The beginning of any new year promises the inevitable, gurgled talk of resolutions: promises to keep, relationships to rekindle, changes to make … habits to quit.
Enter Dry January, that famed inaugural month in which people, en-masse, set out to get sober for 31 days, often in a disciplined effort to start the new year fresh in a state of perfect, or at least adequate, mental clarity.
Yes, the very ethos from which Dry January springs is the assertion that sobriety needn’t be reserved for people who live with alcoholism. It can be a reset for those who want to have a healthier relationship to drinking.
“Alcohol use and its associated problems exist on a spectrum,” Dr. John Mariani, director of Columbia University’s Substance Treatment and Research Service, told CNN Health. “There are people who don’t meet the criteria even for mild alcohol use disorder, but are drinking more than what would be considered healthy.”
This is the gray area: the deep and wide space between rock-bottom and occasional drinking.
Maybe you’re starting to wonder what it looks like to drink more mindfully. Maybe drinking is distracting you from being present, or attaining certain goals, or maintaining some relationships, or, maybe, eating up all your money (very valid). Maybe you just want to test it out, purely for the sake of curiosity.
Whatever your reasons, we’re here to help.
Why should I want to stop drinking?
Most people are at least vaguely aware that too much alcohol is bad for you, just as they know that too much of anything is bad for you.
But what they might not know is that, per the U.S. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, drinking is the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States, just behind poor diet/physical inactivity and tobacco. In Canada, alcohol is the leading cause of substance-related deaths in hospital, according to the Canadian Institute for Health Information.
Sure, it’s true that incorporating some alcohol into your diet has been linked with benefits to the body, like lower risk of heart attack, diabetes and gallstones. But it’s also true that, even at low levels of consumption, alcohol does have the potential to interfere with sleep quality, mental health, energy, skin condition, and weight, among other things.
A 2017 study published in the BMJ found that even moderate drinking can alter the brain. “Heavy drinkers” who participated in the study were found to have risk of hippocampal atrophy (a form of brain damage associated with memory-loss conditions and trouble with spatial navigation), decline in language skills, and slower thought processing.
The surprising part: the “heavy drinkers” in question consumed only about two beers or two glasses of wine per night in a week.
The rule of thumb is that the more you drink, the greater the risks.
Why is it so hard to stop drinking?
Aside from the apparent fact that alcohol is an addictive drug, it can be difficult to stop drinking, even temporarily, because our social lives are often built around it.
The settings popularly imagined as the most social are also the locations where booze will almost always be: bars, restaurants, parties, events.
Alcohol triggers the release of endorphins in areas of the brain, and those chemicals produce feelings of pleasure. They’re “feel-good” chemicals, and when you feel good, you’re probably less anxious and more talkative. Hence the social thing.
Drinking is mostly understood as a common and normal practice. You drink with family, with friends, with coworkers, on dates. Sometimes, you might drink with people you hardly know. It’s part of many enshrined social rituals — if you’re celebrating something, or going out somewhere, it’s often assumed there will be booze.
Habits are often much harder to quit than to begin. This might be truer, still, in those situations when you’ve not yet realized a quirk has become a pattern: the daily glass of wine at dinner, for example, or the several bottles of [insert drink of choice] that accompany you to any celebratory affair. It happens.
What are the benefits if I stop?
Aside from the more obvious benefits (reducing long-term risks of things like cancer or heart disease), there are some more everyday positive effects that going sober can have on the way you look and feel.
Sleep, for example: though some people find alcohol helps them nod off easier, it’s been proven that even a few drinks blights the quality of your sleep, and that not drinking increases your chances of having a deeper and more restorative slumber.
Similarly, quitting booze can improve your mood. While alcohol makes you feel good in the moment, it can also exacerbate feelings of sadness and anxiety. That’s because too much alcohol can interfere with the brain’s neurotransmitters like serotonin, which are involved in regulating things like sleep, eating and mood.
Going sober can also increase your energy. It can help you to focus better, improve the quality of your skin, cause your stomach to experience less irritation and, obviously, save you money.
Keri Gans, a registered dietitian nutritionist, told Shape that most people will start to see the health benefits of cutting out alcohol in just two weeks, and a 2018 survey conducted by the University of Sussex found Dry January can lead to actual long-term changes in drinking habits.
How do I do it?
There’s no one way to do Dry January — there’s no one way to do anything — but, if you’re interested in trying it out, here are a set of tips that might help you to get started. (Note that these should not be used as a substitute for professional help.)
Determine your reason(s) — Goals shrink from attainability when you don’t have a coherent understanding of what makes said goal attractive. Before you commit, it’s good to think about why you want to take a hiatus.
Consider how much you drink — Is it a glass every day at dinner? Is it every other day at a bar after work? It’s helpful to understand your baseline behaviours before you try to change them. That sort of reflection might even prompt you to think about why you drink in the first place: is it out of boredom? Is it to ease nervousness? Is it to be more social?
Clean house — Many people start Dry January by removing alcohol completely from their work and living spaces. It helps if you have a partner who will: a) do the program with you, or b) keep you in check, even if they aren’t participating.
Make a plan — The program works best if you go into it with a plan. What are your limits and boundaries? What will you do if you’re at a bar, or club, or concert? How will you avoid temptation? Maybe when the party starts to get crazy, you decide to head out early. Maybe you just skip the party altogether. Whatever works for you.
Hang up a calendar — Checking off the dates you’ve completed without drinking is good motivation to keep going.
Seek out non-boozy fun — Drinking and being a hermit is a false equivalency. You don’t have to avoid the world. If your friend wants to go for a drink, maybe you suggest another activity you can do together. Also: mocktails exist, and they’re great.
Learn to sit with discomfort — Sometimes, it’s going to be difficult, especially if you’re someone who’s used to using alcohol to relieve awkwardness. That’s fine. It’s OK to sit with those feelings, rather than trying to distract yourself from them. Discomfort can be productive, especially if you have some strategies to address it.
Keep track of how you’re feeling — If you’re used to partying a lot, or having a glass of wine at the end of the day to wind down, you might miss it. Logging those feelings might be a good way to work through them.
Get creative with non-alcoholic drinks — Speaking of mocktails: there are so many of them that won’t make you feel like you’re missing out on anything. Oh, and Kombucha is a great replacement for wine.
Have an exit strategy — Temptation isn’t always predictable. If you end up in a setting where you feel like drinking, it helps to have an escape plan.
If you mess up, don’t be too hard on yourself — It happens. Acknowledge it, mark your calendar, and keep it pushing. Don’t scrap the program over a misstep.
Don’t go on a bender on Feb. 1 — If you quit smoking for a month, you probably wouldn’t smoke three packs the first chance you get. When Dry January closes off, you might want to celebrate with … well, alcohol. Instead, maybe treat yourself to a non-alcoholic reward, and if the month felt good, consider extending it for longer.
20 Ideas For 2020 is our month-long series that explores easy ways to take action on the ideas and changes you may have already been thinking about.