Dry January: how to get through the month without falling off the wagon
Tips on how to conquer triggers that make you want to reach for a glass
Here’s another trap: imagining that everybody but you is having a fantastic time throwing back the booze in warmth and conviviality. Photograph: iStock
If you joined those who decided to do “dry January”, you are by now in the very early stages of your 31-day journey. Whether the journey is looking tougher or easier than it seemed at the start, here are a few tips to help you along the way, based on my own experience.
First, you need to accept you will encounter various triggers to make you want to drink. Your brain has a remarkable learning system which remembers that, say, it’s five o’clock in the evening and you normally have a drink in the next couple of hours. Or you’re in the kitchen making dinner and it says ‘hey, isn’t this when you get to have a glass (the euphemism for “two glasses”) of wine’ as you work? Your brain has learned when to expect a drink and it triggers the urge.
The main thing to remember is that this is normal and that urges usually pass within 20 minutes – often more quickly – as long as you don’t dwell on them. Allowing that urge to pass through without giving in to it or running away from it is called “urge surfing”.
Here’s another trap: imagining that everybody but you is having a fantastic time throwing back the booze in warmth and conviviality. Well, first of all, if drinking is normal for them it’s just giving them a normal time. It only looks fantastic to you because you are not drinking.
And as for the idea that everybody else is having a drink and you’re some sort of freak, about one fifth of adults never drink at all – and lots of them are doing just fine when it comes to warmth and conviviality. Also, there is a growing trend among young people of not drinking. Remembering this can help when you feel like you’re the only person in the world who isn’t having a drink.
Be prepared also to experience ambivalence, which is a feature of the experience of dropping anything you are dependent on. By ambivalence I mean arguing with yourself over whether you need to do this dry January thing at all. Isn’t it all a bit much, really? How can it help your quality of life not to drink? That’s one side.
Then, on the other side, your brain says well, actually, it’s not all a bit much at all – it’s something I choose to do because I think it might be good for me and I don’t have to convince you anyway.
Sidestep these arguments
Ambivalence is one of the traps that leads to people falling off the wagon so you need to sidestep these arguments, and keep your sights firmly set on January 31st.
I mentioned triggers at the start. A practical strategy for dealing with these triggers is to substitute other experiences for drinking. These can include drinking tonic water or sparkling water instead of alcohol, watching Netflix without falling asleep, going to movies, walking or running on Saturday morning when you would ordinarily be nursing a hangover, or any of the trillions of other things that we can actually do besides drinking. If these experiences seem absolutely ridiculous to you compared to downing a glass of wine or a pint, you might be more fond of the drink than is good for you. Give the alternative experiences a chance.
You could do worse than make a habit of glancing at the “tiredofthinkingaboutdrinking” blog which I recommended here before. Its author, Belle Robertson, takes a humorous and common-sense view of ditching the drink, combined with a full awareness of the tricks the mind, which she calls “wolfie”, likes to play. I’m also a fan of Jason Vale’s book Kick the Drink . . . Easily!.
I stopped drinking for a year on a whim (though I had been moving tentatively towards that whim for the previous year) five years ago. Ever since then, on January 1st, I wonder if it’s time to take it up again, can’t make up my mind (there’s that ambivalence) and give myself another 12 months.
Happy new year.
– Padraig O’Morain (@PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email (email@example.com)