Thinking about taking a break from alcohol? What you need to know about being 'sober-curious'
No in the New Year is Yahoo Life’s series about the power of saying no, establishing boundaries and prioritizing your own physical and mental health.
If you’ve been thinking about cutting back on alcohol — or breaking up with booze altogether — you’re not alone. In fact, there’s a growing "sober-curious" movement, which encourages people to rethink their drinking habits.
Being sober-curious is something that goes well beyond Dry January — which is typically a month long and often serves as a reset after a booze-filled holiday season. Advocates say being sober-curious is ultimately about changing your relationship with alcohol long-term and being more mindful about when — and whether — you choose to drink.
So what, exactly, does sober-curious mean?
"Sober-curious" is a term author Ruby Warrington says she coined "to describe my own uneasy relationship with booze,” she shares in a statement provided to Yahoo Life. "After many years of privately questioning my drinking, I began speaking openly about my conflicted feelings about alcohol (with friends and family and also at sober-curious themed events I began to organize) in 2015."
Warrington realized that "a lot of people felt the same way as me — like they knew alcohol could be problematic for them, but didn't see themselves as alcoholics — but were either afraid to talk about it, or didn't have an outlet for an open discussion about the problems even ‘normal’ drinkers experience."
In 2018, Warrington published a book about it, called Sober Curious, encouraging people to change their relationship with alcohol and "stop drinking on autopilot."
Click and scroll in the window below to explore the body after 30 days without alcohol.
Millie Gooch, founder of the U.K.-based Sober Girl Society and author of the Sober Girl Society Handbook, tells Yahoo Life that the term sober-curious "has come to define the emerging mindful-drinking movement." But she adds that the actual explanation of what sober-curiosity means has become "a little confused."
"While some people take it to mean being curious about becoming a full-time non-drinker, Ruby herself describes it as questioning everything about your relationship with alcohol including the way that we, as a society, view and consume it," Gooch explains. “Rather than having to declare yourself a non-drinker, sober-curious can be a permanent state in which you still drink on rare occasions, but generally become more aware of the motivations behind your drinking and aim to change your relationship with alcohol in a much more positive way."
For Heather Molnar, a member of the operations team at Moderation Management, which is a volunteer-run organization helping people address their own drinking challenges, sober-curiosity is about "becoming aware of the role alcohol plays in your life" and not relying on it as a "crutch."
For example, "a sober curious person may continue going to brunch but skip the mimosas," Molnar, who is also the administrator of Moderation Management’s private Facebook page, which has 4,300 members, tells Yahoo Life. "A sober curious person is continuing to participate in all the activities where alcohol is present, but they aren't drinking any alcohol. They are learning to socialize — or be alone — without the crutch of alcohol."
Why it’s hard to drink less
Alcohol is nearly everywhere, from weddings and birthday parties to boozy Sunday brunches and Saturday night dinners, so there are ample opportunities to imbibe. In addition, cocktails help many people feel more relaxed and confident in these social situations.
"Alcohol is rewarding not only because of its pleasurable effects but also because it dampens emotional discomfort — e.g., feelings of stress or anxiety," Dr. George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), tells Yahoo Life. "It is easy to slide into a routine of using alcohol to facilitate both celebrating and coping."
As Warrington puts it: "The thought of having to 'perform' without our trusty liquid crutch can bring up a lot of fear." But she adds that "since the fastest way to dismantle your fears is to prove them wrong, I therefore recommend embracing as many Sober Firsts — staying sober in situations where you would normally drink — as you can. It may take a few goes, but you’ll soon realize you don’t 'need' alcohol at all."
Gooch agrees, saying, "The truth is that when you can no longer rely on alcohol for your confidence, you have to build it within yourself. You actually become more confident when you stop drinking as you start tackling situations without the bravado of booze."
The benefits of being sober-curious
Experts say being more mindful about how often and whether you drink is beneficial for your physical and mental health. "Cutting back, quitting, or taking a break from alcohol certainly can be good for the body if done wisely," says Koob.
At the very least, Koob says, "It can give a person a chance to evaluate their relationship with alcohol and cultivate alternatives for relaxing, socializing, coping and other reasons why people drink. Some people might discover that their alcohol use was irritating their stomach, disrupting their sleep, contributing to weight gain, or that they relied more on alcohol for stress relief than they thought."
Koob adds: "Waking up without the fatigue, malaise and other common symptoms of hangovers could potentially improve a person’s quality of life. Several small studies have noted improvements in health and well-being after a month without alcohol."
It’s something Molnar has experienced firsthand. "Personally, I sleep much better when I haven't had any alcohol and I wake up feeling refreshed, which means I get more done," she says. "You can avoid the dreaded ‘hangxiety’ — the fear of not being quite sure what you said or did the night before."
Over time, "you'll build new habits — ones that don't involve drinking on auto-pilot," says Molnar, "and find other ways to fill time that was previously spent drinking, or recovering from drinking." She adds: "For me, I replaced after-work drinks with walks with friends or alone. I use this time to unwind and get a bit of exercise."
"It has become much more socially acceptable to pass on alcohol"
Unlike in the past when you might be the only person at a party or social gathering not drinking alcohol, it’s easier than ever to not only find mocktail options but also alcohol-free social events.
Along with Gooch’s Sober Girl Society, which has more than 150k followers, there are several online communities connecting people who no longer drink alcohol, such as No Booze Babes by Shea Gomez, which has more than 30k followers, and the membership-based community Retired Party Girl founded by Tori Felder. Other sites, such as Meetup.com, also help people find alcohol-free gatherings and groups.
And the stigma of not drinking at social events has lessened over the years. "Luckily for those of us looking to reduce the amount we drink, it has become much more socially acceptable to pass on alcohol when out with friends, at parties, or even spending a night in," says Molnar. "Bartenders seem to welcome the challenge of making satisfying 'mocktails,' and increasingly NA (non-alcoholic) drinks are becoming mainstream."
How to be sober-curious
Curious about being sober-curious and not sure where to start? Koob suggests first taking "a closer look at one’s relationship with alcohol. Why do you drink when you do? Is it out of boredom, to relax, have fun, for the taste, to deal with stress and anxiety, to sleep?"
Once you’ve identified the reasons why you reach for alcohol, "think about ways you could accomplish those things without alcohol," suggests Koob. "For instance, try to identify healthy, sustainable ways of coping with the stress and anxiety or having fun. Maybe for you it could be yoga, mindfulness meditation, long walks or other exercise, talking more with friends, or developing better sleep hygiene."
Next, make a plan. Molnar recommends people "start small and slow." For example, "if you usually have three drinks a day, drop it down to one or two," Molnar says. "Delay your first drink — usually have the first drink at 6 p.m.? Try moving it to 7 p.m. instead."
If you feel ready for a bigger change, Moderation Management suggests "Doing a 30" — "that's taking a 30-day break from alcohol," says Molnar. "It's a great way to test the waters and really assess the role that alcohol is playing in your life. If that's too much, think about setting aside some ‘non-drinking’ days each week and aim for four dry days each week."
However, Warrington has a different approach. For "a regular social drinker" — which Warrington defines as "somebody who drinks at least 1-2 nights per week" but not to excess — she recommends taking "at least 100 days off drinking to really feel the benefits," she says.
While Warrington calls Dry January "a great start," she says it’s "relatively easy to muscle through, whereas taking a longer break means you'll be confronted with some more challenging ‘Sober Firsts’ — first sober date, wedding, work party, vacation, etc.— and therefore have more opportunities to discover a) that you do not ‘need’ alcohol in any of these situations, b) how great it feels to be truly free of the toxic load of booze, and c) how deeply ingrained your attachment to alcohol really is, based on how hard it can sometimes be not to drink!"
After getting a better understanding of the "overall impact that even moderate drinking has on your wellbeing," then it’s about "working out for yourself if and when you actually want to engage with this substance," says Warrington.
Above all, "be gentle with yourself," says Koob. "It probably took a long time to develop your current relationship with alcohol, and it can take several attempts and sustained effort to change that. Like with lifestyle changes around diet or exercise, if you don’t achieve your goals the first time, try not to judge yourself harshly and just try again."
If you’re having a hard time cutting back or quitting on your own, the NIAAA website has a list of resources for online support, including their Alcohol Treatment Navigator.
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