Does alcohol relieve stress? Why we need more studies…

My Fellow Inebriates,

I’m still pondering whether our moving-related alcohol consumption is helping our stress.

What the hell is stress anyway?

There’s bad stress (distress), and there’s good stress (eustress).

Distress can make you feel like you’re in a life-threatening situation, even when you’re not

Distress is what we’re talking about when we experience flight-or-fight symptoms despite not being chased by a leopard. Sweaty palms, increased heart rate and blood pressure, and anxiety all arise from a threefold assault on the body’s systems—the central nervous system, the adrenal system, and the cardiovascular system—which, if prolonged, threatens homeostasis, or equilibrium.

Eustress, or positive stress, describes the feeling of completing a grueling run, planning a wedding, or completing a demanding task—mental,  physical, or both. While the same physical symptoms may present, the critical differentiator here is often that you’re in control of the situation, and the outcome corresponds with satisfaction and well-being.

And I forgot to mention the kids…

So if I spend most of my time trying to lose control, that’s stressful, right? In a bad way? And when I don’t manage to lose control, I find myself hanging out with characters like Scarybear and Fluffy, who scare me with apocalyptic and paranormal threats respectively (although Scary also throws in some old-fashioned physical violence). LBHQ is a stressful place!

(I haven’t even mentioned the silverfish in the bathroom, which Fluffy is apparently summoning from the Other Side. He didn’t think of doing it at the townhouse, I guess, but he must have remembered that particular Dark Power when we moved here.)

Okay, then, can alcohol help?

The stress response is much too complex for my two brain cells to understand, but apparently chronic stress initiates a cascade of equilibrium-adverse events in the body:

Corticotropin Releasing Factor (CRF)

  • The hypothalamus secretes CRF (corticotropin releasing factor), which gives the pituitary gland a kick.
  • The pituitary secretes ACTH (adrenocorticotropin hormone), which gives the adrenal glands a kick.
  • The adrenals secrete steroids that affect temperature, appetite, arousal, alertness, and emotional state, priming the body to direct oxygen and nutrients where they’re most urgently needed.

All this is okay, but you wouldn’t want it to go on all day, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to chronic stress.

Researchers have found that stressed-out people will seek alcohol if:

  • Other resources are unavailable.
  • Alcohol is accessible.
  • They think it will help.

Wow! That seems like a bit of a no-brainer. What’s more interesting is that monkeys raised by their peers consume twice as much alcohol as monkeys raised by their mothers. And rats exposed to unavoidable electric shock (omg!) demonstrate a greater appetite for alcohol than rats who can control whether they receive a shock.

The take-home message is that lab animals are getting a lot of alcohol. So if the well is indeed drying up here at LBHQ now that the stress of moving is almost over, perhaps I could moonlight at a lab.

I contacted the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research (ILAR).

Some studies show that low doses of alcohol actually improve the stress response and even enhance performance. Other studies show that alcohol initiates the stress response. Moreover, the response depends heavily on whether the subject is an occasional drinker or an established alcoholic. Stress may play a role in relapse among abstinent alcoholics, but genetics may also play a dominant role.

We definitely need more alcohol studies, using lots of different subjects, especially bears.

Too stressed to type?

The move from the old to the new LBHQ is 75% done, with only odds and ends (plus dirt) remaining at the old place. Over the years we’ve come to call this the “shrapnel phase”—everything left to move is odd-shaped, loose, and defiant of categorization.

In some ways the shrapnel phase is the worst part of a move. You no longer have a truck (or we don’t, at least), so all this crap has to be moved piecemeal in car trips. You’ve moved all the stuff you care about and use everyday, so it’s hard to generate enthusiasm to finish the job—you start to think about abandoning the shrapnel…but you’re not quite sure what might be hiding in it or underneath it (like the brandy glasses that disappeared two moves ago?). Psychologically, you’ve moved on. You’re in a new place; you’ve put things away nicely, and it sure looks tidy without…the shrapnel.

And that’s where we’re at, my fellow inebriates. The mega-stressful part is over, and there’s a sense of renewal and rebuilding. But there’s that nagging pile of crap back at the old place, which we really should go and get. So my dad’s doing it today. And once it’s done, his stress level should  go down.

Which is bad. I mean, yeah, sure, I like my dad and all; I don’t want him to give himself an ulcer. But I’ve been enjoying the way my parents have coped with this move—they’ve bought alcohol. And I worry that when they’re finally finished moving, they’ll stop doing that, or at least reduce their liquor spending to the dull roar they aspire to.

This is what we had been buying per month:

  • Beer: 1 case plus the occasional specialty one-off
  • Wine: 2 bottles

This is what we bought up to and during our move:

  • Gin: 2 750mL bottles plus mickeys for our Shoot-Out
  • Beer: 3 cases and two six-packs
  • Wine: 3 bottles

This represented a sizeable uptick. Sadly, I can’t count on them to keep the spending up. They’re already remorseful. Did it at least relieve their stress?

Apparently not. No one wants to be my paws tonight on the keyboard. Looks like we are stressed.