It's hard to know what to expect from a mindful drinking seminar, but I like the sound of any course for which you're told to bring a pillow and blanket. I'm at the warm, light-filled Biba event space/yoga studio in Birkenhead, Auckland, listening to world expert Georgia Foster explain why many of us drink more than we know is good for us, and what we can do to change that.
In my world of middle-class working mums approaching a certain age, I have many friends who should be on this course with me. Juggling a big job with trying to be an amazing mother, wife, daughter and friend can be overwhelming, and that glass of pinot or chardonnay when you get home from work can really take the edge off. The problem is, one glass turns very easily into two, and if you have another with your evening meal, it can add up to three or four a day.
Unfortunately, this is a bit more than the Health Promotion Agency, an organisation that contributes to the government's key health initiatives and targets, recommends. It says that to reduce long-term health risks, women shouldn't drink more than two standard drinks (100ml) a day and no more than 10 a week; they advise at least two alcohol-free days a week.
It's hard to get accurate statistics on how much people drink, as it can be a sensitive subject, but what we do know from the New Zealand Health Survey 2016/17 is that an alarming one out of five people in New Zealand drink in a way that's considered 'hazardous' – defined as 'an established alcohol drinking pattern that carries a risk of harming the drinker's physical or mental health or having harmful social effects on the drinker or others'. Not ideal.
But it isn't just about dangerous drinking. The 2012/2013 Alcohol Use survey found a third of Kiwi drinkers drink alcohol at least three to four times a week, so it's safe to say it's a big part of our culture, and if we're honest, many of us know we are drinking more than we should. But why? Is it cultural conditioning? The stress of modern life? The 24/7 nature of technology's grip? At the yoga studio, Georgia has other ideas, and they go a bit deeper than I was expecting.
Georgia uses a blend of hypnosis and psychological education to help people reconsider their behaviour. After an initial introduction to the idea of hypnosis and neuroplasticity, we lie down and do our first group hypnosis.
I can't tell you much about that bit, because between Georgia's soothing voice, the lovely space, the pillow and the warm blanket, it wasn't difficult for me to enter a hypnotic state, and I became so relaxed that time and space seemed to disappear as she calmed our brains enough to give us some subconscious suggestions. She says it's a compliment in her business when people fall asleep – apparently the process works regardless of what your conscious brain decides to do.
Georgia's very clear that she doesn't have a problem with drinking. "It's okay to drink – I just help people to do so in a healthier, happier way. People don't necessarily come to me or do my courses online because they're struggling with alcoholism and want to give up entirely. It's often that their drinking, and the after effects, have started to make them feel a way they don't want to."
"What I realised through working as a hypnotherapist for over two decades, is that problem drinking is almost always to do with something much deeper," says Georgia.
"It's not a drinking problem, it's a thinking problem – the thinking before the drinking – and that's often to do with stress, social anxiety, negativity, loneliness and other emotions. If you're picking up a glass with any of that going on, albeit subconsciously, it's hard to have an enjoyable or healthy drinking experience."
Georgia says drinking too much is an emotional decision, whether we realise it or not, so the next section of the seminar focuses on expanding on the concept that we all have that voice in our heads telling us we handled that work situation terribly, didn't deal with our child's bad behaviour well, or ate too much junk food because we have no willpower.
"The inner critic thinks if it forewarns us about the what-ifs of life, we're prepared for the worst-case scenario," says Georgia.
"However, if the inner critic is too strong, people become anxious and fearful about life and may retreat into alcohol. What a lot of drinkers may not realise is that alcohol suppresses the inner critic; people get hooked into having some reprieve from this negative voice. But when they wake in the morning, the inner critic is there again and the vicious cycle of wanting to drink to run away from the voice kicks in."
So how do we silence this internal judgy commentator? Georgia knows all about it, from both a professional and a personal perspective. She used to drink because she was shy, never felt good enough and was self-conscious about her weight.
She trained in California in a psychological theory that made her understand the connection between her self-esteem issues and her drinking, then after doing further training as a hypnotherapist when she moved to London in 1994, it became apparent there were a lot of everyday people who suffered like her and needed help.
She realised a combination of hypnosis and education on how our brains work could be the key, and went on to write a book (The Drink Less Mind) and develop an online programme (7 Days to Drink Less, at georgiafoster.com). She now runs courses all over the world.
"The goal of the hypnosis is to train the mind and body to tune out the inner-critic voice before it can take hold, so they don't have to use alcohol as a form of escape," she says. "The healthy, confident part that's calm, intuitive and relaxed is the part that we focus on being the strongest voice."
Back in the room, Georgia tells how our inner critic can cause damage and how different personality types (the perfectionist, the pleaser…) react in situations involving alcohol. It's so interesting, and I can see lots of nods and uh-huhs around the room as people connect with those traits in themselves.
She explains why it's so important to target the conscious and unconscious mind when trying to change habits. While our conscious mind deals with logic and facts using analytical, sequential and linear thinking, our unconscious mind works with emotion and our senses.
And because it can't differentiate between imagination and reality, or past, present and future, it has the power to really make us believe things that aren't true about ourselves. After more than 23 years working with people trying to change things in their life, Georgia believes hypnosis is the safest and fastest way to harness the power of the unconscious mind and use it in a positive way to develop new behaviours.
After lunch, we finish the day horizontal again, with two more lovely hypnosis sessions under our warm blankets; I could get used to this! The first session works on changing our inner dialogue, then after a break during which we learn some quick, practical tips, we begin the last session, which focuses on the future and how we can react differently in situations involving alcohol.
Georgia leads us into our drinking future and helps us rehearse feeling safer and calmer before drinking. She goes through post-drinking situations with us in our trance-like state, and guides us through looking back on those drinking moments as healthy experiences in which we've paced our drinking and felt proud of how slowly we drank.
It's similar to sports psychology or anything that involves positive visualisation of future situations. She repeats the rehearsals as if we're a month, three months, six months and a year post-course, to give the inner-critic part of our brains plenty of new reference material to cling to when it's looking for answers.
It's been a fascinating experience, and although I wouldn't consider myself a problem drinker, I definitely feel more centred and grounded when I leave the studio. I can't wait to hear how everyone else gets on over the next few weeks; Georgia offers a 100% per cent money-back guarantee for her online courses on reducing alcohol consumption, but I think there are bound to be positive changes as everyone does their daily self-hypnosis listening sessions to cement their learning.
As I walk through my front door, the kids look set to belt each other and work deadlines are playing on my mind, but I really don't feel like getting out the pinot gris that's sitting in the fridge to take the edge off the madness. Go figure!
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