How to Use Dry January to Rethink Your Relationship with Alcohol

Photo credit: Bruce Mars via Unsplash

Let’s get right down to it—last year was rough. This year was also rough. And as the global pandemic continues into 2022, we’re all doing our best to cope with this current reality.

A new year typically ushers in a list of goals and resolutions for the 12 months ahead. In recent years, January has also become a month for many to rethink their relationship with alcohol via “Dry January,” where you go “dry”—or abstain—from alcohol for the month. There are tons of reasons to take a break from alcohol, including improved mental clarity and physical health. (Some may opt for a “Sober October” as well.) While many people go dry for just the month of January, others may find they want to continue—and quit drinking altogether.

Whatever your intentions (or reasons) are for your Dry January, we’ve got you covered. Here are some ways to stay focused, motivated, and inspired to rethink your relationship with alcohol this month.  

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1. Get Clear About Your Motivations & Set Your Intentions

For me, healthy choices like getting a good night’s sleep are backed by the idea of a bigger picture: I remind myself that I am a better writer, friend, sister, daughter, partner, and aunt when I am well-rested. Summoning an “anchoring” idea like this one, which ties you to the big picture, can be a helpful way to root yourself to your new habit of not drinking.

Rashonda Thornton, a counselor at Recovery Transitions who specializes in addiction, says, “Intentionality and planning are beneficial to support yourself. Intentionality allows you to define and identify what your experience needs to look like. [Proactive planning] and coping skills will support you in this chemical change to the brain, ensuring the absence of consuming alcohol is replaced with a positive reward. Throughout the day, reflect and evaluate if triggers surface; and [determine] what is needed to continue your success within that moment.”

Lauren Zehnle, an addiction specialist at St. Louis Addiction Counseling, recommends, “When you are making any behavioral change, it is important to not only eliminate that behavior but replace the destructive behavior with new healthy ones. Take a look at what function alcohol was serving in your life. Was it helping you relax, make friends, numb uncomfortable feelings, deal with boredom? Asking those kinds of questions will help you figure out what new coping strategies you need to create and implement. The drinking is merely a symptom, and if the underlying causes are ignored, nothing will really change.” 

2. Seek Inspiration From Those Who Have Already Done It

It’s typically easier to run with a friend than it is to run alone; having others doing the same thing we’re doing keeps us motivated. For Dry January, you might consider linking up with a friend and doing it together or joining an online sobriety community to provide some extra support from a group of people on the same journey.

If you’re feeling anxious, don’t worry. Ruby Mehta, Tempest Clinical Advisory Board Member says, “I’d say the anxiety is completely normal so don’t take that as a sign that you can’t do something. In fact, anxiety often helps us prepare for a challenge or change, so try to welcome it.”

Scott Maucher, who lives in London and works in travel, says, “I have done Dry January before, and I will be doing it again. Going dry for a full month is wonderful for both body and mind. It’s a great opportunity to see what life is like without alcohol. The first week can seem daunting… but quite quickly, you realize how easy it is to eschew alcohol.”

Emily Lyn Paulson, author of Highlight Real: Finding Honesty & Recovery Beyond the Filtered Life, says to those who want to reset their relationship with alcohol by doing Dry January, “Keep going. The benefits of alcohol-free living get better the longer it’s out of your system and out of your life!”

3. Focus on the Lifestyle Benefits Heading Your Way

Hilary Sheinbaum, author of The Dry Challenge: How to Lose the Booze for Dry January, Sober October, and Any Other Alcohol-Free Monthsuggests finding things you love to do that will occupy your time in place of alcohol.

“Drinking can be a huge time commitment,” says Sheinbaum. “When you factor in the aftermath (feeling not great the next day), and if you’re going out, transportation and getting ready for a night on the town can add to your time frame.”

“Even if you’re drinking at home,” she continues, “the time you’re spending on the couch with a bottle could instead be used to pursue other pastimes like learning how to play an instrument, working out, reading a book—or whatever you enjoy. More often than not, we tend to tell ourselves we don’t have time for the things we love, but without alcohol, there’s a lot more time back on the clock!”

4.  Consider the Health Benefits, Too

When giving up alcohol, you’ll not only have more time for activities, but you’ll see noticeable physical improvements, too.

Sheinbaum says, “Abstaining from alcohol for a mere month can promote a variety of positive changes ranging from clearer skin to better sleep, weight loss, more money in the bank, and, obviously, no hangovers! Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it dehydrates everything, including your skin. This is going to create the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.” 

“As for sleep,” says Sheinbaum, “while drinking might initially have a sedative effect, it’s ultimately going to cause awakenings and fragmented sleep—meaning you aren’t going to get the deep sleep that our bodies need to rest (and you’re going to feel cranky in the morning).” 

5.  Clear Away the Temptations & Change the Narrative

Pour out any open or unopened bottles of alcohol down the drain, or gift them to a friend. By getting rid of nearby temptations, you’re setting yourself up for success. Changing the narrative of your Dry January is a powerful tool as well. 

Lauren Thayer, a counselor at Change, Inc. who focuses on addiction, says, “Thinking of not using alcohol for an entire month can seem daunting given how threaded it can be in our daily routines. Breaking it down into smaller increments of hours, minutes, or even moments can help it feel more manageable. Changing the narrative from ‘I can’t drink for a whole month’ to ‘I am choosing to not drink right now, and this very moment is all I need to focus on,’ or, ‘Right now I will choose to do something else instead,’ can help lessen feelings of anxiety and pressure.”

6. Keep Yourself Motivated

#Treatyourself isn’t just a Parks and Recreation slogan. It’s also an important aspect of plain ol’ self-care. Motivate yourself through your Dry January journey by treating yourself with little luxuries along the way. Perhaps after every successful week of completion, you can reward yourself with a small gift or an act of self-pampering: A new pair of cozy slippers, a facial at home, or a purchase from your Poshmark cart. 

You don’t have to treat yourself in the traditional ways, either, if that doesn’t speak to you. If your finances and time allow, consider investing in a pastime that you’ve been wanting to try. If you’ve thought about, for example, paddle boarding, taking up writing, learning a new language, or testing out an art class, give yourself the opportunity to try one of these things out.

7.  Celebrate Yourself & Your Accomplishments

Quitting anything can be challenging, and it’s often said that nothing worth doing ever comes easy. Think about it: Getting that new job, negotiating a raise, putting yourself back in the dating game after a breakup, figuring out finances—these are all things that may feel hard at the outset. They take focus, discipline, and also a willingness to just give it a go, even if you don’t feel ready. (And most of us don’t ever feel ready for big changes, anyway.) Sometimes, you’ve just got to jump in. 

As you gear up for Dry January, think of all the seemingly difficult things you’ve accomplished in the past and how far you’ve come. Recalling past accomplishments and victories is a good way to remind yourself of all the amazing things you’re capable of doing. As you take that empowered momentum with you into Dry January and beyond, we’ll be cheering you on along the way. 

* * *

No matter what your reasons were for starting a Dry January this year, propel yourself forward with these seven tips. Whether or not you decide to quit alcohol for good afterward (and that’s totally up to you!), you can have a great first month of the year when you tackle this challenge and rethink your relationship with alcohol. You can do it. We know you can.

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