Escape through alcohol

Casual drinking, even when in small amounts, contributes to escapism and a need for connection.

Enter a bar on a Saturday night and the scene is the same everywhere.  Groups of people drinking together or alone to savor a few moments of evasion from their hectic lives.  Some drink more than others, some do drugs, but the outcome is the same. Escape.

Why does our human population feel the need to escape their reality so badly?  The escapism and avoidance of one’s reality and self-medicating to do so is culturally significant to humans.  Alcohol doesn’t taste good and the after affects of drugs can be severe, so what makes them worth doing? According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the United States spends more than $740 billion a year on issues related to alcohol, tobacco and drug use.   

The reality of reality is that it’s hard.  It’s overwhelming, confusing and a person can get easily lost in the hustle and bustle of what’s going on in their own head and what’s going on around them.  

So when the opportunity arises to crack open a beer or smoke a joint with some friends, the answer for most people is yes.  The relaxation and socialization it brings the user has the ability to transport them from the drudges of daily life and responsibility and offer them a few hours of unabridged freedom.  

In an article by Harold Shryock, M.D. all the way back in 1944, found even then through his research that “the most important reason why people drink—to escape from unpleasant reality.”  By dumbing down their central nervous system and reducing anxiety, people are able to escape from the painful and dark realities they may live.

Why do people use substances to escape reality?  In an article by psychology today in 2010, Dr. Stephen A. Diamond believes people who heavily use substances “find reality repugnant, uncomfortable, overwhelming, and prefer, like the psychotic, withdrawal into fantasy, bliss or oblivion over reality.”  

He discussed that it is human nature to disassociate with pain and run after pleasure; a thought that aligns with Freud’s “pleasure principle”.  The pleasure principle states that humans go out of their way to avoid things that hurt them and are drawn to things that make them feel good. This is a hypothesis that only makes more sense as the reality of the world gets more stressful and tougher on the human spirit.

Professor Elizabeth Eadie from the School of Anthropology at the University of Arizona who focuses her studies on biological and evolutionary anthropology thinks this has less to do with escapism and more to do with loneliness.  

“Drinking alcohol is a way of connecting,” says Eadie.  “Humans, relative to other species, are incredibly social and our current modern lives are getting more and more isolated through technology and living in big cities with informal relationships and encounters but not a lot of deep connection.  Drinking is so fun and satisfying because you feel connected and uninhibited and get emotionally close to people.”

Eadie believes the drug and alcohol use are used to escape, but not from stress or unhappiness.  They are used to escape our disconnected lives. “I think the drug use and dysphoria is not feeling connected or valued,” says Eadie.  

“I go out and drink because all of my friends do,” says University of Arizona senior Ariana Sinapi.  “I’m stressed out during the day and I love getting off work and grabbing a beer with friends. It makes the week a little more manageable.”

Sara Harelson is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at

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