New Research Finds ‘Dry January’ Has Benefits That Could Last All Year

There are many good reasons to decide to “dry” in January and give up alcohol. Maybe you drank too much on vacation or want to start a diet or exercise routine and can’t afford the calories or the energy and motivation that drinking can bring.

“Or it may be someone who is really starting to wonder or question their relationship with alcohol, and this is an opportunity to really explore that,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director of the Substance Use Disorders Initiative at the Massachusetts General Hospital.

“For some people, saying, ‘I’m not going to drink for this whole month,’ can be really hard, so trying to do it can show them how easy or hard it is for you,” said neuropsychologist Dr. Sanam Hafeez, who teaches classes at Teachers College of Columbia University.

What is the expert advice on how to have a successful “dry January”? keep reading

1. Know your reasons

It helps to be clear about your goal to make it a habit, said Wakeman, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“The research we have on goal setting says that goals are more likely to be achieved if they’re really relevant to you as an individual and not abstract like ‘I should stop drinking because drinking is bad,'” he said.

Concrete goals, such as adopting new sleep habits or an exercise routine, will help make it easier to quit drinking, he said.

“I really want to stop drinking because I know when I drink a lot not getting up the next morning and not exercising is a very specific goal,” Wakeman said.

Additional motivation may come from the health benefits you can gain from cutting back or cutting out alcohol, experts say.

“Drinking less over time can have really measurable benefits on your health in terms of blood pressure, cancer risk, liver disease risk and other conditions,” Wakeman said.

“Over the course of a month, you may notice some short-term benefits, such as sleeping better, having a better complexion due to skin improvements, feeling clearer, and having more energy,” he added.

2. Set SMART goals

Many of us may be familiar with SMART goals from the work or school environment. They are used to help people set achievable goals. The acronym stands for:

Specific: Set an achievable goal, such as cutting back on alcohol three days a week. You can add days until you reach your ultimate goal.

Measurable: How many drinks will it cut and what are the drink sizes? A beer is 12 ounces, a glass of wine is 5 ounces, and a serving of liquor is 1.5 ounces.

Realizable: Make sure there aren’t a ton of social engagements where alcohol is likely to be served during your abstaining month.

Important: How is not drinking going to help me with my life and my health?

Based on time: Set a reasonable time frame to finish your efforts. If you want, you can set another goal later.

“If you set the bar too high, you can fail, so it’s better to set smaller goals to get there,” Hafeez said. “Nothing starts without an honest conversation with yourself.”

3. Share your goal with others

Letting a few friends or family members know about your goal can help you reach it, experts say. For some people it may work to announce your plan on social media and invite others to join and report on your progress.

“That’s where I think ‘dry January’ has caught on,” Wakeman said. “If you publicly state that you’re going to do something, you’re more likely to keep it than if you keep it to yourself.”

4. Consider a mocktail

Drinking is often associated with social gatherings or moments of fun. That can train your brain to view alcohol as a positive thing. You can combat those urges by replacing your beverage of choice with something equally festive or tasty, experts say.

“For some people it might just be sparkling water, and for other people it might be a mocktail or some kind of (non-alcoholic) drink that feels fun and festive,” Wakeman said.

“Substituting one behavior for another may work because you’re tricking your brain,” Hafeez said. “That can absolutely help you avoid temptation.”

An entire industry is dedicated to making soft drinks that taste (at least a little) like the real thing. Some even claim to have added ingredients that are “soothing” or “healthy.”

“I’m skeptical of anything that claims to relax you or have incredible health benefits that comes in a glass, regardless of what it is,” Wakeman said. “But if it’s an alternative that allows you to feel like you’re not missing out on a social situation and helps you make the changes you want in your drinking, I don’t think there’s any downside to that.”

5. Track your progress, goal and feelings.

Even if you don’t end up cutting out all alcohol, it can help to track your emotions and impulses to figure out your triggers, Wakeman said.

“Even measuring your behavior, whether it’s alcohol, exercise or diet, can be an intervention in itself,” he said.

“Even if someone isn’t ready to make changes yet, simply keeping a journal of when they drink, in which situations they drink the most, and how they feel during those times can really help them identify trigger situations in which they are more likely to drink,” Wakeman added.

Manage your symptoms

There’s one additional piece that’s important to achieving a “dry January,” experts say. It’s important to notice if you, or a loved one, is showing any negative symptoms from cutting back or cutting out alcohol. It could be a sign that you need professional help to reach your goal.

“The first thing to consider is whether or not you really have an alcohol use disorder,” Wakeman said. “If someone has been drinking a lot every day and is at risk of withdrawal symptoms, then it can be really dangerous to stop drinking abruptly.”

A person with alcohol use disorder, who has become accustomed to having a certain level of alcohol in their body every day, may go into withdrawal and experience severe physical symptoms such as tremors, sweating, rapid heart rate, and seizures.

“That would be a real indication that you need to talk to a medical professional about getting medical treatment for withdrawal and not stopping on your own,” Wakeman said.

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