January is Alcohol Awareness Month. In the past month, has drinking been associated with:
Feeling more comfortable in a social situation.
Feeling good about yourself, trying to have a “better or good time.”
Feelings of relief or escape from problems or worries.
Missing class or work due to drinking.
Avoiding social situations, family, and friends to drink alone.
Episodes of depression, anger, or violence.
Taking risks that can impact your life or the lives of others.
Spending too much money and creating financial problems.
Having unsafe intercourse.
Not knowing when to stop drinking, getting drunk, or blacking out.
Driving under the influence (or having a few drinks and still driving).
Losing relationships or getting into arguments with friends or relatives.
The inability to stop or control alcohol intake after starting to drink.
Spending significant amounts of time thinking about alcohol.
High tolerance of alcohol and the need to drink a large amount to feel the effects.
Displaying behavior that is uncharacteristic to your sober personality.
Repeating unwanted drinking patterns, or the inability to stop drinking even when setting drinking limits.
Pre-drinking before attending events or parties.
A sense of denial that drinking is a problem because you can still perform or succeed professionally and personally.
Using alcohol as a reward.
Binge drinking and common blackouts.
People expressing concern over negative drinking behaviors.
Engaging in risky activities or risky behaviors.
I am sure most of us would answer ‘yes’ to at least one of these, and yes, these are criteria for one of the Alcohol use Disorders in DSM-V (Binge Drinking Disorder, Alcohol Abuse Disorder, Alcoholism). We aren’t trying to use this to diagnose problems here, but rather to have an honest conversation with ourselves. Use your responses as a way to look inward at how much you drink, and how you use alcohol. You stopped to read this article, that’s a start.
Get curious about why you are drinking and really be HONEST about how much. Are you opening the bottle of wine because you like to pair a glass with your meal that you prepared, or are you trying to lift your mood? Have you been feeling tense, and your drink is an attempt to loosen your mood? There is a difference between enjoying a glass of wine and using wine to tune out the world.
Remember that the thinking about drinking doesn’t have to be black and white. It’s OK to sometimes want to de-stress with friends over a glass of wine, but when it becomes something that you do every day, it’s worth considering ways to think more critically about that behavior.
It’s not a terrible idea to jot down the number of drinks you have if you start to get concerned for a week or two. Historical bias about our own behavior is almost never entirely accurate. How many of you have thought, “I can’t believe how drunk I got! I only had three drinks…” Guess what? You probably had more than three. Examine how much you’ve been drinking and jot down your mood or the circumstances of your day. Then you will have a better idea about how you want to change your behaviors (or if you do).
So, it feels like a problem…what now?
Start by shifting some of the stimuli – English please? Remove the wine rack from where it usually is in plain sight, so you aren’t automatically grabbing it when you are preparing dinner. If you have a reservation for dinner at a restaurant known for its drinks, postpone it until you aren’t trying to shift your relationship with alcohol and suggest a different, fun, booze-free activity.
Alcohol does have its benefits!
It helps us relax, it helps to bring people together – “cookie and wine party,” “fire pit cocktails,” “boozy brunch,” “Tequila Tuesday.” We could go on here, drinking is a part of our culture! Trying to shift your relationship with alcohol will be associated with a sense of loss, so expect that in much the same way an athlete feels when he or she gets injured or when you lose someone in your life. Find activities (and book them) that replace boozy ones and find fun drinks sans alcohol to replace the fun cocktails, ideally before you make a shift.
Be patient with yourself!
No change happens overnight, or in a day or even two. You might be deciding to only drink in social settings, or only on the weekends, or to only have two drinks when you are out, or to stop drinking entirely, or that you don’t need to make a change at all. You know yourself best. This is really about looking inward and figuring out how alcohol plays a role in how you cope and making sure its role isn’t bigger than what’s healthy for you, either psychologically or physically.
What’s with the Dry January trend?
Holiday season is typically filled with lots of drinking. It often feels like more of the norm to drink than not. Many adults even feel like the outsider when they aren’t drinking at a social event. Alcohol peer pressure is real, even when it comes with the best of intentions. “Just have one drink,” or “Just for the toast.” We’ve all heard (or said that).
Alcohol can and does negatively impact many organs that are vital to our functioning – liver, pancreas, heart, brain and our immune system. You are actually more vulnerable to getting sick 24 hours after drinking as a result of your decreased immunity. However, it’s still more common to over-drink than not to drink at a party.
It seems like it’s becoming easier for folks to institute a Dry January because it is a social trend but what I want to encourage everyone reading this is to pave your own way, start your own trend! Create a relationship with alcohol that is healthy, works for you, and doesn’t have to be characterized by extremes. Drink when it works for you. Don’t drink when it doesn’t. Be sober. Whatever works for YOU. Let’s be honest with ourselves about our relationships with alcohol and make them right for each of us!
Here are a few pointers if you choose to take up the challenge:
Check in with yourself and your mood before you go out and talk to someone to get clear with your emotions beforehand. (Yes, I am a psychologist so you knew that was coming at some point!)
Have a plan or idea about how you want to handle drinking when you are out.
If you don’t want to drink on a particular night practice how you want to decline a drink, sounds silly, but it will help!
When you’re hosting a party, offer non-alcoholic fun beverages in addition to alcoholic ones, you might just start a trend and you never know who might not be drinking and why.
Choose to be surrounded by people who you know support your decisions and who you can trust to respect your decisions.
If there is one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s to try and find the silver lining. One of those for me has been highlighting the relationships and experiences that are truly meaningful. If you’re with me, let’s aim to make 2022 the year of creating that work for us, including our relationship with alcohol.
Ariella Soffer, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist who owns a group practice in Manhattan. Dr. Soffer’s practice specializes in parenting consultation, sports psychology, perinatal mental health in addition to general mental health concerns. Soffer & Associates Comprehensive Psychological Services website can be found here: DrAriellaSoffer.com