People standing and clinking wine glasses

A Dive into Our Love of Alcohol

It’s my favourite kind of evening, which is to say, I am walking towards my beloved local Italian restaurant where a dear friend is waiting for me; it is early evening, a Sunday, and the sky has an icy clarity. As I walk through the door, I am greeted in that brash old-school Italian hospitality way, which I find quite reassuring. It’s one of the few places left in Melbourne in which you are not coddled or re-affirmed positively for everything you do. I see glasses of chianti on tables, bottles of Menabrea in hands and the outline of the bar, which is swollen with people. I begin to consider what I might like to drink first this evening: a white wine, maybe a spritz? I suggest to my friend that we get a bottle but quickly find out this won’t be feasible as she isn’t currently drinking. “Oh okay”, I say, a little confused. I cannot deny the unmistakable sensation of disappointment in me and the way the whole evening takes on a different hue. My reaction, I realise, is symptomatic of a deeply ingrained drinking culture, which, up until this moment in time, I have participated in with indifference.

Alcohol has become an Integral Part of Australian Culture

According to a research initiative by The Victorian Health Department, the Australian drinker considers abstinence outside the norm. It has been said time and time again that we don’t have a national food or a cultural cuisine, though if I had to pick one, alcohol would certainly be up there. It’s embedded in almost every facet of Australian life; drinking is treated as a means of connecting with others, a way to relax or soothe oneself, celebrate achievements or milestones, as well as commemorate rituals. It’s ingrained in our national identity as much as AFL, Vegemite, and the humble marsupial. A survey by The Victorian Health Department reported the three settings Australians deemed it ‘inappropriate’ to consume alcohol are: religious ceremonies, educational settings, and children’s birthday parties…that’s it! Plus, the birthday parties I’ve been privy to, the latter isn’t always honoured. Alcohol is so intertwined in our daily routines that it’s too uncomfortable and taboo to put it under the microscope and ask, why is it such an integral part of our lives?

Personally, I come from a family of passionate hospitality folk. There is a long trail of publicans on my father’s side, which my dad also carried on. On top of this, of my three siblings, two are sommeliers and one is the owner of a restaurant-bar. When I declared I was pursuing a degree in literature and then psychology, they genuinely asked: Is it because you want to be a food or wine writer? In this way, alcohol has been a large part of my upbringing, a nonnegotiable at any family dinner, event, holiday, or outing. I’ve also always thought about alcohol in terms of tasting notes, food pairing and the technical properties pertaining to the behaviour of the climate in which it was made or the soil it started out in.

Adaptive Environment for Alcohol

As I initially began to think about my nonchalance around alcohol, I thought it was due to the fact my family has created an adaptive environment for regular alcohol consumption. ‘Adaptive environment’ refers to a setting or situation where a behaviour is warranted, necessary or expected for one’s income and/or livelihood. However, after observing those around me, I realise my orientation to alcohol isn’t a unique experience at all. Many of my friends have had very similar exposure to alcohol from a young age, and it is the entire Australian culture that is an adaptive environment for alcohol, not just my hospitality family. It is all too easy to overlook the fact that alcohol is a potent drug, a depressant in fact, where it makes one feel more confident, slows down reflexes and interferes with one’s coordination and inhibition.

So, who drinks? And why?

Well as I pointed out, most of us do, though some demographic characteristics and personality types are more likely to drink heavily or, conversely, abstain. Unsurprisingly, high levels of consumption are associated with (genetically born) males more so than (genetically born) females, where younger males are more likely to participate at a bar and older males in their homes. Females though, are more likely to require medical support for excessive drinking than males, which has a lot to do with our different builds, energy requirements and metabolisms. Additionally, those who are hedonistically orientated are much more likely to engage in high or excessive alcohol consumption, where hedonism denotes strong themes of self-interest, pleasure-seeking and indulgence. On the other hand, individuals who hold personal values of conformity, conscientiousness and benevolence are associated with low or no levels of alcohol consumption.

Irrespective of personality, drinking is often a quiet method of coping with personal difficulties like mood challenges, social discomfort, or symptoms of anxiety like rumination, which we are all subject to from time to time. Alcohol is often a go-to for people experiencing mental health difficulties, primarily for alcohol’s ability to alleviate or even eliminate unpleasant symptoms such as stress (if you feel that high stress is part of your relationship with alcohol, you can read more about how to reduce your stress generally here). It does this by smoothly changing the chemical makeup of the brain, which alters your mood, energy levels, concentration, memory, and inhibition. Unfortunately, this is only a quick and temporary fix that makes the symptoms worse in the long run or when you are not consuming a drink.

You don’t need to have mental health problems or be the recipient of an intervention to check your relationship with alcohol. If you answer ‘I’m not sure’ to the question: ‘When was the last time you explored the role drinking plays in your life?’ Then the Victorian Health Department suggests it’s time to sit and reflect on this question. It seems this exercise was forced on me when I sat down at dinner that evening at my humble local Italian restaurant. While I don’t characterise my relationship as unhealthy, I do believe I might have a problematic attitude to abstinence if I am A) Surprised and B) Disappointed by my dear friend’s choice.

Identifying Red Flags

Recognising you have an unhealthy relationship with alcohol is genuinely challenging, as it runs in the veins of our society and daily activities. It’s also hard to identify a problem when the definition of ‘normal’ and ‘acceptable’ consumption varies from a few drinks every second day all the way through to regularly becoming drunk. In this way, a healthy relationship is going to look different for each person. Here are a few red flags to bring to your own reflection on drinking or when looking around at those you care about:

  • Hiding or lying about your alcohol consumption
  • Thinking about it (in anticipation) when not consuming
  • Experiencing guilt over your drinking
  • Using alcohol to cope with feelings, situations or events you find uncomfortable or stressful
  • Behaving poorly or putting yourself at risk when drinking
  • You cannot control your drinking
  • You cannot remember your last day off
  • Recovering from drinking (aka, the hangover) takes up a lot of your time and interferes with daily functions, hobbies, or relationships.

Myth busting

Addressing your relationship with alcohol does not necessarily mean abstaining! It could just mean drinking mindfully, moderating your intake at your next social catch up, and listening to your body when it doesn’t feel like it. In checking your relationship, you are liberating yourself from something that might be quietly controlling you and dictating a lot of your time, mental energy and decision-making. Go easy on yourself in this process and approach it like you would when trying to break any habit; by setting small goals that give you something tangible to aim for. I liken the avoidance of the topic to that niggling sense you need to wee in the middle of the night, but you can’t bring yourself to get out of the cosy, comfort of your bed. You are awake and you’ve had the thought once and you know you are going to have it again if you don’t do something about it. Our lives are long, alcohol can be fun and delicious, just be sure to know where you’re at with it so it can remain that way.


If you want to find out about how alcohol affects your health or read more tips to reduce drinking, check out FARE, or you can follow this link for more information on the Australian Alcohol Guidelines. You can also join a community of people committed to reducing their alcohol use in campaigns such as the upcoming FebFast, or, when the time comes around again, Dry July.