Alcohol might well be looked upon as a specific drug, tailor-made to ameliorate distressing symptoms of this particular form of tension – i.e. a basic fear of reality. It will not help very much, except in anaesthetic quantities, with the other types of anxiety we have been discussing, but as far as reality fears are concerned, it is, superficially at least, effective and efficient.
Alcohol is a selective and progressive depressant of the central nervous function. When taken in smallish doses it removes, temporarily but surely, the highest
and most critical biological functions of the brain. Larger quantities of alcohol gradually inhibit the whole of the central nervous system until eventually a state of anaesthetic intoxication is reached.
The anxious and nervous ‘social drinker’ endeavours to limit his consumption to the first phase. Alcohol effectively dampens all the psychic phenomena which are responsible for his anxious reality fears, and he is transported, for a while anyway, into the easy world of his more fortunate fellow creatures. Sometimes this drug-induced confidence is of considerable value. One of the ways in which we learn to mature is by getting over various achievement hurdles, so if confidence does follow an excursion into the fearful world of reality as a result of a few drinks, then real confidence may subsequently develop.
Unfortunately alcohol does not seem to do this very often. Indeed, it is hard to make a convincing case for a ‘cure’ of this sort being brought about by any tranquillizing drug. This is because once the tranquillizing effect wears off an upsurge of anxiety always erupts. Sometimes this is referred to as the rebound phenomenon.
No one has satisfactorily explained the dynamics of alcoholism, but some people do progress from social tension-releasing drinking to straightforward alcoholism, in which life without the drug becomes intolerable and work impossible. The potential alcoholic is someone who drinks to lessen intolerable tension; the occasional drinker uses alcohol to increase the pleasure of living and maybe to get over a few maturation hurdles.
There is a useful comparison between the frequency of suicide and the proportion of alcoholics in the Western World, and there seems little doubt that the two are closely related. Some psychiatrists believe that alcoholism is an expression of a half-way house between an innate death wish (to escape from unbearable tension) and a natural tendency to over-
come the tension. It seems likely that when fears of the real world are very incapacitating, the individual will clutch at any solution that seems to promise salvation (e.g. alcohol).
But the fears of real situations and the tensions that arise from them which alcohol can allay are usually overcome spontaneously if the individual is given time to cope with his environment. We often expect a young adult, not so very long out of adolescence, to behave with maturity very soon after finishing his formal education. Making one’s mark in the world is for most people a fairly traumatic experience, and if the young adult is not over-pressed or harried into mature life patterns he will gradually find he does not need recourse to alcoholic or other indulgences.
Alcohol is available to everyone as a universal tranquillizer, and will continue to be used by those seeking a release from stress. Its consumption in Britain has doubled in the last 20 years, and the same pattern is seen in other developed countries. But unfortunately alcohol, despite its obvious attractions, is a poor investment return for the 8 per cent of all consumer expenditure involved in its purchase. No pharmaceutical company anywhere in the world would be allowed to market a drug like alcohol, which apart from causing physical disease if used to excess also impairs memory, causes brain damage, induces or releases aggression, leads to the breakdown of family life and often actually precipitates anxiety in its takers, even when only quite moderate doses are taken.