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The Moderation Cycle

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

The Moderation Cycle, what is that?

Well, the Moderation Cycle is closely related to the four stroke Otto Cycle.

The Otto cycle describes the internal combustion engine processes of induction, compression, ignition, and exhaust. Otherwise known as suck, squeeze, bang, blow.

(Yes its a little bit tongue in cheek but there is a message here)

Like the Otto Cycle, the Moderation Cycle too, has four stages:

  • It Sucks - Feeling or knowing your current drinking is a problem

  • It Squeezes - Making and enforcing the rules

  • It goes Bang - Breaking the rules

  • and it Blows up - Beating yourself up because you broke the rules

It uses willpower as fuel to sustain itself in a cycle of suck, squeeze, bang, blow because usually that's all we have been taught by popular culture, programs, books, apps and so on.

Traditionally if we want to control a habit like alcohol, we are told or believe we just need to change the behaviour. i.e. Use willpower.

We want to change the behaviour because we feel our current habit is causing problems for us and/or those around us. It is causing us some form of pain. Maybe with how we feel afterwards physically and mentally, increased anxiety, excessive spending on alcohol, negative reactions from our loved ones, being hungover several times a week, poor work performance or some other problem that we perceive as painful. It sucks, it makes us feel shameful, it causes us pain.

Our basic instinct is to reduce or eliminate pain.

As drinkers though the idea of giving up the drinking also causes us pain. We think our lives will be different, we will be shunned, we won't belong or life just won't be fun without alcohol, plain and simple. It will be miserable. This too causes us pain.

So we compromise, all we need do is keep alcohol in our lives but control our intake to avoid the pain that our current levels of drinking are causing us.

In fact we feel that if we can keep drinking we can use it relieve some of the pain caused by the shame of over drinking, it feels like a win/win.

We use our willpower to make and enforce changes to reduce the habit by making rules, rules that sound like:

  • I won't drink through the week,

  • I will limit my drink to two in any one session,

  • I will only drink on Friday and Saturday,

  • I will only drink beer when I do drink,

  • I will only drink one drink per hour,

  • I will alternate my drink with water per hour,

  • I will not buy a six pack on the way home from the restaurant

  • I will stay away from the pub on pay nights and so on.

There are a couple of problems with using willpower to enforce habit change.

Willpower is a finite resource, eventually it wears out. It's like a muscle. Imagine holding a dumbbell outstretched for several minutes. Your arm will start to fatigue, mentally you will start questioning why are you doing this and then goading yourself to keep going. Your arm starts to shake, then slowly drop as you tire. Mentally you give in, you're done holding the dumbbell.

With willpower controlling your alcohol intake you are constantly holding yourself in a state of being that is contrary to your internal beliefs. Mentally you can get worn down by the thoughts circulating in your mind that tells you holding back your habit is causing you pain.

Your resolve dissolves.

Now adding to this is the effect of the substance itself. If we were just trying to give up a habit like picking our nose in public, willpower would probably be enough. The pain of public ostracisation is enough to overcome the pain of not being able to pick your nose, plus your Mum will smack your fingers if she catches you.

Eventually you learn not to pick your nose in public.

Alcohol has some physical effects like reducing your ability to make good decisions after one or two drinks. If you are using willpower to enforce rules and your decision making ability is starting to be diminished, you may not be capable of keeping to the rules. Maybe you have an inner rebel that doesn't like self imposed rules, adding alcohol to the mix might see the rules dismantled quickly when the rebel emerges. (There are more physical effects with alcohol which I discuss in my video about moderation here.)

Bang - The effects of alcohol combined with willpower fatigue lead you to break the rules.

  • You get invited to drink mid-week after work, you decide to swap the night with the regular Saturday's session and you miss the next day at work due to hangover,

  • You lose track of your drinks after two, and because you were having such a good time at the bar you overdrink,

  • You have a beer with your meal but then decide a bottle of wine would go better with steak and you wake up in your car on the side of the road,

  • You forgot to alternate your drinks with water and you lost count, now you have to find your way home, there are no taxis but your car keys jangle reassuringly in your pocket.

  • You remember stopping off at the bottle shop on the way home, its now 2am and there is an empty bottle of port wine by your side. The rest is a blank.

If you break the rules and drink more than you want to, what next?

Well in the Moderation Cycle we have the Blow stage.

Blow - The mental blow up when you realise that your rules are for shite and the recriminations start.

  • Why did I drink so much?

  • Whats wrong with me?

  • Why am I so weak?

  • I could have just said no.

  • Why cant I stop at one or two?

  • Why do I have to keep drinking?

  • Am I an alcoholic?

  • Am I one of those people who can never drink again?

Along with the self blame, the shame of being out of control when the intention was to stay in control kicks in. It all causes us personal pain.

And when we're in pain what do we want to do?

Relieve it.

Now for someone who drinks, what do you think is the antidote for shame pain?

Yep, alcohol.

So we think about drinking again, we decide that we will once again work to control it, because the thought of not drinking is as painful as the thought of over drinking.

Is sucks, but we apply the squeeze on the drinking, bang we overdrink and we blow up over the way it makes us feel. Rinse, recycle, repeat. Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow..

How do we break out of the Moderation Cycle? It's in the way we think and feel about alcohol.

We get locked into these cycles because we have two conflicting things going on in our brains about alcohol.

  • One, we want to stay close to alcohol because we believe that without it our lives will be over, we will be miserable.

  • Two, we don't want to over drink because of the way it negatively impacts our lives, and the way those impacts make us think and feel negatively about ourselves.

As I said before we try the compromise, which is hard work to maintain. You might last a few days, a week or a month but the Moderation Cycle tends to repeat ad infinitum until you've had enough. Afterall, it's the engine that powers the Moderation Hamster wheel!

So we work on item number one, if we could change the belief that we need alcohol in our lives, if we could remove the desire for alcohol, then we could get to a place where we could take it or leave it. Taking it or leaving it includes moderation, with a caveat*.

How is that done? Well we have to look at our core beliefs around alcohol, we really have to dig into them and look at them. We need to get curious and ask ourselves critical questions about the truth of alcohol to get to our conscious and subconscious beliefs that we have accumulated over our lifetimes, long or short, in order to change them from needing alcohol to not actually desiring it.

Questions that test beliefs, is it really true that:

  • that alcohol relaxes me

  • I need alcohol to be someone people like

  • I need alcohol to be a better parent

  • Life isn't fun without alcohol

  • I'll be forever miserable if I don't drink

  • I can never set foot in the pub if I stop drinking

From there we can decide if we want to take it or leave it.

This is entirely possible, all it takes is hope and the readiness to change.. you have to have hope that you can change. You have to want to change to make you open to new concepts, thoughts and ideas.

You absolutely don't need to be at a rock bottom! That is a fallacy, you only need to want to change which can be at any stage of your drinking. It might be a lifestyle change, you just want to feel healthier. It might be a snap point where you have just had enough of the Moderation Cycle and you want to get off the hamster wheel.

As a bonus you don't have to stop drinking while you are working on changing your beliefs. (Note if you have stopped drinking, don't restart if you're going to be following the steps below)

It's a process that takes more than a few blog pages, in fact it takes a book of pages.

If you want to get started on a book that can get you there, I would recommend "This Naked Mind" by Annie Grace. You've probably heard of it.

I use it in my coaching program "Turn the Tide". (In a nutshell you work through the book a number of chapters per week. Then we catch up with a weekly coaching session to consolidate your learning and I answer any questions and work with you to move forward towards the goals we have set in the beginning of the program.)

"This Naked Mind" has the information and techniques you need to discover your conscious and unconscious beliefs about alcohol and what you need to do to go about changing them. It's also the book that recommends you stop trying to stop drinking (the moderation cycle) that means you can continue to drink although not while you are reading through the book! Your brain will absorb the new information better if it is not affected by alcohol. How good is that? (also don't restart drinking if you've already stopped.. its counterproductive!)

Another good book is Michael Porter's "Alcohol Explained" although I'd recommend reading that one after "This Naked Mind". It helps frame alcohol from another perspective.

*Changing your beliefs about alcohol to the point where you can take it or leave it, might mean you can't be bothered moderating at all.

Thinking of moderating?

Get your FREE video masterclass here, "5 Essential things to know about moderation"

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