Pavlov and his drooling dogs can teach us a lot about alcohol cravings, tolerance, and overdose. While our bodies don’t drool when they see alcohol, we still develop conditioned responses to drinking.
If every weekend we expose our bodies to the same drink, the same taste, the same friends’ faces and similar drinking places, our body “learns” over time to associate these things with alcohol’s sedative effect - they become our environmental “triggers.”
When repeatedly cued by the same drinking triggers our nervous system will anticipate the resulting sedative effects of alcohol and, even before the first drink is taken, speed up the body to compensate.
This is called situational (or learned) tolerance and explains why, over time, it takes more drinks to get the same buzz.
Developing a situational tolerance is linked to the potential for alcohol overdose. Let’s say you go on spring break, travel abroad, move from home to college, or drink a different tasting drink. The cues for your situational tolerance are now gone. The body fails to anticipate the sedative effect of alcohol and fails to compensate.
If the usual amount of alcohol is consumed in an unusual environment, the risk of overdose becomes increased. This phenomenon is documented in research by Siegel and Ramos.
Knowledge is power
Recognizing that a new situation or a novel beverage is likely to reduce tolerance, a drinker can choose to drink more slowly or consume less in the hope of avoiding overdose (or at least avoiding embarrassing pictures and regretted tattoos)!
Situational tolerance also has a lot to do with cravings and how hard it is to change behavior- We teach our body to expect to feel the effects of alcohol in a certain situation. For some, that expectation turns into a need. Situational tolerance occurs for all drugs. Smokers know well which “triggers” make them crave nicotine. Once recognized, triggers can be avoided or altered. There are a ton of creative and useful strategies for dealing with cravings, breaking the cycle of use, and reducing situational tolerance.
Our website has a free online self-assessment and our staff loves to chat with students about all things alcohol/drug related.