‘Sober curious’? How to embrace mindful drinking instead of wrestling with Dry January

Experts and sober-curious veterans offer tips for becoming more thoughtful about alcohol

Dry January: a month without alcohol offers your body and mind a chance to reset and reflect after the seasonal bloat and weariness. Photograph:

Dry January: a month without alcohol offers your body and mind a chance to reset and reflect after the seasonal bloat and weariness. Photograph:

 
It is Health Season in The Irish Times. In print and online, we will be offering encouragement and inspiration to help us all improve our physical and mental health in 2022. See irishtimes.com/health

Dry January – or Drynuary, for the initiated – offers your body and mind a chance to reset and reflect after the seasonal bloat and weariness. Rather than cutting out alcohol entirely, though, a growing number of people are “sober curious”, exploring elements of a booze-free lifestyle without fully abstaining.

“Mindful drinking”, a phrase and philosophy that brings the self-reflection of meditation to a glass of wine or beer, has become increasingly commonplace in recent years, according to Rosamund Dean, a journalist in London who published a book based on the term in 2017. She wanted to become more intentional about her relationship to drinking, she says, instead of seeing alcohol as a habit or a crutch.

“It was going to the work event where there was nasty, cheap white wine and knocking it back,” or “putting the kids in bed after a busy day and cracking a bottle open,” she says. “It’s the drinking you do without really thinking about it.” Mindful drinking, by contrast, means “bringing awareness to your behaviours in terms of your decision to drink alcohol”: for example, tallying how many cocktails you consume in a given night, or paying close attention to why, where and when you’re drawn to drinking.

Collectively, we’ve inherited this story about alcohol that the only way to change your drinking is if you’ve hit rock bottom

This moderation mindset might particularly appeal to people searching for ways to scale back on troubling habits they developed during the pandemic. Ruby Warrington, a writer in New York, started using the term “sober curious” five years ago. At the time, she says, her drinking habits appeared to be under control: she never blacked out, or even drank more than two nights in a row. But she drank more than she wanted to, she didn’t feel able to say no. Warrington craved a middle-ground approach to drinking: the ability to interrogate her relationship to alcohol without ending it completely.

In 2018 she published Sober Curious: The Blissful Sleep, Greater Focus, Limitless Presence, and Deep Connection Awaiting Us All on the Other Side of Alcohol, articulating the philosophy behind what she calls “choosing to question” her impulse to imbibe. Warrington says that interrogating one’s drinking habits often leads people to adopt more mindful drinking strategies.

“Collectively, we’ve inherited this story about alcohol that the only way to change your drinking is if you’ve hit rock bottom,” says Dru Jaeger, cofounder and director of programmes at Club Soda, an online community that sprouted up nearly seven years ago in Britain. The group hosts online and in-person social events without alcohol, as well as free and paid programmes that teach members how to reduce their drinking habits. About half of Club Soda’s more than 70,000 members are interested in moderating their drinking rather than in becoming entirely sober. The group has seen consistent growth, particularly in the United States, in recent years, as well as more interest from people in their 20s concerned about the toll drinking takes on their mental health.

There is limited scientific evidence on the efficacy of using mindfulness to moderate drinking behaviour. A 2017 study of 68 heavy drinkers in Britain found that those who received 11 minutes of mindfulness instruction reduced their alcohol consumption significantly the next week. This “microdose of meditation” may have helped participants regulate their emotions, encouraging them to rely on mindfulness when they might otherwise turn to alcohol to cope with stress, according to Sunjeev Kamboj, a psychology professor at University College London and the lead author of the study.

Dry January: mindful drinking can include tallying how much you drink in a given night. Photograph: iStock/Getty
Dry January: mindful drinking can include tallying how much you drink in a given night. Photograph: iStock/Getty

The mindful-drinking approach also draws on similar strategies to cognitive behavioural therapy, a psychological intervention used to address depression and anxiety, says Kenneth Stoller, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Johns Hopkins University school of medicine. By encouraging people to identify the impact alcohol has on their thoughts, feelings and behaviour, mindful drinking can be an effective tool for people interested in reducing their alcohol consumption, he says, but not for anyone with a severe drinking problem or alcohol-use disorder.

Here, some experts and “sober curious” veterans offer tips for becoming more thoughtful about alcohol.

Stop and reflect

Warrington recommends that people interested in cutting back remove alcohol from their lives for an extended period, typically between 30 and 100 days. That hiatus is an opportunity for reflection, she says. Ask yourself about the role alcohol plays in your life and the moments throughout your daily routine – the weekend dinner with friends, the TV episode before bed – that most make you crave it, and find other ways to fill in the gaps.

Stoller advises thinking through what you like and don’t like about drinking. Is it the taste of alcohol that draws you in? The bodily sensation of a buzz? Identify the amount of alcohol you typically consume to induce a certain effect, and then consider the facets of drinking you enjoy less, like hangovers or the sense of losing control. Articulating these aspects of your drinking life can help you form realistic guidelines for cutting back, he says.

Make a plan

Drinking narrows our focus on the world, Stoller says, creating what some psychologists call “alcoholic myopia” – we focus only on the present moment. That’s why it’s crucial to establish a plan for mindful drinking ahead of time, he says. This can include drinking with a friend who’s also practising mindful drinking, making sure you eat while you’re drinking, and asking the bartender to use half the amount of alcohol in a cocktail. These tricks will slow the rate of alcohol entering your system, he says, which can help you be more intentional about the drinks you do choose to consume.

Dean sticks to what she calls the rule of three: three drinks or less, no more than three nights each week. Often, she ends up drinking less than that, she says, and the hard limit prompts her to savour each beverage.

Ask questions

Don’t take booze for granted. If you are going to drink, make it a conscious, deliberate choice. Think about whether alcohol will add value to your experience – what difference will drinking make to your time at a party or your night at the bar? And if you’re drinking to try to enjoy an event where you’re not having a good time, consider just going home.

Gooch encourages those new to mindful drinking to keep asking questions about the motivating factors behind their alcohol consumption – like the friends with whom they drink the most, and the situations that tempt them to head to the bar.

“If you really want to have a glass of wine, have a glass of wine,” Warrington says. But pay attention to the sensation of drinking it. How does the wine taste? What prompted you to crave alcohol? How do you feel the next day? “Stay curious,” she says. – This article first appeared in The New York Times

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