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Dry January: Don’t Turn It into a Countdown to Your Next Drink

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During the last Dry January campaign, an estimated 9 million people made a pledge to stick to soft drinks for the first 31 days of 2023, and this year looks set to attract the same levels of engagement.

However, aside from the physical health benefits of ditching the booze for four weeks – such as clearer skin, potential weight loss, improved memory, better sleep, and more energy – a leading psychotherapist and addiction specialist from Priory suggests that the Dry January initiative (now in its 12th year) is a vital opportunity to “re-evaluate your drinking habits”. By observing your “automatic and absent-minded behaviour towards alcohol,” there’s no better time to be totally honest about why and how you’re drinking alcohol.

In essence, taking time out to reflect on what your true relationship with alcohol is all about.

Dee Johnson, psychotherapist and senior addiction therapist at Priory Hospital, Chelmsford explains: “In my experience, people tend not to think honestly about their relationship with alcohol until it’s actually problematic. So I always encourage this break in drinking habits as a welcome opportunity to take stock with a clear head. And it can really help if you do this with friends or your partner too. Think of Dry January as something of a collective, self-exploratory project.

“You may not have been aware just how much you were using alcohol as a form of self-medication. It’s a slow, progressive path into disordered drinking and addiction, and it’s surprisingly common not to have noticed how your consumption has crept up as you become more and more physically and psychologically tolerant. And there’s no denying that alcohol can anaesthetise emotions and temporarily mask many issues and underlying problems.”

The most recent data from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) shows that almost 10,000 people in the UK die each year from alcohol-related causes, which has risen year on year since 2019. And, according to a survey carried out by the charity Alcohol Change, 1 in 6 people questioned said the cost of living crisis was a reason for the increase in their drinking

So, before embarking, mindfully, on Dry January, Dee recommends running through this checklist to see what can be learned about our drinking behaviour and ‘habits’:

  • Does it transpire that you don’t have a natural “off switch”? Despite the very best intentions at the start of an evening, do all prior thoughts of moderation fly out the window after a couple of drinks?
  • Do you use alcohol as a form of self-medication that is necessary to socialise, relieve stress, help you sleep, boost confidence, numb painful emotions, etc.? or just to function?
  • Are you worried that by “going sober”, emotions are just going to be too hard to handle?
  • Has the start of Dry January resulted in any physical, emotional, or psychological cravings or withdrawal symptoms? Are you struggling not to pick up a drink?
  • Have you convinced yourself that you are more anxious without alcohol and cannot cope as well in a work or social environment without a drink or two? That’s a big signal.
  • Are you desperately counting down the days until you can allow yourself to have another drink? Can 1st February not come quick enough?

“If you answer yes to any of these, then a level of dependency – both mentally and physically – might be creeping in. Stepping away from alcohol for a month might not be as easy as you initially assumed, which in itself can be a serious reality check,” explains Dee.

“I often recommend writing down your feelings and tangible improvements to your wellbeing on a daily basis if possible, so there’s a visible summary of what you have achieved during your month of sobriety, observing and celebrating the progressive improvements and benefits. 

“Be honest and ask yourself, ‘are you being nicer in the mornings, waking up with fewer regrets? Do you have a bit more faith and trust in yourself that you are good enough and that alcohol does not make you a better and more confident person?’

“Overall, take it a day at a time and remind yourself that it’s not mandatory to pick up a drink again on 1st February. If you are feeling good, just keep going, one day at a time.”

Therapy with an addiction specialist can be really beneficial, looking at what has underpinned alcohol use and possible dependency. This might include past / childhood issues, mental health problems, trauma, bereavement due to social and genetic influences, or a habit that has got out of hand.  A trained therapist or addiction specialist will encourage you to take this time of sobriety to explore what is really going on for you as an individual.

Dee adds: “It’s also important to remember that we cannot demonise alcohol; it’s what we might do with alcohol that’s the problem. Normal, recreational, and non-dependent drinkers generally don’t think or obsess about whether to have a drink or not. People who have a balanced, regular relationship with alcohol do not plan or think about the day when they give themselves permission to start drinking again.

“But, whatever your situation, Dry January is a great achievement for taking action on your mental and physical health (as well as your bank balance). Going sober for just this brief period will give everyone a glimpse of the longer-term benefits to be gained by re-thinking your relationship with alcohol.”

If you know you regularly consume large amounts of alcohol (14 units is the recommended weekly amount), please seek medical advice before doing Dry January, as going “cold turkey” can be dangerous to your physical health. So speak to your GP, be honest about the amount you drink, and work out a reduction plan first. There are also a number of alcohol-supporting charities that provide helpful and practical information.

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