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This story is adapted from an episode of Life Kit. Listen to the podcast at the top of the page, or find it here.
If you've decided to take a break from drinking alcohol, you're not alone. Breaking the booze habit, whether it's for 30 days or longer, has its benefits. But for many people, the challenge is getting started.
Here are six strategies and tips to get you on your way.
1. Assess your relationship with alcohol
Think about what's motivating you to take a break from alcohol. To begin the process, consider starting a journal. Rachel Kazez, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist with All Along, says begin with some basic questions to get a little perspective.
- How often and how much am I drinking? What are the reasons I drink?
- How do I feel before I drink? How do I feel afterward?
These are all simple questions — but once you start reflecting — your answers may surprise you. "It's the act of stepping back and looking at one's relationship with alcohol that we think is where the magic is," says Aaron White of the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health. He says here are some more questions to ask yourself:
- How does alcohol affect your social relationships?
- Do you get to work on time?
- Are you hungover a lot?
- Do you find yourself thinking about alcohol?
There's no right or wrong answer here, and no judgment. Given that alcohol is so ubiquitous in our culture, some people drink out of habit and haven't taken the time to take note of its effects. A break from drinking will give you this opportunity.
2. Make a plan
White says if you're in the habit of having a glass of wine or beer every evening at 6:00 p.m., think about a habit that can replace the drinking.
"Do some yoga, go for a walk, watch something funny," White says. "In other words, rather than just take away the behavior, replace the behavior with something that is healthier and more sustainable," White says.
A dry month may lead you to rearrange your social calendar. "I made it a point to seek out social events that had other options," says listener Elizabeth Greener.
Think about hobbies or activities that you've enjoyed in the past (perhaps dust off your tennis racket). Or take up something new: take a dance class, try your hand at painting, go ice-skating, how about curling? And find a friend to go with you, because not drinking may lead you to feel a bit isolated.
3. Notice changes in how you feel
Some people notice significant changes when they stop drinking. "Everything is better," says Blair Benson. She says her skin tone improves and she feels less bloated. Her anecdote fits with a study of about 850 people who volunteered to abstain from alcohol for one month. At the end, 82% said they felt a sense of achievement. 62% reported "better sleep" and about half reported they lost some weight. Many of the participants said they had more energy, which fits with the experience of listener Sarah Black Sadler. "I definitely have more energy," Sadler told us. "The biggest thing that I noticed is that I don't need alcohol to have a good time with my friends."
As for the health effects, White says it's been clear for a long time that heavy drinking takes its toll, but now there's emerging evidence that — even for moderate drinkers — a break from alcohol can be beneficial. "There is early evidence that even taking a one month break from fairly low levels of consumption reduces some burden on the liver," White says.
What many people don't realize is that alcohol produces a toxic effect on the body. As it breaks down, a by-product called acetaldehyde is produced. "The liver gets rid of [acetaldehyde] pretty fast, but it is toxic and it damages the liver over time," White says. Over time, it's a driver of inflammation — and in heavy drinkers — sets the stage for cirrhosis.
"Alcohol is a poison that we happen to enjoy," White says. It's OK in moderate amounts — which means no more than 1 drink a day for women — no more than 2 per day for men.
4. Resist peer pressure!
One thing that many listeners who've tried a dry January — or any break from alcohol — told us is that their friends didn't really "get it." "Why, why, why," people told us they were asked. Listeners told us they feel compelled to make up excuses.
Kazez says, be straightforward with your friends. "Say, hey, it's dry January," and tell them why you're taking a break. If a friend isn't supportive, it may be time to assess that friendship. Because, really, a true friend should be supportive.
5. Take note of your mental health
What do you notice about your mood, your anxiety level? When you have a craving for alcohol, Kazez says, ask yourself: What do I truly want right now? "Oftentimes, it's not literally alcohol that you want," Kazez says. "You might want a sense of release or you might want to let off some anger. You might want a hug. You might want to be alone."
"The alcohol was certainly a numbing agent," listener Mark Vowers told us. "When I drink I'm kind of out of this world," he says. Vowers says not drinking makes him feel more present — more grounded. "More in tune with my kids," he says.
The irony of alcohol is that we often drink to feel relaxed, to tamp down anxiety. But over time, White says, this can lead to escalating levels of anxiety. "You might drink at night to reduce your anxiety. And then, as a result, the next evening, you feel more anxiety, which then motivates you to drink again," White says. And, day by day, as the anxiety returns, it may become more intense, which can lead people to drink more heavily. "Having one glass of wine started to not provide the same effect that I was looking [for]," says listener Ash Weber. She says it no longer gave her a quick fix. "I suppose [it was a] growing intolerance and needing more than two glasses to feel the warm and fuzzies."
6. Reassess your drinking habits
As you get toward the end of your month, temporary abstinence may beget a bigger question: Is my level of drinking healthy?
"Some people might realize that they need to stop," White says.
As I've reported, alcohol use disorders fall along a spectrum. It's not a binary yes or no — you have a problem or you don't. You can have a mild, moderate or severe problem. And there's not a one-size-fits-all approach to getting help. There is a wide range of options — from residential "detox" programs to cognitive behavioral therapy, to medications such as naltrexone that can help people drink less, or acamprosate, which can help people stay dry.
Here's a resource to navigate all the kinds of help and treatment options out there.
The audio portion of this story was produced by Andee Tagle.