March may be Women’s History Month, but I read some women’s health news this month that paints a bleak future for women. First, in 2020, 9% of women overall and 17% of women age 18 to 25 had an alcohol use disorder. Second, younger women are being hospitalized at increasing rates for alcoholic hepatitis. And third, the number of women’s deaths involving alcohol increased 85% (or from 7,600 to over 18,000) from 1999 to 2017. (For comparison, men’s increase in alcohol-linked mortality rose by 35% in the same interval, according to NIH data.)
These kinds of numbers are staggering, and I’m not even tipsy. I love “my wine” as much as the next woman, but I’ve got to admit that the statistics around liver disease are, uh, sobering.
Apologies for the puns. This is a serious topic. To be clear, my goal is not to inform you about the risks of liver disease nor guilt-trip you into giving up the drink. We can all agree that our world is full of stressors: the constant Covid worry, global warming’s continual threat, or stretching a skimpy paycheck at the grocery store. And one of the time-honored ways to decompress and relax is with an alcoholic beverage – but long term alcohol abuse can actually work against you and your efforts to reduce anxiety.
On a practical note, I’m encouraged by alcohol substitutions, like the interesting new “mocktails” at upscale bars. And I’m a big believer in distractions – like taking up a sport or hobby, so happy hour tippling is replaced by a more productive, healthier activity.
But there are powerful ways to cope with stress that go beyond behavior modification and go into the realm of brain wave modification. Brain waves are measurements of the electrical pulses in our brains and are taken via electroencephalogram (or EEG) There are five levels of brain waves, measured in units of frequency called Hertz (Hz for short). The fastest frequency, Gamma (25 – 140Hz), occurs at peak concentration.The second fastest – where we find ourselves for most of our waking hours – is called Beta (12.5 – 30Hz). That’s when we’re alert and processing external information.
Let’s be clear: We need these activated states to be productive and do focused work. The problem arises when we don’t take a break from these speedy brain-pulsing levels and find ourselves constantly problem-solving, troubleshooting, and multi-tasking – and in a state of anxiety. After a day of Beta waves, one often hits the (virtual) wall and needs to sleep, when brain waves decrease to Delta (4 Hz), allowing the nervous system to recharge.
Right about now, you might be asking, can this rat race pace followed by something akin to passing out be all there is to life? The answer is no; sleep is not the only resource for recharging. There are two other low-frequency levels of brain waves, Alpha (8 – 12 Hz) and Theta (3.5 – 7.5 Hz), that support a less-stressed brain. Alpha is when your brain is alert but not processing – think deep relaxation or meditation – and is considered the “place to be” to recharge and recenter.
The good news: We have a degree of influence in which of these brainwave pulses we’d like to experience. Counter-intuitively, exercise, especially high-intensity workouts, is one way to access Alpha waves. The happy-making endorphin release that follows a good workout promotes alpha waves. And meditation or mindfulness practice – especially using the Okinaga breath (when exhalations last longer than inhalations) – for 15 or more minutes at a time is linked to an increase in relaxing alpha waves and a decrease in buzzy, busy beta.
But when you’re having a busy day and can’t take the time for a workout or a lengthy meditation – much less a lovely glass of Merlot – how then do you catch some Alpha chill? Get into the habit of pausing during your day; yes, first just learn to pause. Then breathe. Then breathe a little more – perhaps for just 5 minutes. You’ll be surprised at how you begin to take control of your day from a more relaxed and competent state. And studies have shown that when you use a cue or consistent mantra every time you want to harness more Alpha, your brain will recognize it and help you reach a state of flow more quickly.
Even if you do choose to relax with your favorite spirit from time to time, let it be for pure pleasure, and not as a means to medicate or numb yourself. Knowledge is power: now you know that sustained alcohol use can lead to unhealthy and even deadly consequences. You also know about a tool – the pause. The hardest part is to remember to do it, but once you actually pause, you open up to limitless possibilities. Practice it often and breathe to access the Alpha waves that will actually increase your productivity, calm you, and refresh far more than your thirst.