How to talk about your emotions

A guide for men

We interview Mr. Perfect about the generational shift around male communication and why having a society that’s open to emotional freedom for men is so important. 

You’re told to suck it up, to be strong, to not cry because crying is for wimps.

Men don’t often open up about how they are really feeling to friends and family. Showing emotion and vulnerability has long been stigmatised as a sign of weakness. It is the stereotype of the heroic male represented in popular culture as fearless, resourceful, stoic and usually facing adversity alone. These characters tell us a lot about what is considered to be ideal male behaviour within our society.

Men should be allowed to be whoever they want to be.

Daphne Rose Kingma, author of The Men We Never Knew, has said:

“We’ve dismissed men as the feelingless gender — we’ve given up on them. Because of the way boys are socialised, their ability to deal with emotions has been systematically undermined. Men are taught, point-by-point, not to feel, not to cry, and not to find words to express themselves.”

Men are more than likely to express emotions in places where they feel safe and it is deemed acceptable by society, like a sports event. You’ll see hugging, passionate shouting, even tears of joy after a win. But you may not see other men hugging or tearing up in another circumstance, because they don’t feel as comfortable or as open to do so. It is often the same case when alcohol is involved. Men seem to open up after (many) drinks, they can speak honestly from their heart and it’s okay because they ‘were drunk and have an excuse’.

But men shouldn’t have to have an excuse to lean back on for speaking their truth.

As Psychology Today says, “men who deviate from the traditional masculine norm by being emotionally expressive and talking about their fears are often judged as being poorly adjusted.”

When upset, women are more likely to express their feelings directly, and to seek the support of friends and family, whereas men might hide their emotions or withdraw. The problem is that withdrawing is very dangerous and can lead to serious mental health repercussions.

The restriction of emotional expression in many men’s lives can lead to:

  • A greater sense of isolation;
  • Less support being available from loved ones;
  • Health issues, due to carrying chronic tension in the body and other bad coping strategies;
  • Relationship difficulties due to an inability to resolve emotional conflicts and/or a perceived lack of ability to be intimate;
  • Psychological problems such as depression, insomnia and anxiety.

Suicide is the leading cause of death for Australian men aged 14–44 years old.

Yet, as a young woman in 2017, I think the toughest of all men are those who stand up for what they believe is right, even in the face of other men. Men who show their emotions and ask for help when they need it, and who open their heart to vulnerability.

I’m not the only one.

Mr. Perfect, founded by Terry Cornick, is a grassroots mental health support network with a vision to transform men’s mental health by making it a comfortable discussion for all. It is a sarcastic nod to the male approach to mental health.

Mr. Perfect is a metaphor for what the world expects us to be. It is the mask we wear.

Mr. Perfect started as an non-profit organisation to try and start these conversations that were lacking in male societies. As well as corporate talks, a blog and a few other projects, Terry also runs a monthly Meet Up in Sydney where anyone can come for an informal social barbecue, have a chance to speak to other people in the same boat, and listen to talks from doctors, psychologists and other organisations. The Meet Ups are inclusive to anyone whether it be successful men, fathers to be, students or older guys.

“I often speak to doctors who say they feel very hopeless and do not know what to do when men come in with mental health concerns. They either give you a pamphlet for an organisation or a prescription for medication.”

“If it’s not clinical, you’re not told about it.”

Terry says there is such a stigma around getting help because we have been conditioned to believe that seeing a psychologist, psychiatrist, or a ‘shrink’ means you’re ‘damaged’.

“Not only that, but there’s also the age-old thing of being masculine and being a man, and we all propagate that: both men and women. We assume this is what we need to be and people think,

“Your wife’s allowed to show that emotion so that’s fine, but a guy just cant do it.”

“Whether it be tiny set backs or big set backs, you were expected to come home after being a robot for eight hours at work and not talk about anything and just get on with it. You would also excuse traits and behaviours in your mates and just brush it off as, ‘Oh, that’s just [Jimmy] acting out,’ and you laugh about it and that’s the end of it. There was never scratching below that surface.”

Mr. Perfect aims to normalise that conversation.

“Once guys start and open up just a little bit, there’s no stopping them. Often times they won’t stop and they will talk so much they will apologise to me for telling their story because they have probably not told anyone that for five years, or only their doctor.”

So, for someone to just say, “I know what you’re talking about mate,” or, “you’re not alone,” that’s the first step.

“My dad was alcohol dependent, and my perception of that growing up was thinking he was just an asshole. He was told he would die if he kept drinking 20 years ago, and when he kept drinking, that was it for me. I was never once told or ever thought, until I started getting help myself, that maybe something was going on in his head that caused him to drink. I can’t really put my finger on it and I’ll probably never know why, but alcohol is the best way for people to do that, to block it out temporarily.”

Terry says he has friends who will use alcohol as their crutch, so if they have a really bad day at work or they’re in a bad mood, their first reaction is to go have a pint. Then that leads to four pints, which leads to staying out until midnight and then onto a club, and before you know it, the next day they’re in a world of pain physically and mentally.

“When I used to not talk about things, I would have a big night and end up in an argument with my wife. That was painful to wake up the next day and go, ‘I think we argued, I don’t know what about but I know there was shouting’.

“So, where did that come from? That doesn’t come from me being a bad person. It probably comes from me being insecure and not being able to talk about my anger, frustration, anxiety, depression, whatever it was, while I was sober. It was just easier to do it while I was drunk and blame someone else.”

A generational movement is brewing

With Mr. Perfect, One Wave Fluro Fridays, Livin’, and many more small, start-up mental health organisations, people are starting to break down the stigma around talking about mental health issues.

Terry says there’s a real need for all these ideas and these contemporary initiatives are the best starting point.

“There are big government groups advocating ‘awareness’, but it’s hard to know what the money is really going to. There are a lot of smaller groups, starting from very low funds who are personally trying to change things. It’s positive but it’s so difficult with no backing and we now need support from those types of authorities and the government.”

How can you help?

Terry says that the most important thing is to have a good support network of friends.

“It’s just about listening and saying, ‘I went through that as well and I’m still here, so you’re doing well just by talking about it’. If you don’t have anyone to bounce these ideas off, it can very quickly go from a very small problem in your head to the biggest problem possible.

“When I’m going though a tough time, I text some of my mates and say, ‘Just letting you know mate, if I don’t get back to you tonight it’s because I’m just having a bit of a cloudy spell’. I’ve completely normalised it and instead of shying away they will text me and say ‘here if you need, give me a buzz now, reach out, I’m here, I’ll drop everything’.”

If I see someone suffering, I’ll just send them a text and say, ‘Mate, I’ve noticed you weren’t yourself tonight. Is everything okay?’ And sometimes that can open a can of worms but at least you’ve started that.

Being an alcoholic made me a better mother

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Before you get defensive about how awful that sounds, let me explain a few things. If you have followed my previous stories you will know that my drinking career didn’t start until I was divorced and about 25 years old. I spent my high school years as an outspoken, probably annoying, high school Jesus freak. That passion followed me to college, and naturally reflected Evangel University. I loved my four years at Evangel and still maintain incredible friendships. You have to sign a covenant to attend a faith-based school, which I did — no sex, alcohol or dancing, and I stayed true to that. Though I wish I tested the waters a little bit; but don’t tell anybody, I could get fined (Evangel joke).

I digress.

I think Tenley was maybe two or three when I decided I would start drinking. I drank Moscato , the sweetest kind you could find. I never felt odd, or buzzed and in hindsight that should have been an indication of tolerance, but if you are surrounded by drinkers, active drinkers , everyone’s truth is a little distorted.

Tenley at two years old.

The last three years have been a whirlwind. I hit the lowest of lows. Imagine seeing a grown woman clinging to her pillow in a nightgown, with fuzzy socks on and a missing tooth. That is who I was, walking through the doors as an inpatient. Luckily I have been able to have a pretty kick-ass, stellar recovery process that has been tiresome but so worthy.

You’re probably asking how being an alcoholic made me a better mother. There are few key reasons that all sort of tie in with the theory of ‘desirable disadvantages’.

I was a very loving and kind mother. Most women naturally fill that role. But then I began to fill my nights with drinking and the nights turned into days which turned into months and, before I knew it, everything was unraveling.

Tenley has always been a child of bright curiosity and she radiates joy wherever she flutters. I was tired, irritable, half-assing my way through a job I loved but couldn’t find any additional strength for. I was disengaged, always planning my next stop for alcohol and/or planning to have care on the weekends I did have her, because ‘it’s normal to drink with friends’. Her joyful mother became sad, tired and uninterested.

That is one of the hardest truths I will ever have to swallow. To admit that when it came down to Tenley or alcohol, I would have chosen alcohol. It took me years to figure out why and what that meant and I accept that it isn’t a choice. Once you are at that point, you are a passenger on the train.

The last year and a half of sobriety have been the hardest moments in my life. I was broken, poor, unhealthy, starting my career over again. But I got creative. I saved everything I could, learned to budget correctly, attended night classes and rode the bus two hours every morning (a consequence of an OWI/DUI).

The first year of my change, I white-knuckled it all — I was happy to be alive, but did not yet appreciate what that entailed. I found myself jealous of my old life prior to sobriety but when I really put forth the effort that this deserved , my whole life shifted.

I believe the statement above with every fibre in my being. One of the hardest things for any parent to do is admit they failed their children.

And I did it. I failed Tenley. I wasn’t the mother she deserved or needed or asked for. I scared and worried my daughter and the shame kept me spiralling out of control. I didn’t want to accept that I had done this to her as I love Tenley more than anything. When I am drinking I am not choosing to not be the best mother, I cannot choose. I see so many excellent parents weighted with defeat. I see the stress, the sagging shoulders and bloodshot eyes.

YOU CAN GET BETTER. YOU CAN BE BETTER. YOUR CHILD WILL RESPECT YOUR FIGHT, AND LOVE YOU FIERCELY FOR IT.

Tenley at age eight.

Tenley and I are closer than ever, we talk openly about my past and my choices. She isn’t walking forward with a mum that hides or shames horrible behaviour or consequences or alcoholism, she is walking forward with my recovery, hand in hand with me. She is learning to overcome the worst case scenario and be the best version of herself she can.

Your children are your biggest fans, they love unconditionally and will forgive you in a heartbeat (but do not take advantage of a soft heart, they become adults who remember). They want you to be YOU and if that means taking time to go to rehab, DO IT, if that means changing jobs, DO IT, if that means getting medication to help curb chemical imbalances, DO IT. Your children are watching you fall, but more importantly, watching you stand back up and dust your knees and shoulders off, before grabbing them too, brushing the dirt from their knees, walking forward together because you are worth it and it is never too late. Ever.

I now have better relationships. It took me a long time to understand the ‘needs’ versus ‘wants’ concept. I need someone who loves me as is and can share that love with a smaller version of me. Tenley is watching me in a relationship with a recovering drinker who put sobriety first. Thankfully, my partner emits so many qualities that I would want for her to experience. She sees love practiced and given without condition, she sees a disagreement become a solution and finally she sees me valuing myself first and knowing that I can’t be a partner or mother if I am drinking.

Tenley at six — the week I was able to see her after 57 days of treatment, meetings and rehab.

I am financially stable. Drinking took a LOT of money from me, but also taught me how to plan a budget when my one source of debt was rejected. She watches me budget, and I now think about where my money is going.

I have a supportive job. I was able to be candid about my drinking past, and that makes me better prepared if I begin to feel stressed or anxious. In the past, drinking on the job became very easy and it usually does for most addicts. It’s not purposeful, it’s to survive at that point. When you stop drinking you shake, you crave, your body does everything it can to get you temporary relief. I shared my past openly with my boss in the first interview, because for me, it’s life or death. I don’t suggest that you share intimate details of your life if they aren’t necessary but for this position I needed to be candid and was respected for it.

Here is the takeaway. I am a better mother now because I have fought hard to be one again. My moments with Tenley are an adventure that strayed off track for a few years. I am a better mother because I value the little moments, even the bad moments, because when you are accepting of death, you become very much alive if you are given a second chance. Joy is more joyful, silence is more warming, love is bigger and louder.

This isn’t to say I live without pain. Fifty percent of my time is spent without my little radiant pixie and it’s in those times that I find myself sinking into that dark hole of loneliness and hurt, wondering how I made it through the past few years. It’s simple, I made it because I wasn’t feeling anything: my goal was to not feel. But my god, does the joy feel joyful.

Parents , if anything sticks with you , please let it be this: continue to fight for what is good and true. You are giving your children an incredible gift and that is showing them when you fail, there is a chance to do it right.

If you find yourself in a similar situation and are feeling alone, you are not. Tenley and I are rooting for you, hand in hand.

The five best ways to talk to mum about her drinking

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We spoke to Talitha Cummins about stigma and the best approaches to opening up a conversation

“Such is the strength of denial when it comes to drinking … that a child talking to their parent may not even hit home.” — Talitha Cummins

Generally, mums are known to talk a lot. They call for a chat about anything: to tell you a trivial incident that happened at the shops; to remind you to pay your health insurance bill; or pester you to take back a stored box of clothes in your old room. But because mums are so used to helping others and putting themselves last, it can be hard to turn it around and open up a conversation with mum about how she may be drinking.

At Hello Sunday Morning, we refer to the mums in the Daybreak communityas ‘supermums’; they’re superheroes in our eyes. But the thing is, that’s a pretty high standard to live up to, and it can come with a lot of pressure. So far, Hello Sunday Morning has supported 80,000 women on their journey to change their relationship with alcohol. Our statistics show 56 per cent of female members on Daybreak have children, and of those mothers, 7.4 per cent have over six drinks daily or almost daily.

We spoke with mother, Australian journalist and Hello Sunday Morning ambassador, Talitha Cummins, about why there is a stigma attached to mums who drink and why it’s so hard for mothers to accept that they may need help to change their relationship with alcohol:

“We’re very good at drinking but we’re not very good at acknowledging the problems that come with it. There’s a tendency for people to sweep this issue under the mat because it’s a little bit too confronting. Research shows that women in their late 30s and early 40s have caught up to men on the drinking front for a number of reasons, like women entering the workforce and equality. I also think there’s an extra layer of stress on women who do a lot of the work looking after the children as well as working full time and that adds another layer of pressure. Alcohol is used to relieve that pressure. Too much of relying on that to relieve the pressure creates a problem.”

Talitha described herself as the definition of a high-functioning drinker, a category that we find often gets overlooked by GPs and social groups because they break the traditional stereotypes of alcohol dependency: a bedraggled man carrying a paper bag with hard liquor around the street.

“I would get up in the morning and go for a run no matter how much I’d had the night before. If I could get up and go for that run and turn up to my hair and makeup and present well, than I thought the alcohol wasn’t having an effect on me. I’d still be able to work all day and it wasn’t until I got home that night that I’d start drinking again. So on the face of it, I was still doing my job, perhaps not to the best of my ability, but it wasn’t a problem until it was. Things became unmanageable for me.”

Talitha thought she was the only one who knew that her drinking was getting out of hand. It took an intervention from her Chief Of Staff at work who sat her down and asked her if she was okay, for her to allow herself to accept the situation.

“I think I was just at the right point and I said ‘no’ and I just crumbled. I was ready for someone to reach out and say anything to me because I was just so sick and tired of going through this whole thing of drinking, feeling shame and guilt and drinking to make myself feel better.”

Talitha says it is so difficult to talk to a parent about their drinking because in a lot of instances, they won’t accept they have an issue themselves.

“I spoke to a parent this week whose daughter won’t speak to them because of their drinking. But this person is still in complete denial about the problem and wants to stop drinking, but not even being told by their child that there’s an issue makes them see that they need help.”

So, how do you begin the conversation with your mum about her relationship with alcohol?

There are many ways you could approach the topic, and the best for you may vary depending on your relationship with your mum. Talitha recommends a loving approach.

“I know there can be a lot of fall out from things that may have happened with the parents drinking, but approaching lovingly from a good place and making sure they understand that you’re there to support them is a good start to then let them know that you also think they need to seek help.”

You could also try opening up yourself and sharing something about your experience, such as:

“I have been thinking a lot about my relationship to alcohol lately. I have realised that it has been really valuable for me to reflect on it.”

Saying something personal demonstrates to the other person that you are comfortable (or maybe uncomfortable, but open to) being vulnerable around them.

In her TED talk, Dr. Brene Brown discusses the power of vulnerability. It is exceptionally difficult to let yourself be vulnerable in front of others.

“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen,” says Dr. Brown. Letting ourselves be vulnerable.

“Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.” Which, many have argued, is sort of the point of everything. We are wired to connect to other people, it’s one of the things that has enabled humans to be so successful as a species and it is a powerful tool for the healing process.

But what if mum doesn’t see an issue and gets defensive?

It may be a good idea to be prepared for this reaction, as drinking carries with it a lot of negative stigma from our society and is linked with feelings such as shame and guilt. Which is ironic, as the social pressure and expectation to drink alcohol is massive.

Talitha points out that confrontation is often avoided because of the expectations that you should be able to handle your drinking.

“None of my friends actually confronted me about it, despite them seeing some of the things that I was doing. It’s awkward not only for the person who is drinking, but for the friends as well; they don’t know what to say, so there’s this embarrassment around it on both sides.”

People can become enraged at a suggestion that they may be drinking too much and deny that they need help. You may find a breakthrough and the person will acknowledge their drinking, but they may deny addressing it, saying something like: “I can stop anytime I want to” or, “Everyone drinks to unwind sometimes.”

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Washington Post article written by Sara Amato, shares her story of struggle when confronting her mum about her relationship with alcohol and the positive opportunity she got out of the experience.

“Over the years, I tried to talk with her about her alcoholism, but she never wanted to hear it. It forced me to come to terms with the fact I couldn’t change her and that it didn’t need to weigh me down. She refused to recognise she had a problem and actively denied it whenever I brought it up. I could pour her wine out, but she’d still find ways to drink. If she wasn’t willing to change then it couldn’t be my problem anymore.

Her drinking forced me to be more cautious. It wasn’t until after college that I started drinking socially. I thought that if I drank anything, I would turn into her. But the more she denied she had a problem, the more it dawned on me that I wasn’t her. I had developed more self-awareness and control than she had ever shown me. But that realisation didn’t happen overnight. There was never any therapy sessions or group programs, there was only time. Most importantly, I realised that talking about these issues and getting help isn’t shameful, because [drinking] isn’t a one-person [issue]: It affects everyone. I know that now at 27, but when I was 16? No, I was really stubborn. It took me a long time to realise that letting people in doesn’t make you weak. And you should never feel alone when dealing with a loved one’s addiction. Because you’re not.”

Here are a few tips to help you take the blame off yourself

Firstly, you need to acknowledge the issue. You may be in denial to protect your parent or hide the issue. Admitting that your parent needs support, even if they won’t, is the first step in taking control.

Don’t blame yourself and be aware of your emotions. Accepting and acknowledging helps you put things in perspective. Remind yourself that you are not responsible for your parents drinking too much and that you cannot cause it or stop it, only they can. Recognising how a parent’s drinking makes you feel can help you from burying your feelings and pretending that everything’s fine.

Learn healthy coping strategies. When we grow up around people who turn to alcohol or other unhealthy ways of dealing with problems, they become our example. It may be a good idea to find some role models who can help you learn healthy coping mechanisms and ways of making good decisions.

Find support. Talk to people that may have gone through a similar thing and find support through Hello Sunday Morning or other support programs.


“To people out there who are in the midst of a drinking issue, life can get better. I was in such a low place too and I never thought that I would find the allusive happiness. But with a lot of hard work, you can get there. There is hope.” — Talitha Cummins

Hello Sunday Morning is a movement towards a better drinking culture. Our vision is a world where drinking is an individual choice, not a cultural expectation.
How do you feel about your relationship with alcohol?Download Daybreak, for iOS or Android to change your drinking habits today. Alternatively, join our online community of over 100,000 like-minded individuals.

Japan’s corporate drinking culture

And the rise of forest bathing

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With aching legs, windblown faces and strands of hair frozen like spiky icicles, we “kanpai!” our Sapporo beers to a great day on the slopes as we look up to the view of Niseko’s Ana Puri mountain. The people around us sipping on steaming coffee or cold beers are likely to finish their drink and head to a Japanese onsen to end the day soaking their muscles in the healing, hot mineral springs that fill these public baths.

Comparing this to other vibrant après scenes like Canada’s Whistler or Big White ski resorts (nacho towers, live music and ski shots), the après culture in Japan appears a little more relaxed and sophisticated. However, the drinking culture in the corporate world back in the cities has far greater ramifications.


The Japan Times revealed almost 10 million people in Japan potentially have an alcohol dependency. However, only 40,000 to 50,000 are currently undergoing treatment. Susumu Higuchi, director of the National Hospital Organisation Kurihama Medical and Addiction Center, says Japan is a society that can push people to drink:

“However, once someone becomes [alcohol dependent], he or she is looked down on and it is not easy for that person to regain his or her status back in society after recovery.

Business Insider published an article that recognises the significance of the Japanese corporate drinking culture, as this was how the older generation of workers established their relationships with clients and often used drinking as a bonding ritual for their own teams and employees. “During the day, the Japanese generally take a task-based approach, but the relationship building that happens in the evening can be critical to business success.” There is even an expression for this; nomunication, stemming from the Japanese verb nomu ‘to drink’ and the English word ‘communication’.

Hello Sunday Morning’s Chief Product Officer, Alex, lived immersed in this working culture in Tokyo for a few years:

“After-work drinks are almost mandatory, if you choose not to go then you are treated as the odd-man-out. One of the unspoken reasons this is pushed so hard is that ‘after work drinks’ is the only time you can air your grievances or communicate your feelings to superiors. During work hours it would be a massive disrespect to argue with your boss, so you are meant to bottle it inside and hold on for Friday drinks, during which you can have the ‘Oh, I had too much to drink’ excuse for opening up about your feelings.”

So there is a direct correlation between drinking as a way to cope with the pressures and stress from work. And if an organisation is encouraging employees to drink for business matters, they could be the ones leading them down the rabbit hole.

There is a uniquely beautiful type of therapy from Japan that could prove to be beneficial for people caught up in these over-working, over-drinking societies.

A therapy that goes by the poetic name of Forest Bathing.

So far, the Japanese government has funded about $4 million in forest-bathing research since 2004, with a goal of designating 100 official trails. At the moment, Japan has 48 Forest Therapy trails designated for shinrin-yokuby Japan’s Forestry Agency. Shinrin-yoku is a term inspired by ancient Shinto and Buddhist practices, and it essentially means to let nature enter your body through all five senses.

Psychological research supports the theory that immersing oneself in nature has proven to be beneficial to relieve anxiety and depression, boost empathy and improve cognition. Forest bathing research supports scientists to measure the effects of the cells and neurons during this experience in nature. Research, led by Yoshifumi Miyazaki from the University of Chiba and Qing Li from the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo, uses field tests, hormone analysis, and new brain-imaging technology to uncover how the benefit from these trails works on a molecular level.


Another unique therapy from Japan known as Morita therapy was influenced by the psychological principles of Zen Buddhism and is all about accepting life as it is, known as ‘arugamama’.

“The answer lies in practicing and mastering an attitude of being in touch with the outside world. This is called a reality-oriented attitude, which means, in short, liberation from self-centeredness.” Takahisa Kora, M.D.

Morita Shoma, a Japanese psychiatrist, developed Morita therapy to consist of four distinct stages. He was disillusioned by the harm caused to inpatients while being confined in dismal places and decided to take them into his country home. It initially consisted of complete rest, from which he progressed his therapy to include art, diary writing, interaction with the environment and outdoor activities, while observing that the safe familial environment fostered responsive healing. The Morita School explains that the principles of this approach have been adapted to outpatient settings and expanded to address not only emotional well-being but to improve function in many aspects of day to day life.

Morita identifies that our mind is capable of imagining and wishing for things that have nothing to do with how life is. The Morita School gives an example of people who want to adopt lifestyles without experiencing the natural outcome of those lifestyles. People imagine that they can neglect and abuse their bodies and not experience negative effects to their health. People imagine that they can live fully and not experience the uncomfortable thoughts and feelings that are naturally a part of that kind of life.


Those in cities are turning to external, alternative therapies for treatment of addiction, anxiety and other mental issues caused by the current cultural expectations. But as the high number or people over-working in Japan starts to reduce, hopefully a generational change of relying on alcohol to communicate issues with employers will also see a cultural shift.

This article was originally published on Hello Sunday Morning’s Medium platform. 

Drinking to Self-Medicate

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Why some use alcohol to cope with PTSD and why is it vital to get support. 

“Alcohol is the anesthesia by which we endure the operation of life.” — George Bernard Shaw.

What is self-medication?

Self-medication is a coping response to tough emotional or social issues and often occurs when a person turns to prescription drugs, illicit drugs, or alcohol in order to deal with situations they find themselves struggling in.

Turning to drugs or alcohol to cope is often the first step towards substance abuse which can potentially lead down the road of addiction. The brutal truth is that this doesn’t help solve problems, in fact it may bring about more set backs and can spike a vicious cycle, fuelling further struggle and evoking emotions like guilt, shame, anxiety and depression.

Hello Sunday Morning supporter and author of This Naked Mind, Annie Grace, posted a blog on Hello Sunday Morning’s community platform reflecting on why drinking to relieve pain is the most dangerous drinking of all:

I was emotionally addicted to alcohol. Here’s what I wish someone had told me

Alcohol is a tricky devil. It will convince you that it is there in your times of need to make you forget. Drink enough and you will eventually feel as if it is cathartic. Alcohol depresses the central nervous system, increasing feelings of depression and anxiety to the point where one often finds it difficult to cope with everyday stresses. What were once small, daily problems that were nothing more than an inconvenience become an insurmountable mountain when alcohol is involved.

Alcohol creates a vicious cycle in which you begin drinking to dull the pain of one problem, and, upon encountering other small obstacles, you feel overwhelmed, reach for another drink, and put dealing with reality off until tomorrow. Before alcohol, you would have just handled the situation as it came. Alcohol makes you rely upon it and think that without it you can’t function. When used to self-medicate, it becomes your motivation to wake up in the morning, a pick-me-up to get through the day, a reward for getting through the day, and, finally, an elixir to help you sleep. Meanwhile, it is actually robbing you of every pleasure and joy you deserve.

Life is better without alcohol. I wake every morning with a clear head, I know what I did the night before, and I have friends whom I don’t need alcohol in order to be honest with. I get to feel my emotions fully every day and enjoy every moment as it comes — fully and completely.

Statistics show that 50 per cent of people that have some form of dependence on a substance have a concurrent mental health challenge. Post-traumatic stress disorder is one main health concern where people turn to alcohol to try and cope. The U.S National Centre for PTSD says alcohol problems are more common for survivors who have ongoing health problems or pain. Up to three quarters of those who have survived abusive or violent trauma and up to a third of those who survive traumatic accidents, illness, or disasters, report unhealthy drinking patterns.

What is PTSD?

Beyond Blue describes post-traumatic stress disorder as, “a particular set of reactions that can develop in people who have been through a traumatic event which threatened their life or safety, or that of others around them. This could be a car or other serious accident, physical or sexual assault, war or torture, or disasters such as bushfires or floods. As a result, the person experiences feelings of intense fear, helplessness or horror.”

This anxiety disorder can be triggered by a range of things in everyday life that remind the person of the event. Some of the symptoms of PTSD include depression, anxiety, nightmares, emotional numbness and withdrawal from social interactions.

Returned soldiers suffering from PTSD tend to struggle to fit back into the day-to-day structure of normal life and can be constantly on guard, which can be difficult for their relationships with their friends or family. If they don’t seek the treatment they need in time, further problems can arise including self-medicating by drinking.

65-year-old British veteran, Stuart Wicks, opens up to Chronicle Liveabout his drinking and the lack of support for returned solders:

“In the military you are conditioned into being part of a team and you function as part of that team. I suddenly came out into an environment where I lacked in confidence, I had no self-confidence whatsoever.

The time to drink for me was from 4pm or 5pm onwards because that’s how it was on the army. If I drank, I would drink to oblivion.”

Stuart, who has now gone without a drink for five years, works for the charity Changing Lives as an outreach worker for veterans and has called for an Armed Services Rehabilitation Act to help ease the transition for veterans back into civilian life.

“I think anybody who has done some service and those in their last year before they come out, should go into a rehabilitation programme which would be able to identify and recondition that person back into an individual.

There’s a lot of group esteem from the services but self-esteem is what you need on the outside.”

RSLs (Returned Service Leagues) in Australia are a place where returned veterans can come together with other ex-servicemen and feel appreciated and part of a community. There are many scattered all over Australia’s cities and country towns. The RSL’s mission is to “ensure that programs are in place for the well-being, care, compensation and commemoration of serving and ex-service Defence Force members and their dependents.”

However, many of these ex-servicemen will come to a place like the RSL club with dark interiors, cheap drink specials and poker machines with the primary intention being to drink, a lot. Combat veterans often experience life-threatening situations or witness horrors that can trigger PTSD. A 2010 Defence report found that the rate of PTSD was higher among troops: 8.1 per cent, compared to 4.6 per cent for the general population.

Tribes, On Homecoming and Belonging, A book by Sebastian Junger, explains that we have a natural need to belong to small groups of people with purpose and understanding — tribes.

“This tribal connection has been largely lost in modern society, but regaining it may be the key to our psychological survival.”

He points to a current example of combat veterans who return home and find themselves missing that tight bond of life with their comrades. “The loss of closeness that comes at the end of deployment may explain the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today.”

Drinking can make PTSD worse

The National Center for PTSD says alcohol has actually been proven to increase PTSD symptoms like depression and anxiety, numbing your feelings, being cut off from friends and family and promoting the feeling of being on guard. Drinking can continue the cycle of avoidance.

“Avoiding the bad memories and dreams actually prolongs the PTSD and you cannot make as much progress in treatment if you avoid your problems. Alcohol use problems make PTSD treatment less effective.”

 

Debunking the alcohol-happiness myth

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Why alcohol casts a dark shadow on the happiest nation on earth

My two great loves, travel and the study of psychology, brought me to the hidden Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan. If you have heard of Bhutan (although you’re not alone if you haven’t) you’ll likely recognise it as the “land of Gross National Happiness.”

“Isn’t that one of the happiest countries in the world?” friends ask me when I mention my trip. In Bhutan, happiness isn’t relegated to self-help books and mantra chanting yogis (although there is some of that), it is for everyone. And this is what captured my interest when I learnt about the kingdom during a positive psychology lecture; it’s what captures most travellers to Bhutan. This tiny nation has put life satisfaction and psychological wellness at the forefront of their public governance and political concerns. And I think it’s working.

The flight into Paro International Airport is stunning. We weave through evergreen mountains and hop over grand snow-capped peaks. Is it embarrassing to admit that I cried a little? Disclaimer: I cry easily and it’s possible altitude was a contributing factor, but honestly, it’s difficult to not well up in one of the most literally breath-taking environments I’ve been in.

A unique approach to governance

Known locally as Druk Yul, or Land of the Thunder Dragon, Bhutan is unique for more reasons than one. This is a country without a single set of traffic lights (they put some up in Thimphu which before long were taken down because they were ‘too ugly’). It is isolated. Bhutan did not have any diplomatic relations with another country until the 1960s. Television and internet were banned until 1999. Technology is now, slowly but surely, seeping into all corners of the culture. Still, the government is careful to not let anything get out of hand, from their strong handed emphasis on cultural preservation to their outright ban on smoking; Bhutan can’t exactly be described as a ‘land of the free’. But the Bhutanese love their government. As of 2008 Bhutan became a constitutional monarchy, and the current prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, seems generally well received. And the royal family are unanimously considered the lifeblood of the country. One of my Bhutanese friends told me that she considers the fourth king, father to the current ruler, a spiritual saviour. “I pray to him,” she says.

I mightn’t be religious but I don’t doubt that the Bhutanese have been blessed when it comes to good governance; to put it all down to luck would seem foolish. Centuries ago, the founder of Bhutan, Tibetan lama Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, is known to have said, “if the government cannot create happiness and peace for its people, then there is no purpose for the government to exist.” That is benevolent governance if I’ve ever seen it. And it is from these very roots that the idea for Gross National Happiness (GNH) evolved. What is the point of a government that cannot keep its people happy and healthy? During an interview with the financial times of London, the much beloved fourth King famously mentioned that to Bhutan, GNH is more important than GDP, pointing out that GDP alone cannot guarantee happiness and wellbeing.

Gross National Happiness

Sangay Chopel, who works at the Centre for Bhutan Studies (CBS) in Thimphu, briefly explained to me the survey methods used to produce a comprehensive CBS report every few years. It was far from the simple census questionnaire I expected. The measurement and study of Happiness in Bhutan today is a thorough process; they’re not playing around. There are nine components within the GNH, some are subjectively measured, others objective and quantifiable, and they all emphasise a range of different values, from the spiritual to the material. These nine components include cultural diversity and resilience, community vitality, good governance, ecological validity, living standards, education, time use and balance (i.e. work life balance), psychological well being (measured in terms of both cognitions and emotions), and health.

But ultimately, the GNH is not just a broad philosophy for development of states, it is also personal ethos which, even at an individual level, can help a person shape their life journey and realise their happiness and well being by restructuring their values towards the GNH.

And internationally, the idea is taking off.

Honestly, for a country of around 700,000 people, the complexity of this analysis is astonishing. Researchers at the CBS admit that the relationship between these variables is nonlinear, but believe that this reaffirms their decision to examine happiness holistically.

Alcohol in Bhutan

All of which is why it was so surprising for me to discover that there is a considerable blind spot within the GNH domain of health. It turns out that alcohol use, and abuse, is a huge problem in Bhutan.

“The highest number of cases admitted in hospitals is due to alcohol,” says Bhutan’s national health secretary Dr Ugen Dophu, and alcohol is now considered the leading cause of death in the country.

Dr Tashi Tobgay, a Pathologist at Thimphu’s national referral hospital, says that liver cirrhosis and other alcohol related issues represent significant burdens on the healthcare system in Bhutan. The government is beginning to realise the magnitude of this health concern and are investing in preventative public health measures. However, the issue is culturally entrenched and therefore difficult to address. There are only four psychiatrists in the country, says Dr Tobgay, and each one of them wakes to a hospital room full of patients with alcohol related issues.

The alcohol-happiness myth

Why do the Bhutanese drink so much? For social, cultural, traditional or religious reasons? Dr Chencho Dorji, the country’s first psychiatrist, suggests that a multitude of individual and social factors, and the way they relate to each other, can lead to heavy drinking. Dr Dorij describes the phenomenon of associating alcohol with happiness as a fictitious conjecture we have all bought into: the alcohol-happiness myth.

Back in Thimphu, Dr. Tobgay describes his experiences at university in Eastern Bhutan, the region with the strongest tradition of heavy drinking. “It is just the way they drink over there” he said, “they ferment Ara [homebrew liquor] and start drinking in the morning before heading out into the fields.”

And Dr Dorji, having spent years researching and treating the effects of alcohol use in Bhutan, believes that the behaviour is having an effect on GNH in a number of ways. For starters, its economic impact is predicted to be significant, particularly in agricultural areas, as local councils believe around half of all grain harvests are used to brew alcohol for the home. What’s more, Bhutan is home to one of the highest numbers of bars per capita in the world and one of the highest per capita consumption rates in the developing world. Still, alcohol generated revenue does not cover its overall cost. Drinking is associated with a range of social issues including unemployment, family neglect and abuse, crime and accidents. It is a leading cause of death and disability.

What is the relationship between alcohol and happiness? I spent some time thinking about this during my experiences working in the space of alcohol and addiction with Hello Sunday Morning, an organisation concerned with both of these things. So it was interesting to come face to face with the same issues in Bhutan, where they are grappling with them in unprecedented ways.

As recently as January 2017, a statement was released by the health secretary regarding the course of action in relation to policy around alcohol. Meanwhile, my friends in Bhutan tell me that public health campaigns are being rigorously implemented to address drinking behaviours. While these actions are similar to those taken by international governments, they retain a valuable asset in their toolbelt: GNH data. Perhaps we might learn something by observing how the Bhutanese tackle this issue.

What is most evident is that even one of the happiest countries in the world isn’t perfect. Still, while Bhutan doesn’t have the answers, they are absolutely on the way to finding them.

This article was originally posted to Hello Sunday Morning’s Medium platform. 

How to talk to your teens about alcohol

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We explore the tough questions around whether you should introduce your kids to alcohol before the drinking age, and when to have the conversation about drinking. We also offer advice and strategies to help you lead your teenagers down the road to a healthy relationship with alcohol.

As parents you have a significant influence on your kids. But unfortunately, your children’s relationship with alcohol doesn’t come down to simply saying, “I’ll just make sure I drink responsibly in front of them and not let them drink until they are of age.” As much as you wish you could, you cannot shelter your child from a world made up of ingrained cultural norms and expectations, friendship groups that break the ‘rules’, socio-economical factors, and the media.

First, let us address the question of why you should have the conversation

Because children are brought up around people drinking alcohol at parties, celebrations, friends’ houses and all sorts of occasions, they tend to be naturally curious about it. Therefore, it is important to make sure they know the right information about alcohol and drinking, like how alcohol works in our system, what happens to the body and mind when you drink and the possible dangers of drinking too much, so they can be more informed and educated to make their own choices in the future.

The facts

Statistics show that 86 per cent of Australian students have tried alcohol by age 14, with this figure increasing to 96 per cent by 17 years of age (White & Hayman, 2006). Moreover, 22 per cent of 14-year-olds who are current drinkers consume alcohol at levels exceeding the Australian Alcohol Guidelines, with this figure increasing through adolescence, and peaking at 44 per cent among 17-year-olds.

“You have to be realistic; you cannot protect children from the exposure to drinking, especially as they become teenagers, go to parties and start mixing with kids who drink. So try to build up a level of trust and communication so they can come to you for wisdom to make better decisions, know how to get out of a tricky situation, and learn from their mistakes.”

Hello Sunday Morning’s Health Coach and mother of two, Tehani, says it’s important to educate your kids by letting them know, “This is what you can expect, this is what you might see, this is what might happen,” and ask them how they would like to conduct themselves at a festival or party, and what their idea of fun looks like. Rather than saying, “This is what I think you should do,” give them ideas to achieve a goal that they have come up with on their own. Trying to find the right balance between protecting your child and giving them their own freedom isn’t easy. There’s a fine line between being overly controlling with your kids but also teaching them that they can go out and have fun without needing to get drunk.

When should you speak to them?

Tehani suggests that having the conservation with kids about drinking should start from a young age, as children start to learn that actions have consequences, and because you as parents are not always going to be there to enforce rules. The Alcohol Education Trust found that at age 11, children see it as unacceptable to get drunk and 99 per cent don’t drink regularly, but age 13 is what they call “the tipping point.” Teenagers tend to shy away from talking and opening up to their parents at this time in their lives as they start to form their own opinions and find their own identity.

Don’t make it harder for yourself, bring it up as a natural conversation when something relatable comes up and try to stay open and listen. A Drugs: Education, Prevention and Policy report from a qualitative investigation of young people found that helpful communication results from this tactic. 59 boys and girls aged 13 to 15 years were interviewed, and many reported their parents talking openly and negotiating boundaries around their drinking. This approach appeared to be largely effective in helping them to develop a responsible approach to alcohol.

Should I let my kids drink alcohol at home before they are of age?

This is an ongoing debate for parents as there are both positives and negatives to introducing your child to a healthy relationship with alcohol. But Hello Sunday Morning’s Health Coach believes that if you make drinking taboo it can then become a big deal when it’s finally allowable:

“I don’t think humans respond very well to really strong rules. It’s in our nature, we want to test boundaries, so the more solid the boundaries the more likely we’re going to push against them.”

There are no laws in Australia that make it a crime to drink alcohol supplied by parents in a private home. There are, in fact, studies that have found drinking a little bit with your parents at home teaches kids about moderation. They are also less likely to be binge drinkers when they are older. A four-year study from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre followed 2,000 children and their parents to find what effect early introduction to alcohol has on consumption levels. After tracking the families for four years it found that teenagers and children introduced to alcohol by their parents were less likely to binge drink later on. However, it also showed that teenagers and kids introduced to alcohol early on were more likely to be drinking full serves by ages 15 or 16. Children who obtain alcohol from people other than their parents are three times more likely to binge drink.

The mediterranean countries have a different view on alcohol, as traditional liquors and quality wine plays a big role in their cultures. Alcohol is integrated into everyday life, where a 15-year-old having a drink with their family during a meal is not something that is frowned upon. For them, this approach has worked in introducing teens to alcohol as a healthy way of life; young people become intoxicated less frequently than in countries where alcohol is consumed less frequently but at higher levels.

But, true to form, these things are never entirely clear-cut. One of the authors of the four-year study from the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, Professor Richard Mattick, points to other research indicating that the adolescent brain is still developing well into the early 20s, and alcohol may interfere with optimum development.

A recent study from the University of Eastern Finland and Kuopio University Hospital found that long-term heavy use of alcohol in adolescence alters cortical excitability and functional connectivity in the brain. The study concluded that for young people whose brain is still developing, heavy alcohol use is especially detrimental and caused significant alterations in both electrical and chemical neurotransmission among the study participants, although none of them fulfilled the diagnostic criteria of a substance abuse disorder.

The parts of the brain that are affected are the hippocampus (responsible for memory and learning) and the prefrontal lobe (important for planning, judgement, decision making, impulse control and language). Alcohol can affect these two crucial parts of a developing brain by resulting in irreversible brain changes that can impact decision making, personality, memory and learning. Alcohol Think Again recommends that for under-18-year-olds, no alcohol is the safest choice and that parents should delay the initiation of drinking for as long as possible. Yet they also point out that although research tells us alcohol can damage the developing brain, it is not clear how much alcohol it takes to do this.

The role of identity and belonging

Research shows that having a sense of belonging is a really strong protective mechanism against misuse of drugs and alcohol, as well as other unsafe behaviours that teenagers engage in. Identity and belonging also give kids an insight into a less individualistic society, and a sense that actions often impact more than one person. In a series of focus groups made up of Year 11 students in Victoria, participants were asked to complete a questionnaire which focused on beliefs regarding the factors that promote resilience and well-being. The four main factors indicated by young people to promote resilience included: peer connectedness (having good friends); family connectedness (feeling that you are loved by family); feeling that your family respects your decisions; and school connectedness (believing that you fit in at school, and having good teachers).

How to talk to your teens about drinking

With so much mixed information around, it’s important to know where you stand on this issue as parents. Reflect on your values and communicate that to your children in an open, constructive and loving way. And if they do slip up here and there, use it as a process to help them learn to be the kind of person they want to be, and to choose a relationship with alcohol that works for them.

This article was originally posted on Hello Sunday Mornings Medium platform.