Dry January: An Opportunity to Examine Your Relationship with Alcohol

By Brittni Fudge, MA, LPC, NCC January 4, 2019

Dry January is a growing trend during which participants skip alcohol for the month of January.

For some, a Dry January might seem an intriguing -- but daunting -- goal.

Should you try it?

If you’ve noticed a pattern of using alcohol to de-stress, wind down after a tough day, or avoid uncomfortable feelings, taking a break from alcohol is a good way to re-evaluate your relationship with alcohol to make sure you’re not dependent on alcohol to cope.  

I often hear parents make light of the fact that their drinking has increased over the years as their children hit the terrible twos, thrashing three’s, or @*#!ing fours. This idea is supported by our culture, with books about parenting and drinking, personalized wine glasses adorned with the sparkly phrase “Mommy’s Sippy Cup,” countless references to moms needing to “wine down” after the kids are finally asleep, or dads needing to escape their stressed-out wives and whiny kids by grabbing beers with the guys.

There’s certainly no harm in the humor in these things (after all, we all need a laugh after a hard day!), but there’s truly nothing humorous about being so stressed out or unhappy that the only way you can make yourself feel better is to pour a hefty glass of wine.  

It’s also noteworthy to think about your motivations for drinking alcohol. Men often reach for alcohol for the positive gains associated with drinking -- the social benefits and the activation of the reward center that makes them feel good. On the other hand, women often drink to alleviate negative feelings, such as anxiety, being overwhelmed, or hopelessness. 

But alcohol helps me take the edge off!

It’s true that alcohol can make you feel better in the short term. Alcohol’s depressant effect actually signals our brains to release the endorphins that make us feel good.

However, research has actually shown that alcohol can exacerbate anxiety for some people. Research has also shown that heavy drinking can lead to a host of medical and psychological problems, as well as sleep problems.

While alcohol often helps people fall asleep quickly, your sleep is often less restful. The National Sleep Foundation explains that alcohol causes the sleep-inducing chemical adenosine to rise, which helps you fall asleep quickly. But then it crashes, which is why you may wake up at 3 a.m. unable to go back to sleep, or why you may wake up in the morning feeling groggy.  

But my glass of wine is part of my nightly ritual!

Over time, many people become so accustomed to grabbing a beer or pouring a glass of wine that they don’t realize that it’s become a mindless, automatic part of their evenings.

If you’re a woman imbibing one to two glasses of wine seven nights per week, that already puts you over the U.S. government's definition of moderate consumption. Moderate consumption of alcohol for women is considered one glass per day, and no more than seven per week. Taking a month-long hiatus from alcohol could give you the opportunity to tweak your habits and be more mindful of developing healthier self-care habits.

How to succeed

Want to try it? Here are four tips and tricks for a successful Dry January:

1. Develop new ways to cope with stress

Distraction can help our brains switch gears enough to try something different. Make a commitment to yourself to try something other than reaching for a bottle of wine like taking a bath, completing your to-do list, meditating, journaling, or exercising.

2.  Find a substitute

Reach for sparkling water instead of a beer, a glass of your kid’s apple juice instead of wine, or chew some gum.

3.  Track your progress

There are 31 days in January -- so draw out 31 boxes and color one in for each day of success during Dry January. There are also apps that help you track habits/goals.

4.  Make connections

Instead of drinking alone in your living room after the kids have gone to bed, pick up the phone and call a friend or talk to your partner and focus on asking open-ended questions.  

There are many benefits to taking part in Dry January. Not only will lessening alcohol consumption help you realize if you are using alcohol as a crutch and aid your sleep, but researchers at the University of Sussex reported that going without can also help you lose weight, save money, and give you more energy.

We can raise our glass -- of water! -- to that.

Author Brittni Fudge, MA, LPC, NCC, owns Kindred Counseling in Denver, Colo. A version of this article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid Downtown Denver