Are you wondering why we get the blues in early sobriety? Starting out on a sober life after a life brimming with alcohol can be daunting. When you stop drinking, you start to realise that alcohol abuse likes to link hands with depression.
When you are navigating early sobriety, you discover fascinating alcohol withdrawal symptoms. One of these is feeling blue – something many non-drinkers learn to deal with daily.
Maintaining your sobriety is also about managing this state of depression. For many people, it is as if the mind has shut down and the emotions are sitting in a deep dark hole somewhere. In actual fact, it has a lot to do with the brain and the physiology of how this fantastic organ works.
Maybe you have made a commitment to join the Tribe Sober January Challenge which brings emotional upheaval closer? Take heart when you learn that getting the blues in early sobriety is a common symptom which can be remedied with a bit of perseverance and a lot of self-care.
I remember when I first gave up alcohol for good. I felt very low and very resentful. My busy mind played tricks on me, constantly asking: why am I the chosen one who must give up alcohol? Why is everyone else still drinking and having fun? It’s not fair!
Yvonne * has been dealing with her own depression during early sobriety. When she started the January Challenge, she also got the blues. She used to drink a bottle of wine or a few beers during the week, and up to 2 bottles of wine during the weekend.
“I felt my body simply needed a break to detoxify and I thought doing it in January might be easier, as a lot of people are doing it,” she explained.
Yvonne confided that 2019 and 2020 were very emotional years for her, thanks to the Covid-19 Pandemic, quitting her job and dealing with some health issues. “I’m a social person and most of my friends love wine and drinking,” she admitted.
I remember the stories during the Covid 19 year and how hard it was for many people to manage their drinking. When my first attempt to ditch the alcohol 5 years ago failed after 8 months, I started to read. Articles about drinking, stopping drinking, and when does sobriety get easier?
How Dopamine Drives the Brain
When I finally conquered the blues during early sobriety, I discovered health. I quickly became a compulsive vegetarian who walks daily and simply loves yoga. I still get depressed off and on like everyone else, but I know that I need to find my spark and keep on going. So many people think alcohol is the answer to depression, but in fact, it makes depression worse.
According to Drink Aware in the UK, “drinking heavily and regularly is associated with symptoms of depression, although it can be difficult to separate cause and effect… What we do know is that alcohol affects several nerve-chemical systems within our bodies which are important in regulating our mood.”
Getting the blues during recovery is quite a scientific event. So says an article I read in Tempest, a contemporary recovery company that helps people stop drinking. Holly Glenn Whitaker started Hip Sobriety and moved on to found The Temper, where she ‘explores life through the lens of sobriety, addiction, and recovery’.
Anyway, the article is about dopamine and addiction recovery. This hormone, neurotransmitter or chemical plays several important roles in the brain and body. Too much or too little dopamine can cause diseases. Two of these are Parkinson’s disease and drug addiction.
Dopamine, unlike other neurotransmitters, plays a crucial role in the brain’s motivation and reward system — and contributes to our survival as a human race. Dopamine creates rewarding experiences and is, essentially, the one chemical that takes in pleasure and signals to the body: This experience is worth repeating.
The problem is that the dopamine system can make you believe that certain experiences are worth remembering — and repeating — over and over again, even if the experience is harmful to the body (hence the problem with alcohol or drugs).
This is backed up by Medical Life Sciences News: Dopamine is the chemical that mediates pleasure in the brain. This means food, sex, and several drugs of abuse are also stimulants of dopamine release in the brain, particularly in areas such as the nucleus accumbens and prefrontal cortex.
If your dopamine levels are low, you could experience a wide range of issues, such as loss of balance, muscle cramps, low energy, weight change, anxiety, mood swings, a low sex drive, hallucinations, or depression. It follows that some people are more susceptible to alcoholism, thanks to their dopamine levels.
In fact, a study published in Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging shows that people with a family history of alcohol use disorder release more dopamine in expectation of alcohol and may be at a greater risk for alcohol use disorder.
When you remove alcohol from your life, for 30 days or forever, you feel depressed. The alcohol has disrupted your brain’s neurotransmitter system and you need to rediscover your clean balance in life.
Getting the Blues during the January Challenge
Yvonne says that she felt anxious and depressed when she stopped drinking this January. She tends to get anxious when she drinks, especially when there is something worrying her – like when she quit her job. She lives in Singapore and is currently working on her own business idea. It is therefore not worth drinking and getting anxious all over again.
“Singapore has a vibrant drinking culture amongst expats,” she explains. “It lifts your mood when you’re meeting with other people over drinks and dinner for sure. But it can turn quite quickly once you’ve reached a certain threshold. At least, that is what happened to me. I decided to ditch the drink for a while as mental health is super important to me.”
Yvonne worked with a counsellor to overcome negative thought patterns and tried meditating to rewire her brain. She says she may still drink again but not right now.
It takes time to rewire the brain. It also takes time to change a habit or to achieve a personal aim in your life. It may take days or weeks or months but you will feel joy again when your dopamine levels start to behave.
Clare Pooley, author of The Sober Diaries, sums it all up: “And the problem is, the longer you spend wallowing around in those early dark days of despair, the more you manage to re-enforce the idea in your subconscious that that’s what sobriety is all about.”
Giving up drinking for 3 days, 3 weeks and then 3 months has an amazing effect on your body:
- 1 day – your body will begin to clear the alcohol from your system and you can start to ‘detox’; your blood sugar will normalise
- 1 week – your sleep patterns improve
- 2 weeks – no more reflux and noticeable weight loss
- 3-4 weeks – decreased blood pressure
- 4 weeks – you look better as you prevent premature ageing of your skin
- 4-8 weeks – your liver will start shedding the excess fat and can recover in 4-8 weeks
- 12 weeks (3 months) – your blood cells will start to renew so you feel much more energetic and healthier.
Each day of sobriety helps to heal the brain, so over time, you naturally start feeling better. It is hard embarking on a Dry January because the first 30 to 60 days of your sobriety tend to be the most difficult. “Not only are you dealing with detox, but your brain is also trying to regain homeostasis.”
The good news is that as you continue to stay sober, your brain starts to heal itself. The opposite of addiction is connection and connection does wonders for your dopamine levels. The longer you stay sober, the longer you give your brain to adjust and produce those neurotransmitters again. It is therefore possible to in long-term sobriety and to be very happy!
You’ll also find that your depression starts to go away as you accomplish different goals. When you set specific goals and accomplish them, the brain gives you bursts of serotonin and dopamine to encourage you to continue pursuing goals. So, a great strategy is to set small, daily goals for yourself like going to a meeting or talking to your support group as well as bigger, weekly and monthly goals.
By now, hopefully you have stopped wondering why we get the blues in early sobriety! You have hopefully learned new things about your brain and addiction. And that you are not alone. Just as we are all not alone during the Covid 19 Pandemic. Click HERE to start the January Challenge if you have not done so already.
*Not real names…