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Dry January: How to take a break from alcohol so you'll actually stick with it

Taking an occasional break from booze, like a Dry January challenge, can be good for your mental and physical health. Try these strategies to go the distance.
Replacing an alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic drink that feels “special” to you can be a big help when quitting booze. Nako Photography / Shutterstock

It’s been a while since I quit drinking (a choice I made mostly because alcohol plus a panic disorder and clinical depression either don’t mix at all, or mix all too well), but I still feel awkward sometimes at bars, and experience the occasional craving after a crummy day. Generally, I feel more secure and happier without alcohol — largely because I recall that my times with alcohol weren’t always merry, and I feel my health has improved without it.

But what if you want to take a break from or eliminate alcohol not because you have a drinking problem (in which case, mental health counseling and recovery programs like AA would be recommended), but because you’re concerned about the potential negative health effects? Or what if you just want to take a pause to reassess your relationship with alcohol? Or perhaps you’re abstaining just for the month as part of Dry January, Sober October (yep, that's a thing, too) or even a diet plan like Whole30?

Quitting can still be tough (if it weren’t, drying out for a month wouldn’t be offered up as a challenge). We compiled a list of mental health experts’ and registered dietitians’ tips for how to get started going sober.

Stand back and ask: 'How does drinking serve me?'

"When we are looking to change habits, including non-addictive alcohol consumption, we need to stand back and assess how the habit is serving us," says Kristin Koskinen, a registered dietitian nutritionist. "Are there components of the habit that we aren’t willing to abandon, like the social nature of having drinks? Are there ways to work around it? What are the root drivers that make the habit appealing?"

People drink for a variety of reasons, Koskinen notes, but "stress-management and social connections" tend to top her clients' lists.

"When clients decide to move away from an evening glass of wine (or two) to unwind, it can be helpful to find strategies to help bridge the gap from drinking alcohol to not. The association with relaxation can come from the process, as well as the chemical influence of that glass of wine. Components of the process include choosing a bottle, opening it, pouring into a special glass, and that first 'bite' that comes from the tannic and acidic players," Koskinen says. "I ask clients to assess what it is about having a drink that serves them. Is it the feeling they get from the alcohol? Is it the suggestion that a glass in-hand means that the day is done and the pressure is off? What if we took the alcohol out of the picture, but kept the rest?"

Asking these questions helps you to reveal the drive behind the choice to drink in the first place. It can also help you to find alternatives to drinking that satisfy those needs.

"When we work through and tap into each component, break down the drives and processes, we can make choices that support our priorities (like hanging out with friends) without feeding the habit (polishing off a bottle of wine)."

Change up your routine

Not feeding the habit comes down in part to changing the ways you enable or encourage drinking.

Change your routines for when you usually drink alcohol," says Karen R. Koenig, a psychotherapist who has cut way back on drinking because of health risk warnings. “If you generally come home and have a beer, wine or cocktail, instead, get on the computer, take a walk, watch the news, etc. Do something differently than the activities you associate with drinking.”

Designate other rewards

“If drinking is a reward find another way to reward yourself,” says Amy Shapiro, RD and founder of Real Nutrition. “Self-care like baths work for those who have time but I would say add a serving of carbs to dinner or enjoy a healthy dessert or insert a healthy snack at the time you usually drink your drink at home. For example, enjoy air-popped popcorn while watching TV instead of sipping on that drink. Enjoy a half-cup of whole wheat pasta or quinoa with dinner to help you feel satisfied and calm (carbs often serve that purpose).”

Make a list of reasons for quitting — and refer to it often

Identify the benefits of quitting and write them down as a reminder of why you’re doing this.

“Make a list of all the reasons you don’t want to drink alcohol and read it over daily,” says Koenig. “Paste it on your car dashboard and your bathroom mirror. Remind yourself that you can drink alcohol but don’t want to. When you have cravings for alcohol, read over your list of why you don’t want to, distract yourself with another activity, and/or let the thought go by rather than engage with it. Sometimes fighting with a thought reinforces it.”

If you’re trying to shed a few pounds, keeping that goal in mind can be great a list-topper for why you’re quitting booze.

“Alcohol is preferentially metabolized by the liver because it’s a toxin,” says Nancy Woodbury, a registered dietitian nutritionist. “So when you drink alcohol and eat high-fat appetizers like baked brie, fried shrimp [or] crab cakes, it’s likely that these excess fat calories will simply be stored as fat. This might provide an extra incentive.”

Exercise boosts serotonin and dopamine in the brain, and a quick shot of both will make the happy chemicals release, and you won't want to drink.

Want a glass of wine to de-stress? Do squats instead (yes, we're serious)

If you’re used to de-stressing after work with a glass of wine, try a quick burst of exercise.

“Do 25 squats, or walk around the block, fast-paced,” says Cali Estes, Ph.D, addiction specialist and founder of The Addictions Coach. “Exercise boosts serotonin and dopamine in the brain, and a quick shot of both will make the happy chemicals release, and you won't want to drink.”

If you crave sugar or carbs, try these foods

Alcohol is high in sugar, so when you quit it, you may find yourself reaching for other sugars (this was definitely the case with me). If you’re used to beer, then you may also be craving carbs. In either case, opt for healthier options.

“If you drink a six-pack, it is like eating an entire loaf of bread,” says Estes. “Try eating a sweet potato or a baked potato instead. It will satisfy your carb deficiency and make you feel full, and the tryptophan in the sweet potato release the happy chemical dopamine in your brain.”

Koskinen recommends dark chocolate for a rush of endorphins.

"Not only does it offer a strong flavor, the phenethylamine triggers the release of endorphins, feel-good neurohormones," she says.

Shapiro suggests a cup of fruit or a 100 percent all-fruit ice pop.

A drink that feels fancy or fun can go a long way

Replacing an alcoholic drink with a non-alcoholic drink that is “special” can be a big help when quitting booze, Shapiro notes.

"Choosing a signature mocktail can check many of the blocks,” says Koskinen. “If you use seltzer water and add a strong flavor like citrus or herbs, you get a fancy drink with bite, in a glass, that mixes well in social situations. A twist or sidecar makes it all the more celebratory."

Koskinen also recommends kombucha, but this one requires a disclaimer: Make sure you are okay with trace amounts of alcohol (not enough to get you drunk, but not recommended for anyone with a history of substance abuse).

"I have found kombucha to be an effective tool in transitioning off nightly nightcaps," says Koskinen. "The sharp taste of kombucha mimics that of alcohol. The still-legal-for-kids-to-drink amount of alcohol in this fermented beverage may be enough to trick the brain into thinking it’s getting a dose of ethanol, which may be just enough to take the edge off."

I order a mocktail when I meet people for drinks because it feels good to sip a drink that has an air of indulgence to it. The action also helps reduce any worry of being interrogated by strangers about why I’m not drinking (it happens all too often) because mocktails look just like cocktails. I don’t get a buzz, but I do get a sort of comfort.

“Sometimes it is just holding something in your hand or switching gears that helps to break the cycle,” says Shapiro. “Same action, different liquid.”

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