Stopping for a bit – or for a bit more?

[My blog post published yesterday and cross-posted from Club Soda]

January is a popular month for changing your drinking. Everyone will know at least someone who is making a New Year’s resolution not to drink for a month. Or doing a “Drynuary“, as they say in America. In Club Soda speak, we call this kind of thing stopping for a bit: committing to a period of no drinking, but not quitting permanently. It is generally understood that taking a break from alcohol is good for you and your health. But it may also have longer-lasting benefits, which aren’t as well known yet.

University of Sussex psychologist Dr Richard de Visser has studied the impact of taking a month off booze, and he has found some very interesting results. Most people felt a sense of achievement after the month, which is maybe not such a surprise. Four in five saved money, more than half had better sleep and more energy. And just under half (49%) also lost weight.

What’s most interesting is that in August, six months after their dry month, three in four were drinking less than they used to, and 4% had stayed completely sober for the whole time! And similar changes were seen not only in the people who completed the dry month, but also in those who started but didn’t finish. It seems therefore that just making that commitment to stop for a bit and trying will have an impact.

Journalist Peter Oborne completed a dry January in 2013, and wrote three columns about it. They tell an interesting story. In the first column, written on 30th December, he says he is “not really that heavy a drinker”, and tells stories of people who have drank much more than him. He even mentions that Hitler never drank (and that therefore we should all drink in order not to become fascist dictators?). But he clearly felt worried enough about his drinking to decide to stop for a bit. But he is not looking forward to it.

The second column, dated 20th January, starts by noting how well he is sleeping, and how refreshed he feels each morning, and how his back pain has disappeared. But then follows a long list of complaints: how he struggles to write like before, how meeting friends is miserable, how he’s started smoking (to support not drinking!), and wondering if the month will ever end.

The surprise ending to this story comes in the final column, on 3 February. Our writer still says the month was miserable, and confesses to a few more lapses. But he mentions more positives too: better health and complexion, more sleep, clarity of mind, more work done, loss of weight. And then the realisation: “At the end of it all, I’ve had no choice but to admit that I’m an addict. It’s not that I need a drink to get through an average day. I need several. And this slavish dependency has got to end.” He is now determined to cut down – but not to quit completely, as that would be “terrible”.

At Club Soda we will never say that one size fits all – we feel strongly that everyone must be free to set their own goals, whether to cut down, stop for a bit, quit, or any combination of the three. Peter Oborne ‘s story is a good illustration of the benefits of this thinking: he would not have been ready to quit, or even to cut down. But after stopping for a bit, he has changes his mind – and his drinking.

So, what do we take away from this? Most importantly, that stopping for a bit will often lead to cutting down in the longer-term as well. And that it brings significant changes for almost everyone, even if you don’t achieve your initial goal of a full month without drinking.

And what if you fall off the wagon? Lapse? Slip? Accidentally have a glass of vino? The first thing to remember is to not get upset. Think about the situation that lead to the drink? What triggered it? Could you have avoided it? The second thing is to forgive yourself and move on. Decide what to do next. If you’re really determined, you could start from zero again, and still try to go a whole month without a drink, starting from today. Or you can just carry on until the 1st of February as planned. Either way, you will have made a significant change to your drinking. Even Peter Oborne confessed to slipping five times during his month, and still made it to the end. His reasoning: he didn’t drink on 26 out of the 31 days of January!

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