So, you didn’t win Dry January. But here’s why failing doesn’t necessarily mean you lost, either.
When the new year hit, some people took part in Dry January, a monthlong abstinence from drinking alcohol.
What began as a 2014 public health campaign initiated by the charity Alcohol Change UK has become a growing trend in the United States as well.
“The concept is useful in a number of regards,” Kenneth Leonard, PhD, director of the Clinical and Research Institute on Addictions at the University at Buffalo, told Healthline. “If people do this for a month, they may find out that they feel better, sleep better, and that they’re spending less money on something that they don’t need to be spending it on.”
In fact, a study from the University of Sussex revealed that of about 800 people who participated in Dry January in 2018, many experienced those benefits and more:
- 93 percent of participants had a sense of achievement
- 88 percent saved money
- 82 percent think more deeply about their relationship with alcohol
- 80 percent feel more in control of their drinking
- 76 percent learned more about when and why they drink
- 71 percent realized they don’t need a drink to enjoy themselves
- 71 percent slept better
- 70 percent had generally improved health
- 67 percent had more energy
- 58 percent lost weight
- 57 percent had better concentration
- 54 percent had better skin
Despite the benefits, is kicking alcohol for a month or any period of time for everyone?
Deni Carise, PhD, a clinical psychologist and addiction expert, says if you’re considering it, probably.
“People might say to me, ‘I think I might have a drinking problem, but I’m not sure.’ I say to them, ‘When was the last time you thought you had a problem with broccoli? You never think that because you don’t have a problem with broccoli,'” Carise told Healthline.
The fact that you think about it is enough to give it a try, she adds.
Leonard agrees, noting that just because you want to cut back on alcohol doesn’t mean you have a problem with it.
“There may be people who are drinking a little too much and maybe aren’t aware that alcohol is making them not sleep well or feeling a little depressed and anxious, and those changes with alcohol can be subtle and don’t have to be real severe,” Leonard said.
“A person who drinks every day of the week, two or three drinks a day, might experience some of those health effects and not really realize the impact that alcohol is having on them,” he said.
“If they were to take a month off, it might be difficult, but they might start to feel better and to realize that drinking less frequently might be beneficial to their health,” Leonard added.
If you didn’t make it the entire month without drinking alcohol, this doesn’t mean you’re an alcoholic, Leonard says.
“People will try Dry January for a variety of different motivations, and some of those might not be very strong,” he said.
For instance, like many New Year’s resolutions, he says some people might find it interesting and challenging to see what it’s like not to drink for a month.
“But they may not be strongly motivated, and they may not be motivated because they don’t perceive themselves as having a problem. And for many people, they may not have a problem. So, failing to follow through on this wouldn’t necessarily have any clinical implications,” Leonard said.
“There are a lot of innocuous reasons they might decide to drink, like they are out on a date or with a group of friends and someone decides to have a toast,” he explained.
Carise agrees, but adds that your reason for quitting and failing matters.
For instance, she says if you failed Dry January and took a drink because you were depressed, that’s a sign you should get help for depression.
“I’m going to bet if you are trying to cut back because your drinking is causing you to have medical problems or missing deadlines at work or getting in the way of social life, then [you might want to look into] getting treatment,” Carise said.
And if you succeeded at Dry January, this doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have a drinking problem.
Carise can attest from her own experience. In her 20s, during the 1980s, she found herself addicted to cocaine. After quitting for 90 days, she gave in when someone offered her cocaine.
“I thought, ‘I don’t have a problem with cocaine if I could quit for 90 days.’ But then I was back on it,” she said. “The fact that you could quit alcohol for 30 days doesn’t mean that you don’t have a problem. It’s evidence that you’ve been really successful at quitting. Once people with a drinking problem go back to drinking, they tend to drink at the level of heavy drinking they were before they quit.”
Many people who have an alcohol problem are able to abstain for significant periods of time, notes Leonard. What their relationship is with alcohol after the trial period is the real test.
Many people develop a level of alcohol dependence that doesn’t interfere with their life, and therefore they’re not given an alcohol use disorder diagnosis, explains Leonard.
“We wouldn’t diagnose someone with an alcohol use disorder unless their life has really become focused on alcohol, like they are giving up important social activities or have legal problems or are missing work because of alcohol,” he said. “Simply, having developed some tolerance to drinking and maybe missing alcohol when not drinking is not usually sufficient to get a person an alcohol use disorder [diagnosis].”
Warning signs that might indicate alcohol use disorder include the following:
- You spend more and more time drinking and thinking about getting alcohol to the extent that you’re giving up other important obligations.
- You decide what you’re going to do based on whether alcohol will be available.
- You spend a lot of time drinking or getting over the aftereffects of drinking.
- You feel a strong need to drink if you haven’t. (This is different than being in a situation where everyone is drinking and you want to drink, though.)
- You drink heavily frequently — more than five drinks for men and four drinks for women in one sitting.
For people who have alcohol use disorder, quitting abruptly or on your own can be dangerous.
“I think quitting for a month is a great idea, but if you are a heavy drinker — say five to eight drinks a day — don’t quit on your own, because that can be medically dangerous due to withdrawal symptoms,” Carise said.
Alcohol withdrawal can cause fatal symptoms such as seizures as well as nausea, sweating, trouble sleeping, and feeling shaky or depressed.
“For the most part, people with a drinking problem have probably gone into withdrawal before when alcohol wasn’t available and are probably fully aware that is a risk,” Leonard said.
“For a social drinker who drinks on the heavy side but has never experienced any additional problems, it’s unlikely that quitting would create any problems for them,” he said.
If you’re seeking help for your addiction to alcohol, visit SAMHSA.