Reframing Cultural Narratives Around Alcohol Use

Culture lures How to deal with them

As human beings, we’re incredibly influenced by the culture that we grew up in and live in in the present. Our families of origin, schools, the towns we live in, the states or countries we spend our time in, the different circles we associate with; all of these pieces influence our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. And as a culture, we have many shared stories. These stories may or may not be entirely true—often they are stories passed from one person to another without much fact checking. This is rarely more apparent than the stories our culture has around alcohol use.

If you’re here, you may have noticed that it is counter-culture to abstain from alcohol use. In this odd world we’ve created, it goes against the norm to refrain from consuming one of the only legal drugs available in many countries. And as such, we’ve created many real or perceived stories about alcohol, alcohol use, and people who do or do not drink alcohol.

Have you ever heard yourself saying “everyone parties in college,” or “I deserve a beer after that stressful day”? These are perceived as normal narratives about alcohol use within our culture today. We’ve made so many associations with alcohol use, and these associations make it more difficult to remove it from our lives if we so choose. Identifying the existing narratives we have around alcohol, and then reframing those stories, is an important step in successfully building a life we don’t need to escape from.

A helpful tool for reframing these cultural narratives is the Cognitive Triangle, a piece of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. CBT is a popular therapy modality for many mental health and substance use disorders, because it helps to retrain the brain to think in a different way. With the Cognitive Triangle, we take a look at our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, and the way these three things influence each other.

In the Cognitive Triangle, our thoughts impact our emotions, which then impact our actions. Or our actions impact our emotions, which then impact our thoughts. Or our emotions impact… well, you get the point. Around and around and around, until we’re so wound up we don’t know up from down. Unless we intentionally interrupt the triangle and correct one of these pieces.

So let’s go back to the “I deserve a beer after that stressful day” narrative. We’ve learned this from our culture, because it’s something you see everywhere from Mad Men to what your mother did when she got home from work. This thought then influences our behavior: we then have a drink. This drink (or several), the behavior, then impacts our emotions: perhaps the next day we’re hungover and frustrated with ourselves. This emotion then influences our thoughts: we perceive the day as that much more stressful because we’re trudging through with a headache and a funky stomach.

But what if we interrupted this loop? What if we stopped at this narrative we’ve been introduced to: that we deserve alcohol to unwind from a stressful day. Instead of doing that, we reach for a guided meditation or a hot mug of lemon water to unwind from the day instead. What does this do to the loop we’re on? What emotions do this new behavior invoke in place of frustration?

The point of the Cognitive Triangle is to rethink the narratives and stories we’ve built into our rituals, celebrations, coping mechanisms, and more. It helps us really evaluate the validity of what society has told us about many things, including alcohol use. When we can identify these stories and interrupt our old Cognitive Triangles, we are one step further in our alcohol-free journey.

Take some time today to identify any stories you have about alcohol use. Walk through the Cognitive Triangle and see where you can disrupt your old patterns. What do you find?

Hudson Therapy. (n.d.) The Cognitive Triangle: What it is and How it Works.