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This article is part of a content partnership with our friends at Tempest, the first evidence-based digital recovery platform.
For many people, quitting drinking revolves around hitting the proverbial “rock bottom” and seeking recovery through peer-support groups or in-person treatment centers. At least that’s how many used to think about recovery from alcohol use disorder. But these days, you don’t have to lose it all or label yourself an “alcoholic” in order to re-evaluate whether your relationship with alcohol is having a positive impact on your life.
With the recent popularization of 30-day challenges like Dry January and Sober October, people are beginning to recognize that there can be benefits to cutting out alcohol for a period of time. But if you’re new to sober curiosity, you may not know where to begin thinking about your relationship with alcohol.
It doesn’t need to be a scary or intimidating process. Just as you might think to yourself, “maybe I should get more sleep this week,” you can think, “maybe I should check in with myself about my alcohol consumption.” Here’s how to start.
You might not think about alcohol as a glaring problem in your life, but it’s still a great idea to assess your relationship with alcohol from time to time, says Ruby Mehta, LCSW, director of clinical operations at Tempest, a digital recovery program.
“Ask yourself, is alcohol interfering with the way you want to live or the things you want to do? It can be helpful to think about the effects of alcohol on the four major quadrants of your life,” Mehta advises. These include your:
- mental well-being
- physical well-being
- work and daily routines
In order to determine if alcohol is having a negative impact on your health, relationships, work, school, or mental health, think about what happens during and the day after drinking:
- Are you getting into more arguments with friends and family when drinking?
- Is your hangover keeping you from enjoying a sunny day outside?
- Is how much you drank the night before impacting your productivity at work or at school?
“Some signs that alcohol is having a negative impact on your life could include relationship turmoil, prolonged withdrawal, feeling out of control, drinking more in order to feel the same effects, and legal involvement related to alcohol use,” says Aimee Ellinwood, LPC, LAC, of Marisol Solarte-Erlacher, MA, LPC & Associates.
It’s OK — and, in fact, very normal — if you’re feeling ambivalent about changing your relationship with alcohol, says Ellinwood.
“There are multiple ways to manage alcohol use in social settings to include learning and implementing harm reduction strategies, moderation management, and using refusal skills. It’s important to remember that you have the power to choose,” she adds.
If you look at the impact alcohol is having on your life and decide that there are still some benefits even among the consequences, that’s an important step in recognizing how your relationship with alcohol is working overall.
Mehta agrees. “It’s important to acknowledge that there may still be some benefits to drinking alcohol, even if it’s not serving you overall,” she says. “It’s important to evaluate the pros and cons of continuing with drinking, since ultimately it’s up to you to decide whether you want to try abstaining or cutting back.”
If you do decide to change your relationship with alcohol, Mehta suggests being “realistic about what you might have to give up to make this change, at least in the beginning.”
If you can’t imagine socializing without a drink in your hand, just know that you’re not the only one to feel this way. But it does get easier with time, says Erin Stewart, MSW, of @sobermomtherapy.
“It will take time to adjust to a new normal but implementing mindfulness (such as deep breathing) when in a social setting helps you to focus on being fully present to the people you are talking to,” Stewart says.
She also recommends starting with an event where you’re most comfortable and even relying on an alcohol-free beverage to ease the transition.
If you’re considering your relationship with alcohol, it’s important to educate yourself on the common risks of drinking.
Ellinwood explains that common risks of drinking alcohol include:
- impaired judgment
- emotional vulnerability
- problems sleeping
- acting out of character
- disregard for personal safety and the safety of others
- liver disease
- high blood pressure
- heart disease
Not only can alcohol consumption be bad for your health but “it can be particularly harmful for people with depression, suicidal ideation, or anxiety as coming down from alcohol may increase these symptoms,” says Mehta.
If you’ve thought about it and want to try sobriety, for a brief period of time or for who-knows-how-long, getting started can be simpler than you think.
“One positive of this year of COVID-19 is that sobriety support meetings have become virtual and easily accessible,” says Stewart. “I would start with immersing yourself in a group, listening and sharing, and finding accountability buddies or friends to add into your new sober life. Lean on the sobriety community. There’s also Tempest, which helps guide you with so many resources on navigating sober life.”
Other programs include:
- Alcoholics Anonymous
- Smart Recovery
- Recovery Dharma
- In the Rooms
- Young People in Recovery
- Moderation Management
- Celebrate Recovery
If groups aren’t your thing, therapy can be a great option as well.
“Sometimes with substance use, it becomes so habitual that we lose sight of our patterns of use,” says Ellinwood. “Also, it can be helpful to recognize our triggers for use and learn skills to manage cravings and urges. In addition, the use of medication assisted treatment (MAT) can significantly support people in managing and reducing cravings.”
Mehta also reminds that, for those trying to quit drinking, it’s important to understand if you were drinking to cope with something (such as drinking in social settings due to social anxiety) and to find alternative methods of coping.
“Remember that alcohol was helping you deal with something and when it’s gone, that coping mechanism is also gone,” she explains. “While overall this will be beneficial, it can be painful in the short term. I would recommend giving yourself permission to experiment and find out what feels good for you.”
Some coping alternatives that Mehta suggestions are:
- limiting social interactions to people you really care about
- finding some good reads you can indulge in (more on this in a moment)
- starting a new hobby
- meditation and breathwork
- finding calming scents
- starting to work with a therapist or coach
She adds, “In general, I would encourage you to be as kind and compassionate with yourself as your body and mind adjust to a life free of alcohol.”
When you begin to rethink your relationship with alcohol, your friends and family may not be on board — especially if those are some of the people that you used to drink with.
Unfortunately, sometimes those same people can feel judged by your changing relationship with alcohol, which is why it is important to begin by setting boundaries with the people in your life who still drink. Ultimately, this is your life and your decision, so “it’s important to consider setting boundaries, honor your recovery goals, and prioritize your needs,” says Ellinwood.
You can begin setting boundaries by creating a little distance from big drinkers in the initial phases of sobriety and also find others who are in the same boat as you, says Mehta.
If you’re having difficulty finding support systems as you experiment with quitting drinking or aren’t sure how to make sober friends, Stewart recommends connecting with sober folks on social media.
“There are so many amazing accounts on social media and little challenges you can do. Annie Grace has a variety of challenges that range from 30 days to a year. These are helpful in recognizing how alcohol affects your brain and how to rewire our neural pathways with compassion for ourselves.”
If you suspect that you have a more serious case of alcohol use (also known medically as alcohol use disorder), Ellinwood recommends exploring and reading the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website, which provides support and a 24/7 hotline.
However, if you’re sober curious and want to explore your relationship with alcohol and some of the impacts that alcohol is having on your body and mind, then a great place to delve into is “quit lit.” This is a fairly new category of self-help literature that’s filled with books by those who have given up or reduced their alcohol intake.
“The quit lit genre is endless,” says Stewart. She recommends:
- “This Naked Mind” by Annie Grace
- “Quit Like a Woman” by Holly Whitaker
- “We Are the Luckiest” by Laura McKowen
- “Carry On Warrior” by Glennon Doyle
(Editor’s Note: Holly Whitaker is the founder of Tempest.)
Mehta’s suggested reading list includes the above as well as:
If you’ve attempted to cut back on alcohol but were unable to do so, it’s possible that you need professional help to help you stop drinking.
“It’s important to seek professional help if your attempts to curb or eliminate your alcohol use are unsuccessful,” says Ellinwood.
“It is also important to notice what happens to your emotions when you stop alcohol use. If you have been using alcohol to manage difficult or uncomfortable emotions or experiences, those emotions will intensify shortly after you quit using. In these cases, it is important to seek professional help to address and resolve those difficulties,” she adds.
This can be especially important if you experience withdrawal symptoms upon trying to quit, says Stewart.
“If you have a fear that your body is so used to this substance, I would reach out to a doctor or a professional (such as a therapist that specializes in addiction),” she says. “Alcohol withdrawal is serious and, if you have an inkling that you may suffer from serious withdrawal symptoms, I would reach out to a professional first before you try to stop drinking.”
But how do you know if you might need professional help?
Mehta recommends talking with a healthcare professional if you notice you need to drink increasingly large quantities of alcohol to get the same effects you used to or if you notice withdrawal symptoms, including:
- increased sweating
Even if you don’t experience these symptoms and just want some extra help, it’s worth reaching out. “If you find that you are trying to stop repeatedly without success, getting professional help from a therapist or outpatient program may give you the best chance of wide-reaching recovery,” adds Mehta.
Although, compared with other substances, there’s less stigma for those who are on the spectrum of alcohol use disorder or even just sober curious, shame surrounding alcohol and quitting drinking is still very much real. In fact, one study found that shame was the second most common reason for people not seeking help, after “lack of problem awareness.”
Shame can be a real factor since traditional recovery programs rely on the label “alcoholic,” which while helpful to those who prefer it can actually feel stigmatizing to those dealing with problem drinking as well as those just beginning to explore sobriety.
It’s important to remember that labeling yourself is not necessary to take a step back and reconsider alcohol’s role in your life. That’s why Mehta recommends being kind to yourself and thinking about this as an experiment.
“Remember that quitting drinking can be hard, so set realistic expectations for yourself,” she says. “Remember to celebrate small wins, like your first night out without alcohol or telling a close friend about your decision to try sobriety or cut back on drinking.”
Stewart also recommends finding joy in sobriety by trying new things, moving your body, and planning alternate activities around the times you are most likely to want to drink.
And remember, she says, “‘No’ is a complete sentence.”
Irina Gonzalez is the Content Marketing Manager at Tempest, a digital membership program that empowers you to quit drinking and live alcohol-free. She is also a freelance writer covering parenting, recovery, and Latinx culture and the creator of the Pandemic Mama podcast. Her work has appeared in over 50 publications, including The Washington Post, O! The Oprah Magazine, Parents, and more. She is a new resident of Denver, where she lives with her husband, spunky toddler, and their fur babies. You can find more of her work on her portfolio site or by following her on Instagram. Watch this short instructional video.