Feeling bored is a natural part of life, but how you choose to cope with it can have a major impact on your well-being. There are healthy ways to deal with boredom and then there are the other options – the things we do to escape it entirely.
And that, my friend, is the top of a very slippery slope.
It starts off innocently enough. You’re home alone on a weekend. Nothing exciting is happening. You decide to crack open a bottle of wine and scroll on your phone, maybe message some people you haven’t spoken to in a while, just passing the time.
But the thing about drinking out of boredom is that you’re doing much more than wasting a little time or setting yourself up for a groggy morning.
When done often enough, it triggers a series of chemical and structural changes in your brain that makes you more susceptible to heavier drinking and less capable of coping with boredom in healthy ways.
Why Drinking Out of Boredom Is So Risky
Because it’s common in many cultures to grab a drink when you’re feeling bored or just looking to pass the time, you might see an article like this and think, “Okay, let’s not be dramatic. I’m just having a beer and watching a little TV.”
But the thing is, drinking out of boredom is a type of drinking that can quickly spiral out of control if you aren’t careful.
So let’s talk about why.
First, a Quick Explainer on Dopamine
To understand why drinking out of boredom can be so risky, it’s worth taking time to understand the role of dopamine in how we behave and make decisions.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in your brain, essentially acting like a “feel-good” signal.
It’s released when we do things that are rewarding or pleasurable, which, in turn, encourages us to repeat those behaviors.
Normally, this helps us learn and survive by rewarding life-sustaining actions like eating or having sex.
Dopamine also plays a role in controlling memory, mood, sleep, learning, concentration, and even our ability to have coordinated body movements.
All good things!
But when dopamine levels artificially spike (like what happens when we drink alcohol), that’s when trouble starts.
What Alcohol Does to Your Brain
When you drink, alcohol increases the release of dopamine in your brain’s reward centers, creating a sense of pleasure or a ‘high.’
And the thing about alcohol is that it is way more efficient and reliable at creating this effect than natural rewards like having fun with friends or eating a delicious meal.
Our brains like efficiency, so it takes note of the experience.
“Hey, when I drink this, I instantly feel light and buzzy. This is great. I want to do more of it.”
It’s why some people really struggle to stop drinking after they’ve had a couple. The brain wants to keep going. Judgment declines when you drink. And that’s how we wake up the next day thinking, “Ugh, why did I drink that much?”
When you’re drinking out of boredom, that easy ‘high’ can feel like an effective solution to the dullness or lack of stimulation that’s bothering you.
The problem is when you start creating habit loops that have you reaching for alcohol as a way to cope with boredom (or any uncomfortable emotion for that matter).
The brain starts to learn, “When I have X emotion, I can drink alcohol and make it instantly go away.”
Eventually, this leads to an unhealthy pattern of emotional drinking that is much harder to quit.
Drinking Out of Boredom Becomes a Self-Reinforcing Cycle
If you drink to alleviate boredom, your brain starts associating alcohol with relief from that negative feeling.
This creates a mental shortcut: feel bored → drink → feel better.
Over time, this can become a deeply ingrained habit. Because the dopamine release makes you feel good, your brain starts to crave alcohol whenever you’re bored, reinforcing the behavior and making it harder to resist.
The Progression to Harmful Drinking
This cycle can (and often does) escalate.
The more you drink, the more your tolerance increases, meaning you need more alcohol to achieve the same dopamine ‘high.’
This can lead to drinking more and more, potentially developing into harmful patterns or alcohol use disorder.
The longer you rely on alcohol to deal with boredom, the less capable you are of getting fulfillment out of healthier coping mechanisms like hobbies or exercise.
Eventually, those activities pale in comparison to the boost that drinking gives you.
Drinking Out of Boredom Actually Makes Boredom More Unbearable
The most insidious part of drinking to self-medicate a problem or emotion like boredom is that it alters your brain chemistry in such a way that makes you feel more bored, irritable, and moody when you’re not drinking.
I’ve already mentioned how alcohol alters your brain chemistry and hinted at the way it disrupts our brain’s natural reward circuitry.
Let’s dive a little deeper to see how something as seemingly harmless as having a few beers alone to take the edge off of a boring afternoon can snowball into something worse.
1. Consistently consuming alcohol in any amount alters your brain chemistry.
Regular drinking alters the brain’s normal balance of neurotransmitters, chemicals that transmit signals in the brain.
The first neurotransmitter we’ve discussed is dopamine.
Chronic alcohol use can dull the brain’s dopamine response. This is your brain’s way of trying to restore balance.
When you drink, it floods your brain with an artificially high amount of dopamine.
But the brain doesn’t like imbalance in any direction, so it tries to correct for the excessive dopamine production by producing less of its own and closing down dopamine receptor sites to deal with the excess.
And then there’s another important neurotransmitter to discuss: GABA.
GABA and Alcohol
GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) is a neurotransmitter whose main job is to regulate the nervous system. Our nervous system is responsible for all kinds of things, but for the purposes of our topic, the biggest thing to note is what happens when our nervous system becomes hyperactive.
If our body perceives a harmless situation as dangerous, we start to experience increased levels of stress and anxiety.
GABA helps regulate neurotransmitters so that we can have a more appropriate response. It plays an important role in reducing anxiety.
But, much like dopamine, alcohol disrupts and inhibits the production of GABA in our body.
When you experience GABA withdrawal, you feel things like intense anxiety, moodiness, and intrusive thoughts. It’s why some people suffer “hangxiety” after a night of heavy drinking.
So you now have a situation where alcohol is altering your brain chemistry in a way that makes you more irritable and susceptible to mental health problems, while simultaneously preventing you from finding pleasure in everyday activities.
If this topic interests you, I highly recommend listening to this interview with Dr. Anna Lembke, the author of the best-selling book “Dopamine Nation” (also recommend reading).
2. You start to experience a reduction in reward sensitivity.
Over time, as the brain becomes accustomed to the high levels of dopamine released during drinking,
So it adjusts by becoming less sensitive to dopamine.
This means that the activities you used to find enjoyable or rewarding (like hobbies, hanging out with friends, or even simple daily tasks) no longer provide the same level of satisfaction or happiness.
The brain has essentially been rewired to find these natural rewards less appealing compared to the artificial high from alcohol.
This, in turn, makes you feel more bored more frequently, which reinforces the desire to drink, and round and round you go.
3. Your ability to manage stress and regulate mood changes.
Eventually, feeling bored all the time leads to increased alcohol consumption. With time, you’ll start to develop that aforementioned tolerance, which means you have to increase the amount you drink to get the desired effect.
At that point, your drinking becomes chronic.
Chronic alcohol use can also affect the brain regions responsible for regulating mood and stress.
The contrast between the heightened emotional state while drinking and the flatness of mood when sober can make everyday life without alcohol seem uninteresting – sometimes unbearably so.
You slowly transform into someone who can’t have fun or feel happy without alcohol.
4. Your social life is negatively impacted.
After a while, you’ll notice that your interests start to narrow, as does your social circle. You only do things that revolve around alcohol.
This is what happened to me towards the end of my drinking days, I didn’t want to do anything that didn’t involve getting drunk. Dinner with friends? No thanks. That would just get in the way of being able to drink as much as I wanted.
And when I tried to hang out with people without alcohol, I struggled mightily.
I couldn’t be present or enjoy myself. I just wanted to go home and crack open a bottle of hard cider. So I’d move the dinner along more quickly, thank them for hanging out, and dart back home.
It’s at this point where a lot of people realize they’ve veered into risky gray area drinking or even alcohol use disorder.
Finding Healthier Ways to Cope with Boredom
If you are still in the flirtation stage of drinking out of boredom, it’s a great time to intervene and make a concerted effort to handle boredom in healthier ways.
If I could get in a time machine and make different choices, instead of drinking, I’d have forced myself to work on developing healthy coping mechanisms like:
- Finding a hobby or passion project.
- Staying physically active.
- Connecting with people outside of drinking.
- Learning new things and proactively exploring new interests.
- Volunteering or finding ways to be of service to others.
- Coming to peace with boredom. It’s an inevitable part of life.
- Getting help or talking to someone to deal with underlying issues.
Any of these activities are natural mood lifters and a much better option than drinking to pass the time.
But what if you’ve been drinking out of boredom for a while and are struggling to find enjoyment in anything else?
What if you’ve tried to do the “normal” stuff people do for fun and don’t like any of it? You feel like an automaton simulating a life, but not finding any real purpose, joy, or meaning.
When that’s the case, it’s a sign of deeper problems that need solving.
As someone who existed in this headspace for years, I completely sympathize with how hard it is to break out of this rut, which is why this next part is so important.
If you’re struggling right now, feel stuck, or don’t know what to do next, talk therapy can help. Getting started with BetterHelp is easy!
Get 10% off your first month with code SOBERISH.
Soberish is proudly sponsored by BetterHelp.
Take a Break From Alcohol and Seek Help
You need to reset your reward pathways and that’s not going to be possible as long as you are drinking alcohol.
If you’re at the point where you’re emotionally drinking and unable to derive pleasure from everyday activities, it can be a sign that you need additional support to break out of this cycle.
Therapy is an excellent place to start. Talking with a trained therapist, especially one who understands substance abuse, is important. They can give you tools and resources for navigating everything you’re feeling (or not feeling) right now.
There are so many online communities that can support you while you step away from drinking, even if it’s temporarily.
What I don’t advise is trying to tackle it by yourself. And if you need a place to start, we have a wonderful private Facebook group full of people wrestling with some of the same questions and concerns you have.
If you’ve reached a point where you can’t experience joy in anything and use alcohol as a way to escape, don’t brush it off as a rough phase. The sooner you get help and start working on it, the sooner you can break free of it.
And if you’re curious about your drinking habits, the following quiz may be helpful to you.
Take the AUDIT
The following quiz is called the AUDIT, which is short for Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test. It’s used by medical professionals to assess your risk for alcohol dependence. Curious about how your drinking habits stack up? Take the assessment.
This is not an official medical diagnosis nor is it medical advice. Rather this is for informational purposes only. If you have any questions or concerns, share your results with your doctor.