Drinking is largely accepted as a social activity, a way to cope with stress, even a potential remedy for insomnia or anxiety.
Yet alcohol generally doesn’t do much to relieve these concerns long term. It also comes with some significant downsides.
Even drinking moderately can leave you feeling groggy, foggy, or hungover. The more you drink, the more likely you’ll notice other health effects, too, like:
- disrupted sleep
- digestive issues
- memory problems
- increased anxiety, depression, and irritability
- disagreements and other conflict with loved ones
As these effects begin to pile up, you might wonder if it’s time for a break. And you’re not alone. From monthlong sobriety challenges to the #SoberCurious movement, more and more people are taking a closer look at the role alcohol plays in their life.
Whether you’re looking to cut back or take an indefinite break, these tips can help you create a plan that works for you.
First, take some time to explore your relationship with alcohol
A key first step in giving up anything is identifying why you’re doing it.
Figure out how much you actually drink
Maybe you don’t think you depend on alcohol, exactly, but you still wonder whether you might be drinking too much.
Say you don’t have any cravings when you go without drinking. All the same, “a quick drink” often turns into three or four drinks. When you’re having a good time, you find it hard to stop, especially in the company of friends having the same amount.
Think about why you drink
Maybe your concerns center around your reasons for drinking rather than the amount. Plenty of people use alcohol to numb emotional pain or face stressful situations more easily. It’s common to drink to lighten tension on a first date or before a difficult conversation.
But when it’s hard to face challenges without alcohol, it’s worth considering whether drinking prevents you from finding more helpful ways of managing emotions.
Knowing why you drink is essential, says Cyndi Turner, LCSW, LSATP, MAC, a Virginia therapist who specializes in addiction treatment and alcohol moderation.
She goes on to explain that knowing the reasons behind your alcohol use — relationship stress, trouble at work, insomnia, or anything else — can help you explore alternative ways to address those issues more productively.
Consider your approach
You might know you want to give up alcohol entirely. But maybe you’re not sure about quitting completely and don’t want to hold yourself to that goal.
That’s absolutely OK. What’s most important is taking a look at your drinking habits and finding a way to cut back that works for you.
It’s possible to develop a better relationship with alcohol and make more mindful, informed choices about drinking without total sobriety.
Moderation management, an approach that Turner practices, is just one alternative to full sobriety.
It focuses on reducing alcohol use and the potential harms that come with it, with an emphasis on finding the best approach for your situation, not anyone else’s.
Complete sobriety isn’t a bad goal, of course, but it doesn’t have to be the only one.
Don’t know your end goal yet? That’s fine, too. Just know you have options.
Talk about it
Letting others know about your choice to stop drinking may help motivate you to stick with your decision.
Involve your loved ones
Family and friends can provide encouragement and support when you stop drinking.
By opening up about your relationship with alcohol, you might also encourage others to explore their own drinking habits.
Maybe your partner, sibling, or roommate is also thinking about making a change. Changing drinking habits together allows you to support each other while also boosting your motivation and accountability.
Turner notes the importance of bringing along a trusted support person when attending events that involve alcohol. It’s often easier to turn down a drink when you don’t have to do it alone.
Find a community
Building new relationships with people who also choose to avoid alcohol can have a lot of benefit.
“The more support you have, the better,” Turner emphasizes.
Here are some ideas:
- Instead of testing your resolve by joining your co-workers for the usual happy hour, why not invite a different co-worker to check out the new bakery down the street?
- Consider cultivating friendship and romance with people who don’t prioritize drinking as an important part of their life.
- Miss the bar atmosphere? Depending on where you live, you might be able to visit a sober bar and socialize without alcohol.
- Check out apps like Meetup to find other people interested in alcohol-free activities.
Know what to say
When you turn down a drink, people might ask why.
You’re not obligated to offer details, but it can help to have a go-to response ready:
- “I’m cutting back for my health.”
- “I don’t like the way drinking makes me feel.”
That said, you don’t need to say anything more than “No, thanks.” Practicing your refusal ahead of time can help you feel more comfortable and confident when you find yourself in a situation that involves alcohol.
Try not to worry about others judging you, since most people probably won’t notice or remember what you do.
If you want to offer loved ones a more detailed explanation but feel unsure about what to say, it helps to keep your explanation simple:
- “I’ve been drinking a lot without a clear reason, and I want to spend some time rethinking that habit.”
- “I catch myself drinking when I don’t want to face my emotions, and I want to get better at working through them without alcohol.”
- “I don’t really enjoy drinking, and I’m tired of doing it just because everyone else does.”
Change your environment
When alcohol makes up part of your typical routine, drinking can become something of an automatic response, especially when you feel stressed or overwhelmed.
You may not need to completely reinvent your life to quit drinking, but a few changes in your surroundings can make a big difference.
Get rid of your alcohol
Alcohol in your house can tempt you when you’re trying to quit. If you feel like a drink, knowing you’ll have to go out and make a purchase can deter you long enough to find a good distraction.
Keep nonalcoholic beverages on hand for yourself and others. You don’t have to offer alcohol to be a good host. Let guests bring their own alcohol — and take it with them when they leave.
If you live with roommates, consider asking them to keep their alcohol out of sight instead of in shared open spaces.
Find a new favorite drink
Choosing the right replacement beverage can help you stand firm in your desire to stop drinking. Plain water might offer plenty of health benefits, but it’s admittedly not the most interesting choice.
With a little creativity, you can find something enjoyable that doesn’t make you miss your favorite drink.
- infusing plain or sparkling water with chopped fruits or herbs
- adding cinnamon sticks or spices to tea, apple cider, or hot chocolate
- mixing juice or lemonade with sparkling water
Vary your routine
When you tend to drink at a certain time of day, doing something else is one of the best ways to break that pattern. Activities that get you out of the house and moving often help most.
Consider these ideas:
- If you usually meet friends for a drink after work, consider going for a walk or meeting them for a hangout in the park or other alcohol-free space.
- Instead of going to your usual restaurant for dinner and drinks, why not try a new place that doesn’t serve alcohol? You’ll get to experience something out of the ordinary without feeling tempted to drink.
- Get in the habit of cooking at home to distract yourself and save some money.
When your desire to drink aligns more with your mood than any particular time of day, having a few alternative coping methods ready can help:
- Instead of taking a drink to calm anxiety, try affirmations, deep breathing, or meditation.
- Comfort yourself when feeling lonely by reaching out to a loved one or watching a favorite movie.
Make time for self-care
Quitting drinking can feel pretty stressful. If you turn to alcohol to manage emotional distress, the added overwhelm can prompt the urge to drink, making success seem even more out of reach.
It’s normal to struggle when making big changes, but good self-care practices can help you manage overwhelming feelings and take care of your mind and body.
Feeling at your best physically can boost resilience and emotional strength, equipping you to weather challenges that trigger the desire to drink.
By avoiding alcohol, you’re taking a big step toward improving physical health. As you begin to notice those health benefits, you’ll likely feel more energized and inspired to keep up your progress.
Other tips to consider:
- Stay hydrated.
- Eat regular, balanced meals. Try to include foods that increase energy and boost mood.
- Get regular physical activity, if you’re able. Try hiking, cycling, dancing, or roller-skating for enjoyable ways to stay active.
- Make better sleep a priority. A good goal for most adults is 7 to 9 hours.
Many people use alcohol to cope with boredom. Satisfying hobbies can distract you from wanting to drink, but they also help you relax — something everyone needs to do.
If you’ve recently found yourself longing to get back into an old hobby, now’s the time to go for it.
If COVID-19 safety precautions have limited your options, why not give something new a try? Technology makes it easier than ever to learn new skills and find creative ways of connecting, even when you can’t physically participate in activities with others.
You might try:
- DIY home projects
- building or painting models
- board or video games
- sitting back with a good book
Keep a journal
Maybe you’ve never had any interest in logging your innermost thoughts, but journaling can be a great tool to track your feelings as you work on quitting alcohol.
Exploring, in writing, what you find difficult and when you most want to drink can help you notice patterns that offer more insight into your alcohol use.
Comparing the emotions that come up when you have a drink with the feelings you experience when abstaining also helps you recognize when drinking doesn’t fix the problems you’re trying to manage.
A journal also offers a useful space to list reasons you want to quit and brainstorm activities to replace drinking.
Explore new tools to cope
Once you identify some of the main reasons why you drink, you can begin finding new methods of addressing those triggers.
The most helpful coping mechanism often depends on the circumstances:
- When you feel sad but need alone time, you might consider a favorite album or comforting book.
- When you want to drink to avoid relationship conflict or stress, you might vent to a loved one or practice better communication skills to reconnect with your partner.
- If loneliness triggers the desire to drink, you might look into ways to connect with distant friends or explore ways to build new friendships.
At the end of the day, one of the most important tools you have at your disposal is self-compassion.
Instead of criticizing yourself for having a hard time or slipping up and having a drink, remember that no one’s perfect. What matters most is your ability to maintain an open, curious outlook as you learn what does and doesn’t work for you.
Reach out for support
Quitting alcohol on your own is harder for some than others, but there’s no need to go it alone.
If you’re having a hard time sticking to your goal or just want some extra guidance, consider reaching out for professional support.
If you feel comfortable doing so, bring up your challenges to your primary healthcare provider. Finding a therapist can also be a great starting point if you aren’t comfortable opening up to your healthcare provider.
It might also be worth checking out a 12-step program in your area, like Alcoholics Anonymous or SMART Recovery, to see if it feels like something that might be useful for you.
The bottom line
Quitting drinking can take time, so treat yourself kindly if it doesn’t stick at first. Whether your end goal involves complete sobriety or more mindful drinking, you’re still doing your brain and body a big favor.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.