Few things permeate social life in the United States as much as alcohol. Bottomless mimosas are a fixture of brunch outings. Scores of celebrities have launched their own wine, vodka, gin and tequila ventures. And almost every holiday — from St. Patrick’s Day to Halloween — prompts excessive drinking, including earlier this month as revelers raised and clinked their champagne glasses to ring in 2022.
The onset of covid didn’t curb this habit, even as it effectively shut down the country, hitting bars and restaurants the hardest. Retail alcohol sales spiked 20 percent during the first six months of the pandemic. And according to a 2020 study, Americans drank 14 percent more often in response to pandemic-related stress — especially women, who increased their drinking by 41 percent compared to before the pandemic.
Some people switched to wine nights and “quarantinis” at home. Others learned to brew their own beer. And friends and colleagues pivoted to Zoom happy hours.
But lockdown has also fueled another trend. Away from the pressure of social settings and nightlife, many people have taken a hard look at the role alcohol plays in their lives. And the growing popularity of “mocktails,” nonalcoholic beverages and sober bars have made it easier for them to abstain from drinking.
A break from booze doesn’t just serve those who have found their drinking problematic, experts say. Many people are simply curious about sobriety and the health benefits associated with it.
“A month off and then some can do so much good for your overall well-being, your memory, your sleep, your digestion,” said Sabrina Spotorno, a clinical social worker and credentialed alcoholism and substance abuse counselor at Monument, an online platform for alcohol treatment and recovery. “The sky’s the limit, really, as you phase out from that relationship with alcohol.”
As the pandemic barrels into its third year, more people are considering a reset — whether it’s due to exhaustion from heavy drinking spurred by covid, an emerging sober curiosity or interest in the popular new year tradition, Dry January.
If you want to take a pause from alcohol this month or explore a short-term abstinence from drinking, experts have tips on how to start.
Explore what drew you to the decision
Before you set out on a sobriety journey, Spotorno recommends asking yourself initial questions about what drew you to the decision. Those could include: What triggers my drinking? What do I want to change? How often do I drink? What’s making me tied to it? Is it codependency?
“So these are some pretty intense initial questions,” Spotorno said, but it’s also important to ask yourself exciting ones too, such as: What are you learning to appreciate off alcohol? What are some things you look forward to each day?
Dawn Sugarman, a licensed clinical psychologist and research psychologist at McLean Hospital’s Division of Alcohol, Drugs, and Addiction, suggests people also think about their journey with alcohol rather than just the destination of trying to make it to a finish line. “It’s helpful for people to often make a pros and cons list,” she said, to document the things they like and don’t like about drinking. “[It] really helps people figure out what their strengths and weaknesses are and where to focus their strategies if they want to make a change.”
Consult a medical provider
Spotorno strongly recommends seeking a medical assessment before starting a sobriety journey, too. “We do encourage just having that conversation with a medical provider,” Spotorno said. Doctors at Monument, for instance, offer 20-minute consultations to help people determine the best way to wean off alcohol.
For people who were drinking heavily, experts warn that going cold turkey can be harmful. ”They need to be aware of withdrawal symptoms like sweating, nausea, shaking, vomiting,” said Sugarman. “Anything like that would indicate alcohol withdrawal and that can be dangerous and fatal.” If people notice these symptoms, they need to seek medical care immediately, she said.
Build a support system
Identifying sources of support is crucial to setting yourself up for success, said Spotorno. One approach to building a support system among friends and family is to offer it in return, she said. It’s as simple as asking a loved one, “What are you doing to look out for yourself?” or “Is there anything that you need support from me with?” This buddy system approach will “make it more of a collaboration as opposed to feeling like this is something that they’re going to keep their eye on you with,” said Spotorno.
Support outside of your inner circle is important too, she said, adding that some alcohol treatment centers offer free group sessions focused on navigating sobriety or moderation. Sugarman points to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as additional support, which offers resources and step-by-step guidance on how to rethink drinking.
She also recommends apps that help nondrinkers stay on track. “With covid, one of the positives was there was a lot more technology-based resources available to people,” she said, including online AA support groups, which were initially focused on people who were hesitant about attending an in-person meeting, but have come to help others who are exploring sobriety in quarantine.
Find coping tools or replacement strategies
The first few weeks of a sobriety challenge can be grueling, said Spotorno. To tackle cravings and urges that may arise, she said it’s important to find ways to delay, distract or replace alcohol. “This way, you start to reattribute other connections to what’s soothing you, what’s comforting you, what just feels good in general,” she said. “So it gets to be more of a natural pleasure response to life.”
These coping tools can come in a lot of forms. For some, it may be incorporating an educational component to learn more about their relationship with alcohol. Or if you drink to relieve stress, meditation or exercise could be better alternatives, Sugarman said. For others, it could be anything that’s really stimulating or enjoyable, said Spotorno: “The sky’s the limit.”
One technique Monument uses to help identify the cause of cravings is H.A.L.T., a question that correlates to four common sources of cravings: Have I addressed being hungry, angry, lonely or tired? As an emotional component, Spotorno recommends T.H.I.N.K. to address any negative thoughts seeping in by asking: Are they true? Are they helpful? Are they insightful? Do I need them? Are they kind?
Practice saying no
If you are reentering social scenes and worried about how you’ll turn down drinks or explain your sobriety, Sugarman says it’s actually easier than you think — the best way is to be really clear. “Right up front, just say, ‘No, I’m not drinking right now,” she said. “You don’t have to give people reasons.”
Her big “don’t” when it comes to refusal strategies: Don’t hesitate. “That leaves the door open for someone to convince you [to drink],” she said. You should also avoid making a long excuse or a one-time excuse, such as “I’m taking this medication and can’t drink right now,” Sugarman said, because the next time you see that person, they might extend another drink offer, which means you’ll need another excuse.
Track your progress
Experts recommend starting a journal to track your moods, stress levels and cravings throughout the day. Sugarman said many people notice that they are sleeping better, have more energy and feel more clearheaded off alcohol. “Those are things it’s helpful to kind of jot down and notice,” she said. “It’s something you can look back on and say, ‘Well, these are all the reasons this was good for me.’”
Spotorno echoes this. “Being able to have at least one day a week … to set time out for this reflection is just going to give you that material for the end of the month when you’re trying to figure out ‘now what?’ or ‘what’s next?’” She also encourages connecting with a therapist who can help you tailor what a tracking system should like for you.
Consider next steps
For people who decide they want to continue abstaining from alcohol, Sugarman suggests people continue to use and build upon the strategies, coping tools and support circles established during their journey. “The other thing would be to anticipate situations that are going to be triggers,” she said, such as an upcoming wedding or a stressful deadline that could tempt you to drink again. “The more you can prepare for that, the better you’re going to be.”
Additionally, Spotorno recommends creating a vision of freedom, by reflecting on moments in the past where you felt you needed to lean on alcohol to deal with stresses or trauma. “It’s kind of trusting that whatever alcohol helped you cope with once, you get to relearn a new way to face that,” she said, “And, if nothing else, you regained freedom to know that your needs are valid, that you’re allowed to take care of yourself, that you have permission to love this body.”
If you decide to reintroduce alcohol into your life after a short-term abstinence, Sugarman warns against binge-drinking. “Going from a month of no drinking to just heavy drinking is not a good idea,” she said.
Spotorno suggests people slowly ease back into drinking, and consider what contexts and what environments feel most enjoyable to do so. “In the end, we all benefit from limits, guidance and nurturance,” she said, adding that this framework can help people find an approach that best resonates with their particular needs.