By Dr Stan Steindl & Prof Jason Connor
Australia Day is fast approaching as a day to celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian.
For many, it’s also the day that marks the end of the festive season. Children return to school after their long summer holiday, and work returns in earnest for the rest of us. The strong sense of national pride, public holiday and ominous reality of the return to work culminate in a national party, with friends and family coming together for fun and frivolity.
The problem of alcohol in the mix
Australia Day celebrations often involve heavy drinking. Contrary to media publicity, Australia’s per capita alcohol consumption is similar to that in other high income countries. However, according to the The World Health Organisation, Australia’s alcohol consumption has slightly increased, while it has dropped in the US, UK and Europe.
Our culture promotes heavy sessional (“binge”) drinking which greatly increases the risk for alcohol-related harm. Recent research in Victoria found that on Australia Day, compared to an average day: ambulances receive more than double the calls to attend to intoxicated young people; three times the number of young people needed treatment for injuries from assaults; and there was a sharp increase in alcohol-related presentations to hospital emergency departments and hospital admissions.
Each year, articles (such as these in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane) appear in the media reporting on the problem of excessive drinking on Australia Day. These articles warn of the harms associated with excessive drinking are typically published just prior to Australia Day. Despite these warnings, statistics seem to be getting worse, not better according to WA Department of Health data from 2008 to 2012 (summarised here)..
One trap, long understood in alcohol treatment and prevention, that these articles offer unsolicited advice and issue dire warnings. Bottom line, people don’t like being told what to do and typically resist authority figures who try to do so.
The problem of poor prior planning
Drinking often occurs in response to situational and emotional triggers. Professor Allan Marlatt described the way people and their environments interact to cause heavy drinking. He identified elements of “high risk situations” that trigger drinking, including certain days, places, people, heightened emotional states or during certain activities. Australia Day is a great example of a number of these elements increasing risk.
Heavy drinking often occurs unconsciously in these situations. Urges take over, and in the absence of a plan, before long you are asking yourself:
“I just don’t know how I got so drunk!”
The next day the consequences hit home and the regrets kick in. We can be left reeling from our drinking on autopilot the day before.
Stepping out of autopilot can be enormously empowering and self-determining. Instead of being reactive to these events, you might pause to consider what really is the way you want to approach a day like Australia day.
Take the opportunity to reflect on personal motivations
The good news is that there is a whole field of study that focusses on how to enhance people’s motivations to better manage their drinking. The approach, first defined in Professors Bill Miller and Steve Rollnick’s 1991 book (and then two subsequent editions), is called motivational interviewing (MI). In reviewing the most effective treatments for Alcohol Use Disorders, one of the world’s leading medical journals, the Lancet, recently identified MI as having among the highest level of evidence. MI invites us to stop and consider our own personal motivations, more clearly understand our goals and values, and guide ourselves towards how we want to live our lives.
Practically, there are five key motivational considerations when planning for Australia Day. So, rather than others trying to tell you what to do about your drinking this coming long weekend, you might consider, just privately to yourself, the following:
(1) What would you LIKE to change about your drinking this Australia Day?
This is an important first step. And if the answer is that you would like to change nothing, then that is fine. On the other hand, you might find that managing your drinking feels like a good idea. Think carefully through your different options. What would feel right for you? Perhaps consider how you would like to remember this Australia Day.
(2) What are your personal REASONS for making these changes?
Managing the amount you drink needn’t be about why someone else thinks it’s a good idea, although heavy drinking often negatively impact on others. Think instead about what you see as the benefits for you and those around you. Consider the positive impact this can have on your health, safety, relationships or finances. There may also be other reasons for managing your drinking that are very personal and unique to you.
(3) What is it that makes managing your drinking this Australia Day IMPORTANT to you?
Next, start to drill down to the importance of managing your drinking. How does more moderate alcohol consumption fit better with your personal values? Think about the person you want to be, the relationships you want to have, and the contributions you want to make. Consider how managing your drinking this weekend could take you in a direction that is important to you.
(4) If you were to make these changes, HOW would you go about it?
People often want to manage their drinking, but sometimes lack the confidence to take action. Carefully define how you might achieve these changes. Consider developing an action plan, such as setting personal limits, keeping track of how much you drink, limit how much alcohol you have available, or garnering support from others.
And now, if you like, it’s time to commit!
You’ve thought about what you’d like to do about drinking on Australia Day, the reasons you’d like to do it, what makes managing your drinking important to you and how you would go about it. These are four important considerations in preparing for change. The fifth key consideration? It’s time to commit!
Commitment is a vital part of behaviour change. It’s beyond what you could, should or would do, and is about what you will do. Decide on your Australia Day drinking plan and then commit to it. Tell a family member or friend about your commitment.
Have a think about commitment: what will you do to manage your drinking this Australia Day?
For more information on Dr Stan Steindl and the team of Clinical Psychologists at Psychology Consultants, visit http://www.psychologyconsultants.com.au