Here is the full transcript of functional nutritionist and health coach Jolene Park’s TEDx Talk: Gray Area Drinking at TEDxCrestmoorParkWomen conference.
So I still remember the exact spot on the highway where I was driving. I think I remember it so vividly because I was having one of the most important conversations that I’ve ever had with myself.
In that moment in my car, I knew in my bones, I wouldn’t drink alcohol again. So you might be thinking what was the rock bottom that brought me to that point? And the answer is … there wasn’t one!
You see, I was a gray area drinker and I drank between two extremes. I wasn’t an end stage, lose everything kind of drinker, not by a long shot. If you would have asked my friends and family if they thought I had a drinking problem they would have said, “Of course not.”
But I also wasn’t an every now and again drinker who would have a glass of champagne for example at the wedding and then not drink again for weeks. I didn’t fall into either one of those drinking categories or drinking extremes. And maybe you can identify?
As a nutritionist who has worked in corporate wellness since 2004, I functioned really well. I knew how to eat well, I worked out on a regular basis and I loved to read and study everything health and wellness. But what people didn’t know was how much I loved the “off” switch that wine provided to my “on” and often anxious brain. I loved the immediate effect that red wine delivered.
And people also didn’t see how easy and frequent it was for one glass of wine to turn into one bottle of wine. There is a commune characteristic and pattern in gray area drinking that I experience and I’ve watched many others experience as well and that’s a stopping and restarting drinking.
One time I stopped for 7 months, another time I stopped for 30 days, and other short periods in between, and then I would think to myself: “Why am I being so restrictive? I can be a social drinker.”
So I’d return to drinking only to return to a level of drinking where I regret it. This back and forth drinking marry-go-around was the exact thing that I knew I wanted to exit off for good that day in my car on the highway. And maybe you actually don’t identify with gray area drinking because not everyone will.
But here is what I know with absolute certainty: there are people in your life right now, it could be family members, close friends, colleagues, and they are worrying and wondering as they’re rethinking their drinking because they are in the gray area, but more than likely they are not talking to you about it and they are not talking to others about it because they think they are the only ones and they think they are alone.
So how do I know this? I’ve lived this for many years. The more I’ve been speaking out professionally about my gray area drinking experience the more my email inbox gets flooded with emails from attorneys and therapists, senior level managers and nurses, stay in home moms, yoga instructors, and many many others. And the words are different, but the jest of what they write me is all the same and they say, “I identify with your drinking story. I don’t have a rock bottom either, I want to be able to drink socially, but I end up regretting how much I drink on a frequent basis.” This gray area drinking spectrum is real and it’s large.
And a lot of high achieving, high functioning people who silently live here every day. But beyond gray area drinking is even something bigger and that’s a collective story of anxiety. And this I believe is where we are collectively missing the mark.
We don’t need anymore cognitive hoops to jump through and we don’t need anymore ways to focus our will-power and contort our will-power in an attempt to “fix” ourselves, what we need is practical training in how to nourish our nervous system in a revolutionary and new way. So there is many components and pieces to this, but one component and one interesting place to start can be understanding your neurotransmitters.
So let’s start with GABA. So GABA is the natural anti-anxiety neurotransmitter. When GABA is low we can feel anxious and our mind can get stuck in a loop of worry, rumination or obsession about anything. Serotonin is the natural anti-depressant neurotransmitter. When serotonin is low we can feel more depressed, unhappy, and crave things like carbs and alcohol and have trouble sleeping.
Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that’s in charge of our focus and motivation. When dopamine’s low it can be hard to stay at a course and stay on track with your goals and your routines. So people with low GABA people will often say that they drink as a way to relax. That was me. People with low serotonin will say they drink as a way to have fun, and people with low dopamine will say they drink as a way to connect and engage with others.
But here’s the problem and here is what I want to you know and take from this talk — It can be relatively easy for most people on the gray area drinking spectrum to stop drinking, but it can be hard to stay stopped, especially if we are not replenishing our neurotransmitters and nourishing our nervous system in a comprehensive and consistent way.
So here’s the good news, it turns out that there is actually specific foods, movements and lifestyle practices that while they are great wellness tips for everyone, they have very direct and immediate roles in boosting all of our neurotransmitters.
So as a way to give you some practical ways that you can begin to boost your neurotransmitters now I’d like to start by doing that by using the acronym “NOURISH”.
So N – notice nature. Research shows that when our pleasure, which is dopamine, and our happiness, which is serotonin, both begin to rise when we go into areas with a large density of trees or a large body of water like an ocean. All it takes is 20 minutes of being around nature with a lot of trees, a lot of water for your GABA, serotonin, and dopamine to begin to rise.
O – observe your breath. There are many medications that can stunt, blunt, and block the fight-flight-freeze response in your body, there are no medications that can boost the calm response. But there is one mechanism in your body that can do that naturally. And that mechanism is your breath.
When our breath is regulated our neurotransmitters become regulated. Take a breath! How does that feel? You all just gave a little boost to your GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
U – uniting with others. The research is solid: close social bonds, community, and social connections have a direct impact on our nervous system. In our technology-driven world we have become very deficient of human touch. Hug the people who support you, hug your pets, get body work, massage or Reiki, it doesn’t matter, whatever resonates with you. Physical touch has an immediate impact on boosting GABA, serotonin and dopamine.
R – replenish with food. When you eat protein, whether it’s animal protein or vegetable protein, it doesn’t matter, it breaks down into amino acids and amino acids are what replenish GABA, serotonin, and dopamine. When you eat healthy fats, particularly in the form of Omega 3 fats like fish oil, flax seeds, or walnuts, those Omega 3 fats are the raw materials that make your neurotransmitters.
When you eat carbohydrates, specifically in the ideal form of vegetables, and even more specific, leafy green vegetables, they break down into B vitamins and B vitamins are the pre-cursors that make serotonin. When you replenish with food you replenish your neurotransmitters.
I – initiate movement. Any exercise will boost the neurotransmitters. The Boston University did a study with yoga participants and they had them do a 60-minute yoga class. And then when they measured their GABA after that class they found everyone’s GABA went up at least 27%. Some participants had a rising GABA up to 80%. Compared to a control group that read a book for 60 minutes, there was no change in their GABA. One 60-minute yoga class can initiate a boost in all your neurotransmitters. But after we active, we need to be still.
S – sitting in stillness allows the nervous system the opportunity to respond and adopt in a complex world that we live and work in in a very nourishing way. And particularly sitting in stillness and silence, invoking a sacred prayer, meditation, or scripture can really feed and replenish your GABA, serotonin, and dopamine.
H – harness your creativity. Dopamine loves the creative flow. And the way you get into a creative flow is to pick a single focused activity that ends in “ing”. Some examples are gardening, fishing, painting. But be careful because there are some other activities that end in “ing” that make us feel like we get a dopamine hit: drinking, smoking, overeating. Fishing, painting, the positive hobbies boost your dopamine. The other: drinking, smoking, overeating depletes dopamine. Harness your creativity, but be very conscientious how you’re doing that.
As of today, it has been 1054 days since I’ve had a drink of alcohol. But I didn’t have a rock bottom moment that brought me to this point and you don’t need to have one either. From the outside looking in my drinking didn’t look problematic, but from the inside looking out at the road I was traveling down I knew the way I was drinking was a problem for me. And I’m not the only one making this decision. There are thousands of people in this country, in the UK, Australia, and Canada who are rethinking their drinking and stopping drinking because they choose to, not because they have to.
A whole paradigm is shifting and we up on a whole new wellness movement starting to go alcohol free. But I’ll be honest there were two things I worried about when I stopped drinking. And the first was: what would happen with my relationships? This one surprised me.
The important relationships in my life, family stuck by me, but they deepened. And I look back at all the new wonderful people who who had entered my life in the last 3 years, some of them drink, some of them don’t, but our relationship is not built on my personal decision to not drink. We’ve been able to connect and relate and we’re aligned in a way that is new for me. And it’s been really really nourishing to add these relationships to my life.
The second thing I worried about was what if something awful happened and it would be so painful that I’ll want to numb it with a glass or a bottle of wine? That worry came true.
Eighteen months into not drinking, I hit my worse personal financial crisis in my life. If there was ever a time when I wanted to numb the experience and anesthetize the intense anxiety and fear that I felt that was the time. But I didn’t do it. And I believe the reason I got through that time without drinking wasn’t because I had an intellectual understanding of the nervous system, which I do, but intellectualizing something is what gets me through something. And it wasn’t because I had a strong willpower, which I don’t, my willpower fatigue is as much as the next person.
But what I had was a very targeted and specific nourishment that I had given my nervous system leading up to that point in a very new and different way. And that had given me a zone of resilience and internal zone of resilience that I’ve never had before.
So whatever road you’re on, wherever you are on that road with your own internal conversation, whether you’re a healthcare professional like myself, a business professional in any industry, a stay at home parent or anyone else, if you know in your bones that you’re in the gray area with drinking or anything else as an attempt to regulate the anxiety in your body or the discomfort in your life, don’t forget: your GABA, your serotonin, and your dopamine are waiting for you to activate them with certain foods, movements and lifestyle practices, and when you do that you’re giving your nervous system the nourishment it’s been craving all along.