Quitting drinking doesn’t mean you can never again do and consume things that give you great joy. You are not doomed to drinking water, eating bland food, or sitting around with nothing to do in all your free time. Believe it or not, you can retrain your brain to look forward to and deeply enjoy non-alcoholic treats and behaviors.
The pleasure that comes from drinking alcohol arises when it activates the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, a powerful reward system in our brains, by releasing a rush of dopamine. Over time, this overload causes natural dopamine production to decline. People develop tolerance and need more alcohol to produce the same effect, struggling to experience significant pleasure without it.
This alteration is progressive but reversible. It can make it quite unpleasant to give up alcohol, and difficult to experience a comparable level of pleasure from other things, until the brain adapts. You can learn more about this process here. Alcohol also affects the central nervous system and is both a depressant and an indirect stimulant. Though it’s not so much the focus of this post, you can read more about the complex neural effects of alcohol here.
When you quit drinking, your brain’s reward system doesn’t just go away. Alcohol may have been removed from the equation, but other foods, activities, and healthier behaviors such as beloved hobbies, favorite meals, and exercise have an opportunity to step in. They operate on the very same neural pathway. Regularly engaging in healthy behaviors rewires your brain to reap the feel-good benefits of dopamine without depleting it, which continued alcohol use does. Your experience of pleasure becomes more regulated, predictable, and sustainable. With practice, that can help you form more stable, healthier patterns of seeking pleasure and reward over time.
At first, your focus while getting sober may be simply getting through each day without submitting to alcohol cravings. That’s quite common and perfectly okay – you shouldn’t feel pressured to enjoy every moment and be “high on life” right away. But if you’re dedicated and persistent, or even simply patient, you’ll eventually gravitate to new things and activities that give you pleasure, becoming habitual and comforting.
When I quit drinking, I started to look forward to cracking open a soda, seltzer, or non-alcoholic ginger beer, mindlessly snacking on a bunch of popcorn or cheese late at night while my eyes were glued to a Netflix series. True, it wasn’t that good for me, but we can’t give up all our vices at once. This behavior worked through the same pattern of reward my brain is wired to seek – a bit of mindless and compulsive consumption. It helped me transition out of drinking, because I didn’t feel all that different while I was doing it than back when I drank. I was still able to engage in all the consumption I desired. There was just one fewer beverage involved. And I felt more able to cut myself off, without wine lowering my inhibitions.
When I’m hanging out with friends or strangers, I find it helpful to bring selzers or sodas – often something with caffeine and sugar. That way, I have a drink in hand to consume and don’t feel like I’m missing something. The caffeine and sugar keep my energy level up and on the same level as those drinking alcohol. Sometimes, I’ll buy myself a mocktail to fully get into the mindset that I am treating myself and deserve to enjoy something special. I still drink my fair share of coffee, too, and that gives me a bit of joy in the morning – which is definitely not my favorite time of day.
Rewarding yourself doesn’t have to be limited to food. Stay up late, watch too much TV, take yourself to the movies, sleep in, hang with friends, make art, read, go for walks outside! There are thousands of things you can do besides drink alcohol to create pleasure. For some people, activities that are more introverted will bring them energy. Others may derive an emotional “lift” from finding social outlets that don’t revolve around alcohol (Meetup.com, which I’ve mentioned before, is a good place to start).
The things to which you gravitate will depend on your own predispositions, but it’s quite helpful in early sobriety to “try on” new things and see if they stick. Make a list of things you’re trying and that you really enjoy so you can come back to them when you’re feeling down. As much as you can, make time and space to enjoy your life and take a break from all that is difficult. Give yourself credit, respect, and reward for all the hard work you’re doing.
Because of the nature of our reward orientation, we sometimes expect the world to reward us for our internal changes, like giving up alcohol. But this doesn’t happen. The world moves on and most people don’t notice or have room to show they care, busy enough on their own journeys. We must find ways to treat and reward ourselves, and to recognize our little wins, cultivating a grateful perspective and attitude. It can help to keep a gratitude journal and to participate in a recovery group or online community to get some positive feedback on your progress with people who are on this similar unconventional journey. You can find some of those communities here.
Sobriety can sometimes feel isolating. Because we’re in an alcohol culture, society won’t reward us for quitting. We have to create our own systems of reward and recognition, turning inward rather than looking for validation from the outside. But that can only make us more content and integrated people. Enjoy your sobriety, and reward yourself for it!