This article isn’t about quitting alcohol forever, it’s about a science-backed method for drinking in moderation.
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), one in four U.S. adults binge drinks regularly. ‘Binge drinking’ is defined as having four or more drinks on one occasion. When looking at the U.S. college student population, this number goes up to over 40%. And a study conducted at Columbia University shows that an estimated 1 in 5 college students suffers from an alcohol use disorder.
If you have an interest in cutting down, what’s the next step?
You’ve probably heard of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Right off the bat, there are more than a few parts of the program that discourage newcomers. AA uses a one-size-fits-all approach to alcoholism; it prescribes lifelong abstinence to anyone attending meetings. Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, the book that accompanies the program, reads “unless each AA follows the suggested steps to recovery, he signs his own death warrant.”
But this neglects research on the Alcohol Deprivation Effect (ADE). While abstinence may seem like the best way to be in full control of an alcohol addiction, the cravings for alcohol actually increase over time. And in a study on ADE, subjects who tried alcohol after weeks of abstinence drank in higher quantities than ever before.
Alcoholics Anonymous has no medical evaluation for newcomers, so everyone at every meeting is treated as a lifelong alcoholic and is expected to seek total sobriety. With the proven increased risk of binging on alcohol, it’s not surprising that AA has a success rate between 5 and 10 percent.
AA was founded in the 1930s before we had any concept of the way addiction works in the brain. As a community, it provides an open forum for members to share feelings about their drinking problem.
This type of talk therapy can help a lot of people, but it assumes you’re willing to spill your guts to a room full of strangers, and it doesn’t address the real underlying mechanism of addiction in the brain.
As the neuroscience field developed, we made strides in understanding how addiction works.
Disulfiram (better known as Antabuse) causes nausea, headache, and other unpleasant symptoms when combined with a drink. An opioid antagonist, commonly known as Naltrexone, prevents the mood-altering effects of alcohol.
But if you’d like to be able to drink in moderation, there’s no motivation to keep taking Antabuse, as it will make you sick after any amount of alcohol. And while Naltrexone’s effects are painless, its used by medical professionals to promote abstinence from alcohol, not improved control alone.
And as described by The Atlantic in an article published this month, fewer than 1% of problem-drinkers in the U.S. will receive prescriptions for Antabuse or Naltrexone, as Alcoholics Anonymous is still considered the best route.
In previous studies, Naltrexone has been shown to be most effective at reducing drinking when combined with alcohol, as it takes away the rewarding effect of drinking. Your brain has learned to expect a reward from drinking through classical conditioning, and Naltrexone helps you forget this association.
Antabuse helps a significant number of alcoholics quit entirely by adding terrible physical consequences to drinking. This is a form of aversion therapy, where an unpleasant association is added to a routine to further break the habit.
But what if you want to be somewhere in the middle? You’d like to have a drink or two while enjoying the effects that Naltrexone blocks, without the sickening effects that Antabuse adds.
Pavlok can meet you halfway.
Adding a short and safe electric shock to your drinking habit can mimic the efficacy of these drugs. You’ll still feel the alcohol, and you won’t make yourself sick, but the shock will work to break the association your brain has between alcohol and reward.
Shock aversion therapy has been shown to help 60% of alcoholics quit drinking. The study, conducted by the London Institute of Psychiatry, described aversion as the ‘starting point’ of getting over the habit.
And this study didn’t even combine electric shock with the actual act of drinking; the subjects were presented with alcohol-related pictures, and were shocked when they fantasized about drinking alcohol.
Classical conditioning combined with drinking is successful in 80% of alcoholics.
So if your drinking habit has gotten out of hand, and you’re interested in getting some control back, Pavlok might be able to help you out. It’s a one-button wristband that lets you safely self-administer shocks at an intensity level of your choosing.
It’s helped people get rid of habits like smoking and eating junk food through shock aversion therapy, which has been proven to help beat alcoholism, too.
Pavlok lets you replicate these studies on your own. If you feel the urge to drink, it’s OK — just make sure your wristband is on. Pick a level of shock that works for you, and shock yourself each time you take a sip.
And so on. The shock aversion studies only took a few days to break the association between drinking and reward that kept alcoholics in the routine, so keep track of your cravings and number of drinks.
If you notice your drinking has been reduced (as seen in the studies), you can try having a drink with friends without shocking yourself. If you’re able to enjoy drinking sans-shock in moderation, great! But if you see yourself slipping into old habits, go back to conducting regular aversion sessions as needed.
Of course, if your habit is truly out of control, you might want to speak with a doctor before trying to address the problem on your own.
But if you were able to enjoy drinking in moderation in the past, and you’re finding it hard to cut back on your own, shock aversion therapy can give you some perspective.
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Habits, Technology & Behavioral Change