Recent years have seen an increase in the number of people who are taking part in initiatives like Dry July, Ocsober, FebFast and others. You might say that an increased focus on public health by high profile organisations and sponsored by high profile public figures, is a universally positive thing.
This is because we are rethinking our patterns of consumption. These initiatives also give us the opportunity to break patterns of behaviour that we know to be harmful and occasionally destructive. In addition to this, we are given the opportunity to raise money at the same time – to support just those causes.
Approaches like this are a world away from twenty years ago, when the thought of going for a month without alcohol was derided and mocked. The normalisation and visibility of these campaigns has opened up the conversation about why someone might choose to take a break from alcohol and made it possible for people to openly say that they are choosing to abstain.
There is only one potential issue with approaches like this. From a behavioural perspective, addressing an issue like alcohol consumption by going ‘cold turkey’ might not actually result in lasting changes. When we are considering our relationship with alcohol, we are acknowledging that it is a part of our lives, day-to-day. Stopping for a month may be a good way to get into shape and have a break, but we are not necessarily working on the way that we use alcohol itself.
For some people who do Dry July, their experience of having a month off alcohol will be so positive and profound that they may never drink again. For the majority of people, however, they will return to drinking and likely slip back into old habits and patterns of alcohol use. As a psychologist, I often have clients describing a positive experience doing Dry July. Things like improved mood, weight loss, more energy and money saved, are then undermined by what happens when alcohol is reintroduced.
From a behavioural perspective, it is nearly impossible to change the relationship with something when it is out of your life. You actually need to be coming into contact with it in order to understand how to best manage it!
Many of my clients express frustration about how well they did in Dry July and then the issues they have had with starting to drink again and feeling that nothing has really changed. The big challenge is finding a way to still have alcohol in their lives, while not necessarily using it every day, and in large quantities.
Consider you were going into relationship counselling with your partner. Yes, you would likely benefit from individual sessions. From these sessions you might get some insight into relational patterns and how you are being affected by the relationship problems. However, the real work would be done in the sessions with your partner. This is when your triggers are activated, when you have to struggle and experience in real life some of the issues that have led you to make changes.
It is the same with alcohol. Changing our relationship with alcohol is, essentially, a learning experience. We must re-learn how to use alcohol and how to manage its effect on us. Taking a break and then hoping we have ‘reset’ may not be enough. It is beneficial but is not really a longer term option, particularly if we intend on reintroducing alcohol into our lives again at some point.
– Consider what you might like your relationship with alcohol to look like. What kinds of things did you enjoy about Dry July? Was it the increased energy, better health or financial savings? How might you need to moderate your intake of alcohol to still see these benefits?
– If you are wanting to re-introduce alcohol into your week, consider what kinds of goals you might have. Whether it is four alcohol free days a week, or setting a limit on the amount you drink each day, think about what might be realistic for you.
– Reflect on how much you are currently drinking in a week (eg. 3 standard drinks each day, equalling 21 standard drinks per week), and see if you can set a new goal for yourself. Most of the risks that are associated with alcohol come from drinking daily and in high quantities, so reducing one of those variables is likely to be beneficial.
– Consider what is happening behind the scenes of your alcohol use. Is it being used to manage stress, deal with negative emotions, or temporarily lift your mood? Developing other strategies that can meet these needs may mean that alcohol feels less necessary. For example, having a shower and getting into comfortable clothes at the end of the day might be helpful in ‘closing a chapter’ on the day.
– Be curious about patterns and themes with your alcohol use. Perhaps there are some friends that you are likely to drink to excess around, or certain situations (after work, when alone, when nervous) that alcohol is being over-used. Similarly, perhaps there are some situations where you don’t feel like drinking at all, or at the very least do not struggle with the urge to have another drink.
– Set expectations with those around you. if you are wanting to make some longer-term changes with your alcohol usage, let those who are close to you know what your goals are, and what you might like from them. Even asking a partner not to buy wine on the way home, or organising coffee with friends rather than drinks, can be a useful way to set up situations that will support you to change. This way you’re not in a situation where drinking is expected.
So if you are nearing the end of Dry July – well done! It is a great first step in making a big change in your relationship with alcohol. At this stage you will likely be conscious of a lot of things that might trigger an urge to drink, as well as the strategies that are effective in doing things other than having a drink. Now is a great time to consider what you might like the rest of your year to look like and how you might be able to create lasting change.