For HSPs, alcohol can act like a “mute button” on a too-loud world. That made it especially seductive to me — and risky.
Throughout high school, I was invited to parties where drinking alcohol was the main event. Gatherings like these weren’t my ideal way to spend my time, but I felt obligated to partake. I went with every intention of just hanging out — but within minutes of showing up, the anxiety would creep in. Everyone was talking; I was sure I didn’t have anything interesting to contribute; and there were just too many different conversations swirling around me. Add in loud music and a setting I didn’t always feel comfortable in, and I struggled to process all the sounds, scenery, and smells.
I knew if I just had a couple of drinks it would all turn into background noise. So I did.
Suddenly I could relax. It felt great! The problem was, it felt so good once I started that I didn’t know when to stop. Nights like these almost always ended in me doing something mortifying shortly before passing out, then spending the next day nursing my hangover, and the next month nursing my ego.
Of course, this could have happened to anyone in my shoes. As a child born into a family with a tendency toward unhealthy coping mechanisms, I felt alcohol’s pull and learned its allure at a young age. I also conveniently ignored its dangers. Everyone else was doing it, so it couldn’t be that bad, right? Wrong.
But for me, the lure of alcohol went much deeper. I’m a highly sensitive person (HSP), and I believe my sensitivity made alcohol even more seductive.
(Not sure what a highly sensitive person is? Read this.)
Why Some Highly Sensitive People Struggle with Alcohol
To understand why, you need to know what it feels like to be highly sensitive. Up to 30% of people are HSPs, and they’re born with a very sensitive nervous system — one that takes in and processes piles of information. That means we notice everything, and our brains work overtime to process it all. That’s both a good thing (we tend to be very creative and emotionally aware) and also, at times, totally exhausting.
As a result, HSPs live in a world that can easily become a flood of overstimulation. And sometimes we need a way to turn it off.
Enter alcohol. As an HSP, alcohol can feel like a lifeboat in the sea of thoughts and emotions that swamp me. It’s a quick and sure-fire way shut off the noise.
(It’s not just alcohol, of course. Many mind-altering and potentially addictive substances can help soothe our overwhelmed nervous systems. But, because it’s legal, available, and socially acceptable, alcohol was my substance of choice.)
Not every HSP will struggle with this. Personal preferences, lifestyle, upbringing, family history, as well as the degree of sensitivity, also play a role in our likelihood to rely on alcohol or other substances as coping mechanisms. But for me, learning about my personality traits and how my highly sensitive nervous system is wired really opened my eyes to the origins of my struggle with alcohol.
To be clear, there’s no hard link in the research between substance abuse and high sensitivity. But some psychologists and therapists suggest a connection, and there is no question that many HSPs are especially sensitive to the effects of alcohol. When the whole world feels like it’s turned up too high, there’s something very appealing about a mute button — even if it’s a trap.
How Substance Abuse ‘Traps’ Highly Sensitive People
For example, alcohol is not a safe way to control overstimulation (or anxiety). Eventually, it interferes with our ability to meet our social, relationship and career obligations, and our ability to live life to its fullest. We may have been searching for a way to stop feeling overwhelmed and start feeling “normal,” but the drinking only creates more sources of overwhelm long-term.
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It also affects our boundaries. For highly sensitive people, almost nothing is more important than learning to set healthy boundaries. But being intoxicated expands our comfort zone so that we may do things we normally wouldn’t do. Our boundaries actually erode.
As a teenager and young adult, if I had understood why I felt things so much more strongly than other people seemed to, and that there wasn’t something wrong with me, I might have realized that I needed to be more compassionate with myself, pass on parties, and surround myself with people who were more like me. It might have spared me from consequences like spending much of my life suffering from depression, getting an OVI, and winding up with a chronic health condition triggered by emotional and physical stress.
In other words, I might have made healthier choices.
6 Ways to Avoid Unhealthy Drinking as an HSP
While I’m a work in progress, as we all are, I now avoid drinking alcohol altogether. It’s not always easy, but it’s the right choice for me. And I’ve developed six strategies for the times I’m still tempted to drink:
1. Recognize the urge.
One surprisingly helpful tool for handling the urge to drink is to simply acknowledge it. By saying to yourself “I want a drink right now,” you open up the door to realize it’s just a feeling — and that feelings pass. It also allows you to analyze what’s causing the urge, viewing it from the outside. Both of these help to lessen the intensity of the desire. It puts the power back in your hands.
2. Have a calming (non-alcoholic) drink.
A few staples in my house include herbal tea and magnesium powder. For tea, herbs like peppermint and chamomile have properties that reduce stress and anxiety (with no caffeine), and can be purchased at almost any grocery store. Magnesium citrate is a nutrient that has the ability to produce feelings of calmness and relaxation. It can be purchased in a raspberry and/or lemon flavored powder to mix with water, or unflavored to add to other beverages. (Find it here.)
Other great substitutes include club soda, kombucha (note: has trace amounts of alcohol), and alcohol-free “mocktails.”
3. Instead of alcohol, use your breath.
It sounds so simple, but breathing can be one of the most helpful strategies in any anxiety-provoking situation — which is why it’s so often suggested. It brings our awareness from the outside world into our most basic need, the breath, which helps us feel in control and safe. It can also distract us. Personally, I like to focus on each breath as it goes in, then out. Other people find it helpful to count five seconds (or more) on the in breath and again on the out breath.
4. Take a “time out” before drinking.
Since HSPs pick up on subtleties in other people and their environment, removing yourself from the situation — even for a short time — can help to calm the mind. In social situations, try excusing yourself and going into the bathroom or going outside, or to any quiet area where you can be alone.
In situations that aren’t social, a time out can still be helpful. Go on a walk, especially if you can get out into nature, or whatever your personal favorite calming activity may be. The key is giving yourself time and permission to slow down, and letting the weight of the world off your shoulders for a bit.
5. Make a list — and use it.
Prior to exposure to any situation where you may want to use alcohol (or any unhealthy habit), sit down and make a list. This list will consist only of the cons of the coping mechanism you want to avoid.
For example, your list could include “I always feel unwell after drinking,” or “it’s expensive.” Your list will be very personal and unique to you. Try to come up with at least 5-10 reasons.
Then, make a copy of the list. Keep one copy in a place where you will see it regularly, such as on the fridge, and another in your wallet or purse to have with you on the go. You can even snap a picture of it and keep it in your phone.
Simply taking a moment to look at the list can be a powerful bolster to your willpower.
6. Find a friend who will ‘ground’ you.
My final and favorite strategy, which can be used in a number of situations, is finding a friend. In any social gathering where you feel that familiar desire, if possible, choose a friend as your lifeboat instead. You can even try to stick close to someone you know from the start by making plans to rideshare or meet there. Ideally, this would be another HSP, or someone that you’re totally comfortable with, who can help you to stay grounded.
(If you need the lifeboat when no friends are around, try texting/calling your closest companion — or better, consider finding an online support group. Even if no one can respond immediately, the act of reaching out can help us feel connected and grounded, and move past the urge.)
HSP, You Are Stronger Than You Think
Looking at my own history with a new understanding of the genetic HSP trait, I now suspect that my family includes many HSPs — and that it’s tied to our history of unhealthy coping behaviors. Unfortunately, without the knowledge of all the beautiful things that high sensitivity offers, it’s often difficult for HSPs to understand why they have the thoughts and feelings they have, or how to appreciate them and make healthier choices.
But HSPs are strong. Being highly sensitive comes with a capacity for reflection, self-realization, and growth — traits the world needs. It’s never comfortable to say goodbye to an unhealthy coping mechanism like alcohol. But, making any positive change, especially a difficult one, shows enormous strength and courage. It can set the tone to move not only your life, but our culture and society too, in the right direction.
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