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Had a few too many hangovers lately? Fed up with the morning fuzziness and vague headache that follow your nightly glass or two of wine? Beginning to question the way alcohol affects your mood?
If you’re starting to wonder whether giving up drinking might have a positive impact on your life, know that you’re not alone with these thoughts. A growing number of “sober curious” people are starting to take a closer look at the role alcohol plays in their life.
Sober curious simply means that you’ve chosen to avoid alcohol for personal or wellness reasons. It involves curiosity about the reasons fueling your desire to drink and the way alcohol affects your life.
Unlike people who stay sober because of dependency or addiction, sober curious people may not necessarily meet criteria for an alcohol use disorder or intend to give up alcohol permanently.
Sober curiosity is nothing new. Month-long sobriety challenges like Sober October and Dry January have encouraged people to reevaluate their alcohol use. Some also try to break habits like drinking without thinking or drinking socially just because everyone else does.
Still, people widely accept alcohol as a tool to manage stress, celebrate joyous events, or weather life challenges like a job loss or breakup.
Regular social drinking has become so normalized that many people find it more unusual when someone chooses not to drink outside of health or religious reasons.
The sober curious movement, however, suggests there’s plenty of room for alternative approaches.
Credit for the term “sober curious” goes to Ruby Warrington, author of the 2018 book “Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol.”
In her book, she describes a pattern that might sound familiar to many:
- drinking socially, but not craving or needing to drink daily
- drinking no more than others in your circle
- drinking that doesn’t appear to hurt you or anyone else
You’ve never hit a real low, and you don’t see yourself as dependent on alcohol. All the same, your doubts linger. Perhaps you start to realize you don’t really like drinking all that much. You might even wonder why you drink at all.
This curiosity around alcohol use isn’t uncommon in the least. Yet because so many people consider social drinking harmless, you might feel like you’re grappling with these thoughts alone. The sober curious movement aims to help validate these questions and create a community for those curious about mindful drinking.
Interested in learning more about where it all started? Buy Warrington’s book online.
Sober curiosity often begins with some concern about alcohol’s impact on your life. It usually involves some questioning of drinking culture and your own patterns of alcohol use.
Anyone can benefit
To get some insight on sober curiosity and alcohol moderation, we reached out to Cyndi Turner, LCSW, LSATP, MAC.
Turner, a Virginia-based therapist who co-founded Insight Into Action Therapy, explains that alcohol use occurs on a spectrum, all the way from no use to remission. “Recovery doesn’t always equal abstinence,” Turner says, “and not everyone who drinks has a problem.”
You can have concerns about your drinking habits even if you don’t meet criteria for alcohol use disorder.
Maybe you need alcohol to get yourself in the mood to socialize or have a drink every night to ease the day’s stress. You’ve noticed, though, that drinking doesn’t really do much to address those issues, and you often end up feeling even more anxious.
You may not feel a need to quit entirely, but you think taking a break might help you find more productive ways of managing challenges. That’s what being sober curious means, in a nutshell.
It isn’t necessarily a permanent change
Going sober curious allows you the opportunity to see how sobriety or moderation might fit into your life.
Some people choose to avoid alcohol for 2 weeks, 1 month, or 1 year. Others don’t set any time limit but commit to going without “for now” or “indefinitely.”
As you consider what you do and don’t enjoy about alcohol, you might make the choice to have a drink on occasion. This is one key difference between the sober curious movement and total sobriety.
Many sober curious people who notice troubling patterns in their alcohol use find that a few weeks or months of sobriety helps them practice more moderate and mindful drinking going forward. And all those health benefits that come with sobriety? Just think of them as an added bonus.
It may be legal and considered mostly safe, but alcohol is still a powerful substance.
Drinking frequently or in excess can result in a range of less-than-desirable effects, like:
- trouble sleeping
- difficulty concentrating
- frequent illness
- feelings of anxiety or depression
- increase your risk for liver disease, cancer, and alcohol use disorder
- contribute to changes in mood and behavior that lead to conflict in your relationships
According to a 2018 study, 1 month of abstaining from alcohol may help lower blood pressure and risk for alcohol-related diseases.
Turner notes that clients participating in month-long sobriety challenges also report increased energy, better sleep, and weight loss.
If alcohol affects your ability to manage your emotions, sobriety can improve your mood and help you communicate more productively. You’ll probably also see some improvements in your performance at work or school, since alcohol can interfere with memory and focus.
Some have criticized the sober curious movement as a “trend” that overlooks the often difficult, complex process of recovery, and it’s a valid argument.
Giving up alcohol typically isn’t easy for people with alcohol use disorder. Maintaining sobriety involves a lot of hard work, and it’s a lifelong process for many.
There’s nothing wrong with choosing a sober curious lifestyle to improve wellness. But it’s also important to recognize the difference between sobriety and the choice to go without drinking. Plenty of people can’t pick up sobriety and safely set it aside later, no matter how tough it gets.
It’s also important to remember, as Turner points out, that alcohol use occurs on a spectrum. People tend to think in pretty binary terms when it comes to alcohol use disorder: Somebody either has a drinking problem and needs to give up alcohol for life, or they don’t.
In reality, though, people recovering from alcohol use disorder can go on to drink occasionally. Similarly, people who don’t meet the criteria for alcohol use disorder can still have a challenging relationship with alcohol and benefit from taking a break.
Sober curiosity is all about exploring what works best for you.
If you’re weighing the benefits of short-term sobriety, Turner recommends focusing on what you’ll gain, not what you’ll lose.
Instead of thinking, “I won’t be able to drink with my friends,” remind yourself that cutting out alcohol can energize you, leaving you open to socializing in more rewarding ways.
The way you structure your sober curious journey matters less than what you get out of it. The key lies in exploring your relationship with alcohol.
Try these strategies for success:
Create a plan
Stepping back from regular drinking might also involve making different choices about how you spend your time. If getting drinks with friends or dates has traditionally occupied a lot of your time, you’ll need to determine how to navigate these situations.
Plenty of options for alcohol-free socializing and dating exist, of course.
The new reality of Zoom hangouts might not be the most fun option, but they do reduce the need to explain your choice not to drink if you aren’t comfortable telling others about your plans.
If you’re opening up your social circle to a few close friends, consider a hike or picnic in the park.
When you know you’ll be in a social setting that involves alcohol, preparing your response ahead of time helps you stick to your decision in a situation where you might feel swayed.
A simple “No, thanks,” is perfectly fine — there’s no need to explain further (unless you want to, of course).
Find a crowd
Once you make the choice to go alcohol-free, connecting with like-minded people can help you feel less alone.
Plenty of people drink to make socializing easier, and it’s not always easy to turn down a drink in a crowd of others who are drinking. Yet as more people begin to explore sober curiosity, not drinking becomes more normalized, and that’s not at all a bad thing.
COVID-19 safety precautions have prevented social events for now, but you can always connect with other sober curious people online or through sober curious events.
Change up your hobbies
Many people who quit drinking find themselves with more free time than usual. Dedicating this time to self-care and satisfying hobbies can help you stay motivated to maintain a sober curious lifestyle.
Some possibilities to consider:
- Explore neighborhood parks.
- Try meditation or a new fitness class (online works, too).
- Spend some quality time with that stack of books on your nightstand.
- Get back into an old hobby.
Not sure about giving up drinking entirely? Interested in going sober curious but feel as if you need a little more structure than simply going without and seeing what happens? An alcohol moderation program might be right for you.
Moderation management helps you explore your relationship with alcohol and reduce the harm associated with alcohol use in a community of others working through the same process.
To learn more about this approach, check out the nonprofit organization Moderation Management.
Short-term or not, sober curiosity can still promote mindful drinking habits and lasting lifestyle change. The sober curious movement doesn’t work for everyone, though, and it’s absolutely OK to need extra support with addressing drinking habits.
If you find it difficult to avoid alcohol despite your best efforts, a good next step might involve reaching out to a professional who specializes in recognizing and treating alcohol dependence. You can also try out 12-step program like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.