Drink coach explains why quitting alcohol might not be the best option this January
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Warning: Article contains discussion about alcohol and alcoholism
This dry January, rather than giving up alcohol altogether, perhaps we should all start becoming more 'sober curious' instead.
Prepare to learn about the middle ground between drinking alcohol and giving it up completely:
Last year, I did dry January as well as sober October and I'd be lying if I said I didn't see an improvement in my overall physical and mental health.
However, does it mean I'm going to do dry January again this year? Definitely not. Or give up alcohol altogether? Hell no.
But how do I know my relationship with alcohol hasn't gone too far? Should I - or, perhaps more importantly, do I actually need to - give up alcohol completely for the sake of my wellbeing? It's a question myself and my friends often ask ourselves.
UNILAD spoke to Kathryn from online professional alcohol support service DrinkCoach about being 'sober curious,' whether it can be better to cut down or completely cut out alcohol and whether stopping drinking alcohol completely can actually do more harm than good.
Whatever (legal) age you are in life, drinking alcohol is likely a frequent occurrence in your week, whether it be meeting up at the pub to socialise with your mates, pouring yourself a glass of wine after a long day at work, or backing a shot in a club on a night out.
When you drink alcohol, you get a dopamine hit which is 'the reward pathway within the brain, it gives that sense of satisfaction and happiness,' Kathryn explains.
However, unlike the drawn-out pain of your hangover, the confidence and joy-inducing effects on your brain are short-lasting.
The beer-fear and hangxiety you experience the next day comes as a result of the cortisol rising back up as the dopamine decreases and you crash back into reality - sometimes even left fretting, with no memory of what you said or did the night before.
It doesn't matter whether you're 18-years-old, in your twenties or in your fifties, quitting alcohol can seem like a daunting prospect when it's at the epicentre of much socialisation.
Kathryn started drinking alcohol at the age of 14 to 'be able to fit in with the crowd because it's socially acceptable and it's just the thing to do'.
When Kathryn stopped drinking, the thing she found most difficult wasn't not consuming alcohol, but the judgement that comes with it - even admitting she 'dressed up' stopping drinking alcohol as 'more of a health reason'.
"It's actually the only drug [...] you actually have to sort of justify why. If you're a heroin addict and you decided to give up heroin people aren't going to start questioning why you've given up heroin. But if you choose to be a non-drinker, you will get questioned," Kathryn explains.
"There's a lot of peer pressure I think, and I think that goes throughout all generations, not just younger generations. I'm in my 50s and I see it with my own friends."
But if you begin to think your relationship with alcohol may be problematic, is the only way to solve it by giving up alcohol completely?
Kathryn notes drinking alcohol isn't always about social anxiety and gaining confidence; some people use it as a 'blocker for emotional stuff, trying to escape uncomfortable feelings, perhaps feelings of emotional pain or trying to block out historic trauma'.
Subsequently, if you separate drinking alcohol from trauma or other mental health issues, then not only can you learn to properly deal with your mental wellbeing, but you can also see alcohol as just a drink you enjoy on the odd occasion rather than a mask or crutch.
"More often than not, if I wanted to drink, I actually just wanted to change the way that I was feeling, whether it was sad, angry, happy, stressed," Kathryn continues. "When I first stopped drinking, I thought miraculously I wouldn't have any problems at all. But of course, that's not realistic. Yes, the problems still come, but it's about adapting healthier coping mechanisms for the issues that are coming up."
So, instead of leaping to the conclusion you'll have to give up drinking alcohol altogether if you think you've developed an unhealthy relationship with it, Kathryn reassures it doesn't just have to be to drink or not to drink.
In some cases, people do have to give up alcohol completely - Kathryn and the rest of her team at DrinkCoach encouraging abstinence 'because of physical health issues which impact someone's life, perhaps with offending behaviour, with involvement from social care, or with children's safeguarding issues'.
However, Kathryn also has clients who come in before their relationship with alcohol has escalated to learn to be more 'mindful' and prevent it from becoming a problem in the future.
"I do really enjoy working with clients where they're coming into it much earlier on before they cross that Rubicon. We can get some really good outcomes with all the different techniques we use," Kathryn explains.
"And I think that's also something that sometimes prevents people coming to get help, because they think if they verbalise they're worried about their drinking the professional is going to go, 'Well, you must stop. That's what you must do.' But as a drink coach, I am very, very passionate about reducing the harms."
But how do you know if you have crossed the line and become dependent on alcohol, so much so you could be considered an alcoholic - and does this mean you should leap to give up alcohol completely i.e. by partaking in dry January?
"With alcohol, there is a state of physical dependency. And with physical dependency, we have to be very, very careful when we're talking about reducing," Kathryn warns.
The coach notes one message she really wants to stress this dry January: "If you have any indications that you may be physically dependent on alcohol, we cannot recommend you just quit."
Without wanting to scare-monger, Kathryn explains giving up alcohol completely if dependent on it can lead to withdrawal - 'it's the only state in which you could end up them with a withdrawal seizure and they can actually be fatal'.
Changing your drinking is a journey, not a race.— DrinkCoach (@DrinkCoach) December 29, 2022
Reducing your unit intake over Christmas and New Year’s rather than drastically stopping, will help promote longer term change.
Track your progress by taking the 2-min #AlcoholTest today.https://t.co/FRR2qKIJZ7 pic.twitter.com/uFoFIpzgu5
If you have decided to give up alcohol this January, but feel like you're experiencing withdrawals - signs of which include 'waking up feeling sweaty and shaky' - Kathryn recommends seeking medical advice as soon as possible.
"When we work with dependent drinkers, for instance, we will actually encourage they take alcohol until we can get them in for some kind of medical review, or some medication to assist with the withdrawals," the coach explains.
If you're not experiencing withdrawals but have an emotional dependency on alcohol, that could also be a sign to consult with a medical professional.
"I have worked with people who've decided it's a problem for them if they've drunk a bottle of wine twice a week. And then at the other end of the scale, I could work with somebody who doesn't think it's a problem that they drink a bottle every night. So it's a very personal judgement as to whether or not you think that you've got a problem. And you can consult with people around you," Kathryn adds.
Kathryn believes the stigma - around not seeking help for one's relationship with alcohol until it gets more dire - desperately needs to be tackled.
"I think it's really important that we're having more of that discussion with people around harm reduction and early intervention. And people not being scared that if they're worried about their relationship with alcohol they can't come and talk to somebody about it because there's so much stigma thrown at it - which is just so ridiculous.
"Like I said, if your friend was a heroin addict and they wanted to get help you would be walking them to the door, wouldn't you? But if you had a friend who was like, 'You know what? I'm a bit worried about my drinking.' People would be like, 'Ooh, what would life look like if you didn't drink? What will we do? Will we be able to have fun?'"
You might think you're having fun next time you have one-too-many down the pub or are backing some shots in the club, but as Kathryn reminds 'the confidence boost and the happiness hit is going to be temporary'.
As Kathryn says - and something I experienced myself during dry January - you don't need alcohol to improve your mood as the 'placebo effect is there' if you drink a non-alcoholic drink while out with friends.
Kathryn resolves: "Honestly, in the last seven years, I've had probably more fun than I've had in a lot of my adult life, because it's been real, authentic, good fun, rather than drug-induced fun."
So, why don't you add being 'sober curious' to your list of New Year's resolutions instead and put less pressure on yourself to give up alcohol completely, but still work towards developing a more considered and healthier relationship to it.