with alcohol are so incredibly pleasant and others end in a train wreck. Now ask yourself these questions:
We all have our weaknesses when it comes to drinking, and knowing what they are is a huge advantage. Scanning the answers to these questions will probably lead you to a few simple conclusions about when and how you should drink. For example, enough episodes like that dinner with my boss have taught me that I get incredibly nervous around people I don't know well but want to impress, which drives me to drink in an attempt to calm myself down. But I don't have the patience to wait until that single glass of wine works its magic, so I keep guzzling. And then I can't stop.
So instead of risking total humiliation every time I'm dining with a VIP or a new boyfriend's parents or anyone else I'm intimidated by, I stick to cranberry juice. I also have a tendency to get into ugly arguments about certain issuesÃ¢â‚¬”like breast implants, to name one off the top of my head Ã¢â‚¬” so I've learned that when they come up in a conversation, it's time to keep my mouth shut.
For Dempsey, a 30-year-old TV producer in Los Angeles, a quick review of her past revealed a solution to waking up with a sense of dread. "When I asked myself what every nightmare drinking experience had in common, it turned out that it was: 1) doing shots, and 2) staying out past 2 a.m.," she says. "Now that I say no to kamikazes and always get home before my carriage turns into a pumpkin, my life has far less drama."
Getting and Keeping the Perfect Buzz
In addition to analyzing your past, there's a more mathematical way to determine your ideal drinking M.O. Alcohol researchers have created a nifty little card that basically tells you exactly how much to imbibe in order to stay in the "pleasure zone," which is a BAC of .02 to .06. Within that range, you can expect to feel mild euphoria, increased relaxation, a loss of shyness, and a slight lowering of sexual inhibitions, but no major loss of judgment or self-control.
You may also find that how you react to one or two drinks over a couple of hours is different from the average girl. To find out for sure, recruit a friend to test your theoretical limit. Ask him or her to pay attention to how you talk and act after each drink the next few times you go out. Yes, this is a nerdy exercise, but it's well worth the trouble (and, hey, it's an excuse to go out for a few cocktails).
Tricks that Prevent You From Getting Trashed
Once you know how much is too much, you need realistic ways to keep to that number. "Pacing is really important to stay within your limit," Dr. Kase says. "Because if you swallow too much too fast, your judgment will be impaired to the point where you'll probably say, 'To hell with it,' and just keep drinking." If you're the type who finds that those first few go down real easy, then there are two tricks that should help immensely.
The first is simply starting later. "I always kick off a party night with two rounds of Diet Coke, then I order my first cocktail," says Elizabeth, a 25-year-old graphic designer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. "The caffeine wakes me up and helps me to stay out until 2 a.m. without ending up wasted." You might think you need that first dose of alcohol to help ease you into an awkward social situation, but you don't. "Within 40 minutes of feeling anxious, your parasympathetic nervous system kicks in on its own and you start to feel better," Dr. Kase says.
A second strategy is to alternate drinks with nice, tall glasses of ice water. "I call it a pace car," says Terry, a 33-year-old bartender in Pennsylvania. "You don't think you want the water, but then you realize how thirsty you are and happily suck it down." Sometimes all you really need to feel like you're partying is to be out with people you like and sipping something. Once the water glass is in your hand, you probably won't care that it's nonalcoholic. Another tip from Terry is not to completely drain your drink if you don't plan to have another right away. "When your glass still has something in it, people aren't constantly offering to get you a refill," she says.
You can also stick to beverages that pack the lowest mind-debilitating powers. Light beers have the least booze of all, at an average of 4.2 percent alcohol per bottle. Of all hard liquors, vodka contains the least alcohol at 40 percent. And on average, white wines (10 to 12.5 percent) have less than reds (13 percent). The differences may be small, but your liver will thank you.
All of the above may seem easy enough, but they're things few people ever take the time to do. "Too often people without a diagnosed drinking problem forget that alcohol is a drug that can be harmful, so they don't give it any thought," says Dr. Ingersoll. If you need further motivation to examine your drinking style, just think of the worst thing that's ever happened to you while drunk, and ask yourself whether you'd be willing to have it occur again and again for the rest of your life. Ugh.
5 Warning Signs
If you answer yes to TWO or more of the following questions, you could have a drinking problem.
1. Do you black out when you drink?
2. Do you often have more than six drinks on one occasion?
3. Do you have trouble stopping drinking once you've started?
4. Have you missed work because you were drinking?
5. Do you often wake up feeling guilty after drinking?