In recent years, “Dry January,” where participants abstain from alcohol for all or part of the month of January, has become a significant wellness trend on social media. Does Dry January work? Absolutely. Using the month of January to “take a break” from drinking alcohol has both immediate and long-lasting benefits. Those who participate report they saved money, slept better, had more energy and lost weight. Far from drinking more once January ended, participants tend to drink less, even months afterwards.
Dry January can be a great opportunity to experience life without alcohol. Perhaps you’ve already considered it, or you’re motivated by loved ones to give it a shot. Either way, whether you decide to limit your drinking or stop entirely – I encourage to have a strategy in place to accomplish this successfully.
Those who use alcohol or other substances in an unhealthy way may do fairly well on their own for the first couple of days. Many people can “white knuckle” their way through a short period of time. However, if life has not improved as a result of stopping, or if the underlying issues that perpetuated the drinking haven't been addressed, individuals will likely return to the problematic behavior.
If you’re interested in trying Dry January, here are seven steps that can help you succeed:
- Support is essential. Accountability yields a greater likelihood of success. Let those close to you know that you’re not drinking. Make sure you have at least two people you can contact in real-time if you’re struggling. In fact, one of the reasons 12-step and other support groups work so well is that it can make a significant difference when you’re around like-minded people who are committed to succeeding together.
- Pay attention to when and why you want to drink. In my experience, alcohol and drugs are often a symptom of a larger issue. People turn to substances to cope with anxiety, stress, mental health disorders, trauma and just generally uncomfortable emotions. In addition to cutting out booze, it’s important to notice when you find yourself wanting to drink, understanding why and learning how to redirect your behavior in a healthy way.
- Talk to your doctor. Alcohol is one of the most dangerous substances you can detox from by yourself. If you are someone who drinks a lot, there can be very serious consequences to going cold turkey without medical supervision, including seizures and even death. If you’re used to starting your day with a drink to stop your shaking or to “get your mind right,” then you need medically supervised detoxification.
- Practice new habits. Dry January shouldn’t be about what you’re giving up but instead about what you are gaining – such as achieving wellness and balance. Instead of just not drinking, replace substance use with something new. For example, if you’re in the habit of having your first drink when you come home every night to relax, create a new routine. You might try drinking tea instead or listening to music or a podcast you enjoy. Likewise, I encourage you to prioritize your self-care, such as eating nutritious food, exercising and discussing your feelings with a behavioral healthcare professional.
- Have a goal. At the end of January, what are you looking to achieve? Maybe it should be more than just, “I went all month without having a drink.” What does success look like regarding self-growth? It’s not just about putting down that drink – it’s about quality of life. If you were curious about stopping, and you’ve been able to do so successfully throughout the course of January, what are you going to do to keep up the momentum?
- Address ambivalence and concerns of how life may be different. Some fear that people won’t want to be around them if they’re not drinking or that coping with everyday life will be difficult. But the most exciting part of not using a mind-altering substance is that you can be present and truly appreciate the moment. You’re no longer focused on who you’re drinking with, how much you’re going to drink or how you’re going to feel the next day. You are free to explore new approaches to emotional and spiritual growth.
- Focus on the bigger picture. You have a new opportunity to live life without the fog of alcohol. You can give yourself a second chance to experience the beauty of life in a new way.
It’s not about willpower
If you’re going to do Dry January, I encourage you to not just stop at January and pick up drinking where you left off. Alcohol use disorder is a progressive disease that will continue to worsen over time if it's not carefully managed. If you’re able to stop for a month, great. However, if you think you have a dependency on alcohol, or if you find you are unable to stop on your own despite repeated efforts, then you may need to look for outside help.
With addiction, our brains have changed as a result of our drinking. Willpower alone is not enough to stop, because the brain’s reward system has been rewired to seek out alcohol to the exclusion of all else. If we’ve been drinking for years, it’s not going to get better in three days. Nor even during the month of January. That’s why it’s necessary to find a healthy behavior to replace your drinking. In fact, over time the brain can create new pathways to living life without alcohol. So, if you plan on eliminating alcohol or other substance for the new year, reflect on what you’re going to add to enrich your life.
There are lots of places to reach out. You can certainly go to a 12-step meeting or find other recovery resources offered near you. You can also get an assessment to better understand what behavioral health strategy best supports your wellness goals. There are many different avenues to achieve your goal of not drinking and establishing a new way of life. Research the way that is best for you to achieve your long-term desired results.
Sometimes, it can help just having somebody validate the idea that change is hard. It takes a lot of courage and strength to say, “You know what, I’m going to do something different today. I’m scared. I don’t want to do this anymore, but I don’t know how to not do it.” Remember, you’re not alone in this process, and meaningful change is possible – one step at a time.