First, there were the Zoom happy hours. Next, came the Quarantinis and round-the-clock liquor delivery. And then there were the all-too-relatable videos of Ina Garten pouring a Cosmopolitan the size of her head and Meryl Streep chugging a martini during Stephen Sondheim’s birthday livestream. As 2020 dealt one blow after another, many of us turned to the oldest, most reliable, and most readily available stress reliever we could think of: alcohol.
Want to shelve alcohol in the first month of 2021? Experts weigh in on how to succeed.
For some of us, booze took on a larger role in our lives in 2020, especially given we were all stuck at home through the greater part of the year. But as we head into the new year, we can opt for a fresh start. And there’s perhaps no better way to use this clean slate than by ditching alcohol for a month with Dry January.
Dry January is of course nothing new, and for many years, it’s served as an annual tradition for countless people hoping to detox after excessive holiday drinking or simply drink less in the new year. Its myriad benefits, from better sleep and clearer skin to weight loss and saving money, make the sobriety challenge appealing to virtually anyone.
“There are tons of reasons someone might do a dry month," says Hilary Sheinbaum, author of The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Month. “Obviously, it’s great for your skin because alcohol dehydrates you, and it’s great for sleep and weight loss. But unlike other common New Year’s resolutions, like joining a gym or starting a new meal plan, where the high price tags can serve as barriers to entry, Dry January is one of those things where you literally don’t have to spend any money, and in fact, you’re saving money because you’re not spending anything on alcohol.”
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A Dry January doesn
January has long been an obvious choice to do a sober month because of its ties to New Year’s and its famed resolutions, but generally speaking, choosing a specific month to take a break from drinking is always a helpful strategy. “It’s better than just declaring that you’re going to be healthier this year or having an open-ended resolution because it provides these parameters of not drinking for 31 days,” Sheinbaum notes.
“Certainly, you can go past those 31 days and not drink or drink less afterward, but I think it really is a great start to any health-related New Year’s resolution, and it makes it a little bit easier when you have one general rule and a deadline in mind.”
Beyond the many ways a month of sobriety can help our health and lifestyles, though, skipping alcohol for a month — or even just a week — also forces us to evaluate our personal tendencies in a new light. “One of the major benefits of doing this is really taking a hard look at your habits and assessing how they serve you or how they don’t,” says Dr. Adi Jaffe, a psychologist and expert on addiction and mental health.
“Any time that you’re trying to take a habitual behavior and alter it, there will be friction because our brains really like doing the things they’re used to and automating as much of the daily experience as they can. So, when you throw that into upheaval in any way, there’s a slight challenge that you feel.”
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Dr. Jaffe believes that this friction is not a problem but is in fact the very reason you’re creating this change. “It brings focus to some of those elements of your life that you may have unknowingly been trying to avoid in the past by reaching for a drink,” he explains, noting that working through these points of tension requires creating a secondary habit of what psychologists call "meta-cognition," or thinking about your thinking.
“By doing that, you’ll be able to take stock of your habits and adjust, and dry January is exactly that,” Dr. Jaffe says. “The point of the entire experience is to sit with those thoughts and to have a moment or many moments of reflection over the course of the month to see where the friction comes up for you and explore why it’s there.”
Reevaluating your relationship to alcohol and what lies underneath it can be an extremely enlightening experience, but it’s important to be aware of the potential hazards of opening this door. “If you drink relatively heavily and you’ve never taken a break, that alcohol serves as a brake pedal or dampener for your brain’s anxiety,” says Dr. Jaffe.
“So, what happens sometimes when you try to stop drinking or slow down drinking is you feel increased anxiety, and that’s one element of an actual biological adjustment that your brain and body may have undergone over a long period that you’ll have to deal with if you take on an experiment like this.”
For those whose drinking habits may tip toward Alcohol Use Disorder (more than five drinks a day, according to Dr. Jaffe), there can also be medical risks associated with a halt in alcohol consumption. “Anyone who considers themselves a heavy drinker needs to keep in mind that stopping cold turkey could actually cause serious physical problems, to the point of having a seizure and dying,” he explains. “For those people, I don’t recommend just taking a break without medical consultation because there can be medications that are useful, and the things you have to pay attention to include blood pressure, trembling, sweating, or tremors and hallucinations.”
That isn’t to say that such folks can’t reduce the amount of alcohol they consume, though, which is why it’s so crucial that Dry January participants set realistic expectations and have a clear sense of what they want to achieve through the challenge. “So many people focus on the 31 days, and if they don’t make it to that, they see it as a failure. But if you’re sober for 25 of those 31 days, I don’t want anybody to negate that success just because they didn’t achieve what they were planning,” Dr. Jaffe says. “It’s okay if in trying to do this, you don’t achieve perfection. It’s okay if you stop early or need a drink in the middle, and it’s okay if it doesn’t end up looking the way that you think it should. The goal is to pay attention to what’s happening, identify the friction and where the discomfort is coming up as you’re taking a break, and figure out what to do about it.”
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Indulge in alcohol free drinks or recipes as a way to handle a Dry January.
There are also a number of small tricks that can make your Dry January the best it can be, whether it’s your first and you’re only set on two weeks of sobriety or it’s your ninth and you’re considering an entire sober year. “If you’re planning on doing a dry January, I think it’s helpful to be organized about the alcohol that is currently in your domain,” Sheinbaum advises. “If out of sight, out of mind is helpful to you, then I would recommend storing your booze, and it can be as simple as putting it in the closet.”
If having it in the house in any capacity will tempt you too much, you can also lend or gift it to a friend or ask him or her to hold it for the month, or you can throw it away, though this is slightly more controversial given the high price of alcohol. “I’d also suggest recruiting a sober month support squad,” says the author, whose own first Dry January started as a bet with a friend. “Engaging with friends and making it a group effort is really helpful, not only so you can lean on each other, ask for advice and tips, and have someone to relate to but also so you can hold each other accountable.”
Lastly, it’s always smart to stock your fridge with non-alcoholic beverages that aren’t just water. “Whenever people want to change habits, they’re trying to get rid of bad habits, but they forget to replace them with good ones,” Dr. Jaffe explains. “I don’t care if it’s seltzer water, Kombucha, whatever, but stock your fridge with it so that when you want something to drink, your brain is actually excited about it instead of the alternative, ‘Ugh, I guess I’ll have another glass of water.’” Particularly if alcohol plays a part in your daily or weekly ritual, it’s important to replace it with something else rather than deprive yourself completely. And if a standard beverage won’t hit the spot or you need a less dramatic transition, try one of the many non-alcoholic beers, wines, and spirits now on the market.
Gabby Shacknai is a New York-based journalist, who covers beauty and wellness, food and travel, and consumer-facing business. Gabby is a former Condé Nast editor and currently works as a freelance writer, contributing to Forbes, ELLE, Women's Health, Fortune, Departures, and many other outlets.
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