So you’re trying Dry January ― aka a month of no alcoholic beverages. Perhaps you’re doing it to save money, because you’re worried you drink a little too much or because your friend doesn’t want to do it alone. Regardless, there’s probably a part of you that’s “sober-curious,” meaning you’re thinking about how alcohol affects you and your life.
As you skip out on drinks throughout the month, you may notice signs that make you even more sober-curious. Maybe you realize how much you’ve been relying on alcohol or how much better your life is without it.
Below, experts share the signs your Dry January challenge should become a more permanent part of your lifestyle and list tips for sticking with it:
1. You realize all you’ve missed out on because of drinking.
While alcohol is something many of us turn to when we feel upset, want to have fun or need to wind down, it can also limit our lives. For example, when you’re drunk, you can’t drive to a Zumba class or play with your baby niece.
“Dry January presents a host of opportunities to experience what we otherwise might have missed out on,” said Brook McKenzie, the chief operating officer at Renewal Lodge by Burning Tree, an addiction treatment center. With all that extra time you had during Dry January, he explained, you might have gotten to try something new and exciting.
Further, you might recognize all you missed out on — either in general or sober. “Often, due to the prevalence of alcohol in our culture, people can go years — even decades — without having experienced things like a first kiss, an intimate conversation, a child’s first steps, a movie, meal, birthday, [or] Christmas without the use of alcohol,” said James Hartley, a U.K.-based counselor who’s been sober for three and a half years.
2. Your interests change.
According to Hartley, you may find your old interests boring or need to re-find the value of something without a drink.
“Enjoying yourself without alcohol takes some relearning, and you might find that some things you thought you enjoyed, you actually don’t, and you might find that you start developing new interests,” he said.
For example, you might find more value in small group gatherings than parties, or enjoy playing recreational soccer over drinking alone at home.
3. You feel better emotionally, mentally and physically.
As you probably know, alcohol can make you feel groggy, moody and nauseous, to start. So, abstaining from it has many benefits.
“You might experience an increase in energy, alertness, positive thinking, less depressed symptoms, more restful sleep and overall an improvement in your well-being,” said Cathrin Moeller, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks in Colorado Springs, Colorado, who specializes in addiction, depression, coping skills, stress and relationships.
Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, explained how this works: “As we all know, alcohol is a depressant and it impacts our brain’s ‘happy’ hormones, like serotonin and dopamine,” she said. “One of the benefits of cutting out alcohol is that you’re likely to feel more balanced in mood, less anxious, etc.” Those changes may help you at your job, too, as work feels more doable and less stressful.
4. Your relationships have improved.
Since alcohol can take us away from friends, family, special events and more, you may have noticed the deepening of your relationships in Dry January.
“People are coming around [you] more, they are [giving] positive feedback that drinking less has been good for them, and [your] interactions with people are more genuine and less superficial,” said Kendall Phillips, a licensed professional counselor.
Connecting with others in a meaningful way is vital to our well-being. It can lengthen your life, strengthen your immune system and lower levels of anxiety and depression.
5. Staying away from alcohol was difficult for you.
If you notice distressing emotions come up more than they have in other months — and wish you could quiet them with a drink — that could be because you used alcohol to numb them in the past, according to Moeller.
“If that is the case, it is important to seek support in working through this with a licensed mental health professional,” she added.
Ultimately, it comes down to dependence. “The main difference between social drinking and being a ‘problem drinker’ is reliance,” Touroni said. Some signs of reliance she shared are struggling without having alcohol to turn to, thinking about alcohol a lot and feeling like you need it in social situations.
“If during this period a person is having physical, emotional or psychological cravings and withdrawals, this does signify a more serious problem,” added Dee Johnson, an addiction therapist based at Priory Hospital Chelmsford in the U.K. As a result, staying away from alcohol may be especially difficult — and something you need professional help with, she said, as Dry January can be dangerous for people whose bodies are addicted to alcohol.
Do those signs necessarily mean you’re dealing with addiction?
The short answer: No. However, continuing to pay attention to your relationship with alcohol is crucial.
“Alcohol misuse is usually a slow burner that increases subtly over time, to the point that as physical tolerance levels slowly increase, it is quite common for the realization to hit that there really is an issue only at crisis or near to [the] crisis point,” Johnson said.
(FYI, the signs of alcoholism include feeling powerless to alcohol, drinking in high-risk situations, developing a tolerance, noticing withdrawal symptoms without it, facing problems in your personal and professional life because of your need for alcohol, and more.) Also, Johnson added, you don’t have to drink “every day” or “just the hard stuff” to have an addiction.
Truth be told, we all have something we turn to when we need to cope: sex, food, alcohol, yoga, friends. To some degree, that’s normal and OK. The problem is when it interferes with your life and well-being.
“What’s important is the relationship you have to that thing and whether, in the long term, that is preventing you from living a fuller and more contented life,” Hartley added. “Whether you term yourself as ‘an addict’ is irrelevant: The truth is, you have a problem with the way things currently are, and it may be worthwhile having a go at changing that a little.”
Tips For Exploring A Sober Lifestyle
Regardless of how you define your relationship with alcohol, what can help you avoid it (especially when it’s basically everywhere)? Here are some options, straight from these experts:
- Working with a therapist
- Asking your family and friends to support you
- Practicing new coping skills
- Leaning in to your religion or spirituality
- Finding new hobbies and interests
- Asking someone to be your accountability partner
- Attending meetings focused on quitting alcohol
- Not going to bars
- Taking it one day at a time
- Thinking about how much better you feel
- Brainstorming your goals (those related to staying sober and other ones).
If you slip up, be gentle with yourself. This happens, and your hard work isn’t lost. “It is part of the journey to experience setbacks, as with any goal,” Moeller said. “Think of it as part of the journey versus a failure.”
Remember, you’re not alone in what you’re going through, and help is out there.
Need help with substance use disorder or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.
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