In this article Mindpath College Health’s Andrew Monasterio, PMHNP-BC, DNP, discusses why Dry January improves overall well-being and how to know if you should participate in this health trend.
We toasted at family gatherings with wine and spirits, spent Friendsgiving at parties with bespoke cocktails, and rang in the New Year with champagne. Alcohol and the holidays go together like Michael Bublé and Christmas music. But if you woke up on January 1st with a bad hangover and the feeling that you might need a break from drinking, you’re not alone.
Our drinking habits around the holidays
In the United States, drinking is part of everyday life. According to 2022 data, 84% of adults in the U.S. report drinking at some point in their lives, and 52% report drinking within the last month. The number of adults who engaged in binge drinking in the previous month is 23%.
When it comes to the holidays, we drink 27% more alcohol than the rest of the year. 1 in 5 Americans admit they drink alcohol every day they are off work during the holidays. For some people, this hike in drinking is easy to bounce back from. But for some, especially if you struggle with a mental health disorder, including anxiety and depression, taking a break in January can be a helpful option.
What is Dry January?
You’ve probably heard of Dry January if you’ve been on social media in the last ten years. In 2013, the charity Alcohol Change UK started the trend with a simple idea: spend the first 31 days of the year completely sober from alcohol and see what happens. It’s truly that simple: try to avoid alcohol for all of January, no bells and whistles. Though plenty of apps help track your progress, Dry January is as low-tech as you want it to be.
The first year of Dry January drew 4,000 participants. Since then, it has grown into an international phenomenon, attracting over 175,000 participants in 2023, according to Alcohol Change UK’s stats, though the number of casual participants means this number is likely much greater. Celebrities including Tom Holland, Kelly Ripa, and Bella Hadid have been among the participants in recent years.
A significant feature of Dry January is that it’s not for folks with active alcohol use disorder but for those of us who are “sober curious.” Maybe we had one too many glasses of wine at Christmas Eve dinner and ended up in a shouting match with Great Aunt Susie or realized we blew our vacation budget going out to bars with friends. Reasons for participating in Dry January vary from curiosity about our relationship with alcohol to saving money to having clearer skin and even promoting mental well-being.
What are the benefits of Dry January?
Let’s get to the good news: Participants studied in Dry January reported many positive results. 71% reported better sleep, something we could all use these days, 67% had more energy, and 80% felt more in control of their drinking. And 88% of participants reported, unsurprisingly, that they saved money. An overwhelming majority of people who completed Dry January (over 90%) also reported feeling a sense of accomplishment and pride in themselves. Then there are the effects on how we feel day to day. A month-long break from alcohol can reduce headaches, acid reflux, and heartburn and even reduce anxiety.
Dry January also gives us the chance to explore our relationship with alcohol without too much judgment. The trend focuses on camaraderie and enjoying the benefits of sobriety rather than shame about drinking. And as psychology has been telling us for the last 50 years, positive reinforcement is always going to work better than punishment to create change. The fact that Dry January has become such a mainstream trend also helps reduce the stigma around sobriety. It helps normalize the idea that drinking isn’t a necessary part of life—or necessary for having a good time.
Alcohol is a depressant, a substance that slows or “depresses” central nervous system function and slows down reactions. There is an important and fairly complex relationship between alcohol use and mental illnesses like depression; studies show that the more we drink, the more likely we are to develop temporary anxiety and depression, as well as exacerbate existing mental illnesses. Since alcohol consumption can also interact negatively with mental illness medications such as antidepressants, talking to a psychiatric clinician about your lifestyle change can be a great way to get support during Dry January.
Dry January seems pretty great. Are there any drawbacks?
For people with a casual relationship with alcohol, Dry January can be incredibly beneficial. (USDA guidelines for moderate drinking is two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less a day for women.) But for people with high-functioning alcohol addiction, a short break in January can mask the real issue. High-functioning alcoholism affects at least 20% of people with substance use disorder, and people who fall into this category might be able to complete Dry January without solving the underlying issues they have with alcohol. The USDA defines heavy alcohol use as 5 or more drinks per day or 15 or more in a week for men and 4 or more drinks a day or 8 or more a week for women.
Dry January is also designed to start sobriety “cold turkey” on January 1, which can be physically dangerous for those with serious alcohol addiction. Those in active addiction may need professional support to quit drinking since withdrawal can cause symptoms ranging from sweating and dizziness to serious seizures.
Tips to get started with Dry January
If Dry January sounds like an interesting idea for you—if you’re sober curious—here are some tips to get started.
Find replacement beverages. Sobriety doesn’t have to mean giving up fun drinks! A great way to support Dry January is to find replacement drinks for alcohol. Luckily, there has been huge growth in the non-alcoholic beverage market over the last few years. Beverages, including non-alcoholic spirits, have exploded in popularity, and the company behind Liquid Death (a canned water beverage) even designed their cans to look like an alcoholic “tallboy” can.
Connect with a support network. One of the benefits of Dry January as a global movement is that a whole community is out there participating together. As writer Johan Hari said, “The opposite of addiction is not sobriety; it is human connection.” Share your goal of sobriety with friends, and you may also find people in your circles willing to join you and support you.
Explore feelings and professional mental health support. Whether you are participating in Dry January for your health, sleep, or curiosity about sobriety, a big change like this will bring up feelings. Instead of shying away from them, use this time to connect with those feelings through journaling, sharing with friends, or talking to a therapist. Support from a psychiatric clinician during major lifestyle changes can also increase chances for success. Leading sources in the field of addiction suggest that medication is an important part of recovery.
Practice positive self-talk. If you find yourself faltering in week one, it’s tempting to turn to self-criticism. Staying positive and encouraging with self-talk can help you reach your Dry January goal. Remember the thing about positive reinforcement from earlier? Studies show that positive self-talk can reduce feelings of anxiety, depression, and negative body image.
Take advantage of free resources. Luckily, there are many great resources to help with your Dry January journey. A great place to start is AlcoholChangeUK, founders of Dry January. You can talk with a therapist or psychiatric clinician (who can support your sobriety journey with medication) trained in addiction. Try using apps like Am I Sober? and EasyQuit, designed specifically to track and reduce alcohol use, or Habitica for a more general habit-tracking approach.
Plan for the rest of the year. Now that you’ve had a chance to take a break from drinking, it’s a good time to be intentional about starting up again. Using the CDC guidelines on drinking is a good place to start, as is talking to a therapist. Dry January can be about building better wellness habits throughout the year.
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