One of the greatest obstacles to effective coping is losing focus and concentrating on irrelevant aspects of the problem. Imagine talking to a 48 year-old man who has panic attacks and other social anxieties. He heads for counseling, and when asked, “How would you describe your problem?” he responds, “I remember when I was in the fifth grade…….” Whoa, buddy! Fifth grade? You want to focus on events that took place nearly 40 years ago? Let’s back up and focus on describing your problem in the here-and-now.

In the 1970s there was a debate in psychology fueled by Mark and Linda Sobell’s research on alcohol consumption by alcoholics. The debate, a pseudo-debate really, considered the question, “Can the alcoholic learn to drink socially?” The Sobells said their research suggested the answer is “Yes.”

The question is considered both absurd and dangerous by rehabilitation groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. Such programs are based on the view that the alcoholic brain is addicted to alcohol in such a way that controlled, moderate consumption is virtually impossible to achieve. Any success will be short-lived, and over time the alcoholic will descend into the uncontrollable drinking that led their acquaintances and family to label them as alcoholics. In the words of a Kenny Chesney country song about tequila, “One is one too many, one more is never enough.” (Who needs psychological research when there are country songs to teach us life’s truths?)

Earlier I called the moderate drinking debate a pseudo-debate. Why? Well, if someone has a problem with alcohol consumption, why on earth would they want to focus their coping efforts on controlling the problem only partially by moderating their consumption? Am I missing something here? Isn’t there always a chance of “slipping” out of the moderation? Why would someone want to take that chance?

We have someone with a severe alcohol problem, someone who has perhaps lost job, self-respect, and family, someone who perhaps has been arrested as a result of abusive drinking. Isn’t trying to teach him or her moderate drinking gambling with disaster? You want that person to learn moderate social drinking and hope that the moderation lasts? You want that person to gamble that there will be no chance of a “slip” into the former habits?

Why not just ask the alcoholic to stand in front of five explosive mines on the ground, explain that only one is active, and then say, “Pick one to step on!” Wouldn’t it be wiser to turn around and walk away? By the same token, wouldn’t the best strategy for an abusive drinker be total abstinence?

Wouldn’t the logical approach for the alcoholic be to accept, “I can control my thinking and actions except when I am drinking. Therefore, I must take better control of life, especially my relationship with alcohol, by abstaining completely. That’s the only way I’m on safe ground.” The point is, focusing on moderate drinking is poor coping because it runs the risk of personal tragedy. That focus is dangerously misplaced.

I see an analogy here with the global warming debate. People ask, “Is global warming real? If so, is it caused by us?” Is that the focus you want, simply looking for someone to blame for the rise in annual earth temperature? Isn’t that focus irrelevant to the core issue: A clean environment? Shouldn’t we view laws geared to reducing carbon emissions as laws that will give us cleaner air to breathe? Shouldn’t we see such laws as showing that we can exercise some control and keep our environment clean and healthy?

If we do value such things, what’s all this fuss about climate change? How many people are getting all stressed out fighting and arguing about whether it’s real or not, man-made or not, or some dastardly plot by Big Brother to subjugate all of us into mindless slaves? Why do we feel so compelled to take an issue that impacts our physical health and psychological well-being, and force it into a liberal vs. conservative, Democrat vs. Republican, us vs. them conflict?

I’ve heard people say, “Those global warming freaks just want to raise taxes on businesses and put people out of work!” Seriously? What responsible member of society wants to put people out of work?

Maybe all the “freaks” want is to breathe cleaner air, and to strategize with new and emerging industries and technologies about how to do it. Wouldn’t developing such strategies be a great example of effective coping by making us feel empowered to exercise some control over our physical and psychological welfare? Surely, supporting policies that reduce pollutants does not inherently mean humans are causing climate change; it means we want to live in a cleaner environment.

Why is it so important to some people to declare that alcoholics can learn to drink socially, or that the earth isn’t warming? In a coping context, those arguments are examples of losing focus and taking our eye off the ball. In one case our focus should be on maximizing an alcohol abuser’s prospects for a safe and productive life; in the other case the focus should be on keeping our “home” clean.

Here’s our coping lesson: You have a problem facing you? To cope effectively with it you must define the parameters of the problem and focus your coping strategies within those parameters. Don’t let others distract you and lead you into irrelevant areas.













3 thoughts on “”

  1. Since I have rampant alcoholism in my family, I can speak to this analogy with strength. I think this blog, in letter form, should go to all members of the House & Senate as well as the EPA….(skip Trump please…..he wouldn’t get it!!).


  2. I really resonated with this article. My brother is an alcoholic. He has been in countless rehab programs, halfway houses and has attended AA meetings as well. While each of these programs has been helpful to him, their results were inevitably short-lived. However, there was one program that really changed my brother. He was off of drinking (and drugs) for over a year. He developed more compassion for others and seemed like a changed person. We were all excited about this change but underneath our excitement, we were afraid of him slipping up again. Unfortunately, we were right, and after a particularly hard day for my brother, he decided to have one beer. Naturally “moderation” did not work for him, and pretty soon he was back to his destructive old habits. Although I cannot understand my brother’s deep pain, perhaps in his low moment he could have been more “solution-focused” and found a way to deal with his suffering in a healthier way. This idea of being “solution-focused” is one of the characteristics of a self-actualized person. This post is not intended to judge or oversimplify the struggles of the alcoholic, rather it is to emphasize the importance of abstinence as way to remain solution focused.


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