Dry January has become a growing trend over the years. As a way to jump start health goals in the new year, individuals take up the challenge of abstaining from alcohol for the month of January. Many acknowledge the great benefits alcohol abstention can have not only on physical health, but mental health and other life areas as well. Beyond improving general wellbeing, going sober for thirty-one days is also a way for individuals to reevaluate their relationship with alcohol, and much more. Unfortunately, most will fail – here’s why.
What You Can Learn From Dry January
Dry January, Sober October, becoming “sober curious,” and other such abstinence based initiatives are becoming increasingly popular. Dry January began as an alcohol-free initiative to “ditch the hangover, reduce the waistline and save some serious money by giving up alcohol for 31 days,” but there are many other benefits of going sober beyond the scale and wallet. By trying on sobriety for a period of time you may learn:
- How does alcohol impact general wellbeing?
Alcohol impacts physical health, mental health and overall quality of life in a variety of ways. With respect to physical health, alcohol can lead to health issues with the gut, liver, pancreas, immune system, brain, heart, and skin among other physiologic considerations. With respect to mental health, alcohol can lead to increased depression, anxiety, and stress. Taking a break from alcohol can help you determine how alcohol is impacting your wellbeing in such areas.
- How does alcohol impact sleep?
Alcohol can be detrimental to sleep quality. While alcohol can help induce sleep, alcohol interrupts deep sleep, which is the Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. The end result is feeling less refreshed and sluggish, not to mention also possibly waking up with a hangover. Being sober can help improve sleep quality, which in turn will help improve cognitive ability, boost mood, energy, and alleviate stress alongside other mental health challenges.
- How does alcohol impact relationships?
Alcohol can impact relationships in a number of ways, including but not limited to mistrust, intimacy issues, poor communication, and hindered emotional availability. You may find that without alcohol your relationships improve. On the other hand, alcohol can also serve as the glue of your social life. Without alcohol you may realize that your social life suffers, albeit a reason to examine your social life and perhaps find friends that have other bonds aside from consuming alcohol together.
- How is my relationship with alcohol?
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of trying out sobriety is reevaluating your relationship with alcohol. Many people fall into a grey area where they are not an alcoholic, but may be questioning if they have a problem with alcohol. Being sober for a period of time allows for introspection and insight into your drinking behavior. Some signs that alcohol is a bigger problem than you may have thought include but are not limited to:
- Being unable to abstain from alcohol for the period of time you intended
- Constantly thinking about alcohol
- Experiencing strong cravings to drink alcohol
- Having withdrawal symptoms when you stop drinking
- Beginning to feel anxious, depressed or stressed without alcohol
- Your social or leisure life suffers without alcohol
If you’d like to evaluate your drinking, this Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test (AUDIT) self-assessment tool can be helpful. However, if you think you may have a problem with alcohol and cannot cut down on your own you should always seek out an evaluation from an addiction specialist.
It’s important to note that stopping alcohol consumption cold-turkey can be dangerous for frequent drinkers who may be at risk of experiencing alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Alcohol withdrawal cannot only be uncomfortable and painful, but it can also be lethal. As such, for susceptible individuals it is always encouraged to safely stop alcohol use under medical supervision, If you detox at home, always have someone sober checking in on you regularly, and call 911 immediately if you begin to experience moderate to severe withdrawal symptoms.
Why People Fail Dry January, and Sobriety Overall
Unfortunately, most people who attempt to go sober for the dry January challenge end up failing. A 2021 survey showed that the average American only lasted 10 days into dry January before they gave up, and one in ten gave up by January 3rd. When it comes to sobriety in general, studies show that 75-95% of individuals end up relapsing even after completing alcohol treatment. This begs the question, why do so many people fail dry January, and sobriety overall.
Alcohol relapse is a gradual process with distinct stages and warning signs along the way. The goal is to recognize the early red flags of relapse before an actual relapse takes place. Recognizing warning signs and intervening will increase chances of success. Although relapse is a complex multifactorial phenomenon, there is one overarching theme of why individuals fail to maintain abstinence from alcohol be it during a dry January challenge or when in recovery from alcohol abuse.
The number one reason why people fail dry January or sobriety at large is because they lack discipline. Discipline is key to accomplishing anything worthwhile, including abstinence from alcohol. Discipline takes determination, conviction, persistence, sacrifice, and avoiding distractions and temptations. In this way, discipline is not about willpower to not drink, rather it is about discipline to engage in the behaviors that will help you not drink.
Discipline means staying focused on your goals and consistently doing the things you need to do that will help you stay sober even when you don’t feel like doing them. Without discipline, you’re more likely to give up your abstinence when triggers arise or when temptation comes. Furthermore, without discipline you’re more likely to not make the necessary sacrifices today in order to avoid a drink tomorrow.
Discipline means making your sobriety a priority. This is incredibly important, as approximately 45% of dry January participants who failed in the past forgot they were even participating in the challenge until after they relapsed. It was not a priority for them, or if it were, it would be on top of their mind.
In addition to making it a priority, it means being disciplined enough to engage in consistent behaviors that safeguard sobriety such as regular exercise, meditation, journaling, talking with a support system, engaging in hobbies, self-care, or whatever other tools available that are helpful. For those with an alcohol dependence, they may need to consistently attend alcohol treatment or a mutual help group for alcohol addiction.
Discipline means being prepared. It is especially important to be prepared for social engagements where alcohol may be present, as 39% of dry January participants relapse due to going to happy hour with friends, and 37% relapse due to going out on a date. Some tips to prepare for social engagements where there may be temptations to consume alcohol include but are not limited to:
- Have a good reason to go to the engagement in the first place.
- Tell your friends and family that you are staying sober for January.
- Bring support with you such as a person who is also doing dry January or who will at least encourage you to stay abstinent.
- Have support in your pocket such as a person who checks in on you during the engagement via call or text.
- Drink a non-alcoholic beverage such as a mocktail or sparkling water.
- Have an exit plan.If you become uncomfortable or triggered, have an excuse ready as to why you need to leave. Nothing is worth compromising your sobriety, values, and goals.
Discipline also means not falling prey to short-term pleasure. This is incredibly important, especially for individuals who may have an alcohol use disorder, as studies show that the most common reason alcohol dependent individuals relapse is because they want to improve their mood or relieve negative emotions. For such issues, some individuals may find it beneficial to speak with a mental health professional such as a therapist or psychiatrist, while others may be able to alleviate negative emotions and boost their mood by going out in nature, being physically active, meditating, doing yoga, speaking with a support system, or engaging in other such health conscious behaviors.
Discipline needs to be developed, and individuals who consume alcohol regularly may be lacking in the area of discipline. Discipline cannot be established overnight, but rather discipline is built gradually over time. Here are some ways to help develop more discipline and subsequently increase your chances to stay sober:
- Have a mantra that will help you stay consistent, such as the slogan “just do it” or “one day at a time”
- Increase your tolerance to emotional discomfort by sitting with the feeling
- Remove distractions
- Break bad habits such as procrastinating, excessive screen time, and overeating
- Plan and follow a schedule, write it down on a calendar
- Have proper sleep hygiene comprising of a regular sleep and wake cycle
- Exercise regularly
- Reward your accomplishments
Beyond discipline, some individuals are at higher risk of relapse due to socioeconomic status, unemployment, living environment, mental health, or genetics. Furthermore, individuals with a history of pervasive alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence are at higher risk of relapse, as well as those who have a history of failed recovery attempts and relapse in their past. Such cases are exemplary of the neurological impact alcohol can have on the brain, and demonstrate the need for more intensive alcohol treatment, guidance, and support for such individuals. All individuals are capable of maintaining abstinence from alcohol despite their past trauma and past drinking history with proper framework in place.
Failure To Stay Sober DOES NOT Necessarily Mean You Have A Problem With Alcohol
Nobody likes to fail, but failure is a reality of life and is essential for growth. However, some individuals can become crippled by failure, find it demoralizing and find it hard to move forward. Some may take their failed attempts at sobriety harder than others, thinking they are a weak person, weak willed or other such negative thoughts. Self-forgiveness and self-compassion are fundamental to moving through failure for such individuals.
Failure also does not necessarily mean that you have a problem with alcohol. People have different motivations to try sobriety. For some, failure may mean that their motivation to be sober simply wasn’t strong enough, such as for the individuals who broke their abstinence because they forgot their dry January pledge. It merely may not have been a priority for them. What an individual’s reasoning is for failing at alcohol abstention is telling as to if they do or don’t have a problem with alcohol.
Failing to stay sober also doesn’t mean you should beat yourself up. Rather, it can serve as an opportunity to further evaluate what purpose alcohol is serving in your life and contemplate if it may be a bigger problem than you may have thought. An alcohol “slip” or “lapse” can serve as a learning lesson for how you choose to move forward in your life with or without alcohol.
Success Staying Sober DOES NOT Necessarily Mean That You Don’t Have A Problem With Alcohol
Making it through dry January, or even staying sober for several months or a year or more does not necessarily mean you don’t have a problem with alcohol. It means you’re able to stop drinking. Many alcoholics will tell you that stopping is the easy part, it’s staying stopped that is hard.
If alcohol was causing you problems in the past, there is a great likelihood that it will continue to cause you problems in the future. Furthermore, if you were abusing alcoholic in the past, there is a great likelihood you will continue to abuse alcohol if you resume drinking.
If you are sober for a period of time but continue to experience cravings to consume alcohol, are obsessing over alcohol, have a poor social life without alcohol, or if you experience a low mood, anxiety, anger, or other mental health issues without alcohol then alcohol may be a problem for you despite your ability to be abstinent.
How To Set Yourself Up For Success Staying Sober During Dry January, And Beyond
When deciding to participate in the dry January challenge, or anytime you’re considering sobriety, evaluate why you’re choosing to abstain from alcohol and how high it is on your priority list to follow through on your goal. Your “why” will give your goal a purpose and enhance motivation.
Goals should be purposeful and meaningful. If it’s not a high priority, you’re less likely to stay motivated and disciplined, or may even forget about it altogether. As such, it may be helpful to consider various areas of your life that alcohol is impacting such as physical health, mental health, sleep, cognition, social life and financial health. If there are no major concerns in any particular area, perhaps minor concerns in various areas can add up to increase your desire to follow through. Being objective and honest in your self-assessment is key.
It may also be helpful for you to identify the reasons you drink alcohol. While every individual is unique and will have their own reasons for drinking alcohol, 80% of individuals drink because it relieves stress or makes them feel good and 56% drink because they believe they are more likeable or sociable when they drink, making it difficult to completely give it up.
Common reasons people drink alcohol include but are not limited to:
- Using alcohol to cope with trauma or mental health issues such as stress, depression, anxiety, or anger as well as negative self-beliefs such as guilt, shame, and low self-esteem.
- Using alcohol when experiencing sleep difficulties.
- Using alcohol as a social lubricant.
- Using alcohol for fun and sensation seeking.
- Using alcohol to fend off boredom or loneliness.
- Using alcohol to cope with interpersonal or intrapersonal conflicts.
- Using alcohol due to compulsion.
Furthermore, make sure that abstinence is in alignment with other goals you may have and not incompatible. For example, a congruent goal would be abstinence and losing weight, while a conflicting goal might be abstinence and wanting to be more social if you have difficulty being social without alcohol. If you do have goals that don’t align with one another, think them through, troubleshoot, and work on finding balance.
It's also important to make a plan in order to succeed with navigating life without alcohol. Think through obstacles and challenging situations that may arise, and strategize accordingly. For example, if you have an upcoming social engagement that involves alcohol, think through how to navigate the situation. This reverts back to the importance of discipline in preparedness, such as having an exit plan if you come overtly triggered to drink. Other types of planning may include taking alcohol out of your home, telling your friends and family about your sober goals, and scheduling activities to fend off boredom or loneliness, especially during days and times you might usually drink alcohol.
Celebrate your victories. Every day sober is a victory towards reaching your longer-term abstinence goal. Every social engagement where alcohol becomes a temptation that you walk away from without drinking is an achievement. By acknowledging such wins, even small ones, self-esteem is renewed and motivation is built to continue working towards the goal in the future. Celebrations do not have to entail anything elaborate, but more importantly should comprise of recognizing the success and bringing attention to the positive feeling that accompanies the accomplishment in order to bolster internal satisfaction, pride and motivation.
Find alternative healthy coping mechanisms for stress, worry, sadness, anger and other emotional triggers you may experience. It’s easy to turn to unhealthy coping skills such as alcohol or food to numb negative feelings, but an important part of abstinence and recovery is to feel unwanted emotions and navigate healthy ways to deal with them. Everyone is different, and therefore each individual will have to find what works for them. Oftentimes it may include exercise, going outside for fresh air, speaking with a loved one, meditating, journaling, taking a bath, or simply sitting with the feeling until it passes.
Create a support system. Tell your friends and family that you’re sober and would appreciate their support. Find like-minded people that are also sober and lean on them to navigate difficult situations. If you’re having difficulty finding support, try meeting people at health-conscious institutions such as your local gym or other wellness-based establishments. You may also be able to find virtual support via a sober Facebook or Reddit group, or through meetup.com. For those who choose to find more intensive support, there are groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery. There is also professional alcohol support via an alcohol specialist such as a therapist or psychiatrist, as well as group therapy for alcohol addiction.
As a reminder, if you are a daily drinker or at risk of experiencing withdrawal symptoms DO NOT attempt dry January cold turkey. Alcohol withdrawal can be fatal, and such individuals who choose to stop drinking should seek guidance from a medical professional who specializes in alcohol such as an alcohol therapist, alcohol psychiatrist, alcohol counselor, alcohol recovery coach or other such alcohol specialist.
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