Photo by Ivanko_Brnjakovic/istockphoto.com
A new culture has emerged that eschews the post-work pinots and habitual Sunday football beers, and suggests that if you’re regularly imbibing without giving it much thought, it may be time to check yourself. With JAMA Open Network reporting a 14 percent increase in women’s drinking habits since the pandemic hit, you’re not alone if you’ve recently found yourself reaching for the bottle to cope with added stress, uncertainty, or even boredom.
But if your health, both mental and physical, is at top of mind this year, consider adopting principles from the sober curious movement. Read on to learn how to curb your drinking or ditch it altogether, and live your life healthy AF— alcohol-free.
What Does Being Sober Curious Mean?
Sober curiosity stems from multiple aspects of a new culture that’s concerned with both physical and mental wellness. After all, it seems counterintuitive to pour your energy into eating nutritiously and exercising to keep your body in prime condition, only to abuse it with alcohol later on.
And it is, according to Kayla Lyons, founder and CEO of 1,000 Hours Dry. “Our society is becoming more and more health conscious,” she says. “You can’t really be your best self hungover, and you definitely can’t reach peak physical health if you drink—never mind the detriments alcohol has on mental health.”
According to the National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism, those detriments are widespread. Alcohol negatively affects virtually all our organs, including the brain, heart, liver, pancreas, and immune system, and also contributes to a higher risk of developing multiple types of cancers.
And that’s not just from continued heavy drinking—your body is negatively impacted from even one night of going too hard. PLOS ONE reports that a single night of binge drinking causes your gut to leak bacterial toxins into your bloodstream, resulting in inflammation and tissue destruction, an effect that had harsher repercussions on women over men. “Sixty years ago, we thought cigarettes were good for us,” says Lyons. “There’s too much access to information now to keep the truth about alcohol hidden any longer: It’s a toxic carcinogen that should be classified as a Class 1 substance.”
You may not realize just how much alcohol factors into mental health, but when you examine that relationship deeper, you’ll be shocked at how closely intertwined they are. “Women have tremendous pressure placed on them, and alcohol can seem like a quick-fix solution to ‘check out’ from responsibilities and obligations,” explains Dr. Lauren Cook, PsyD. Whether you’re constantly looking forward to that evening glass of wine to unwind from the stress of the day, or you rely on alcohol’s effects to loosen up in social situations, these could all point to underlying emotions you may be avoiding dealing with.
You Set the Rules
While you may not feel the need to become completely sober, you might be tempted to take the dry lifestyle out for a test drive and see how it affects your physical and mental health. “Being sober curious simply means you’re interested in the benefits of living alcohol-free, and you may try ‘sober tourism’ for awhile without commitment,” says Lyons. “You can take a week off, a month off, do 1,000 hours dry, and just try it out, no pressure. The important thing is realizing you may not have the healthiest relationship with alcohol, and that’s the first step to making changes.”
“You can just try it out, no pressure. The important thing is realizing you may not have the healthiest relationship with alcohol, and that’s the first step to making changes.”
There are no hard and fast rules on how to become sober curious, but Cook recommends aligning your goals with who you know yourself to be. “Some people can moderate their use, while others need to go ‘cold turkey,’” she says. “If you’re unsure what’s best for you, see if you’re able to limit your drinking to 1-2 drinks per sitting. If your drinking still gets out of hand, it’s an indication that you need to set some harder limits on your use.” You may decide to cut back your consumption to a self-regulated amount, or you might choose to set strict guidelines around when you’ll drink, such as only in times of celebration, and only 1-2 drinks at those times.
The support that’s available to you as you decide to indulge your curiosity is immense. “The sober curious are challenging the definition of what it means to be alcohol-free,” says entrepreneur, brand partner, and founder of On the Mocks, an online community which promotes alcohol-free beverages, Christine Wayne. “It can be yoga, it can be mocktails, it can be Instagram communities filled with positivity and humor. By attaching yourself to being ‘sober curious,’ you’re joining a community. You don’t have to say, ‘I’m never drinking again,’ but instead, ‘I’m not drinking right now.”
What to Expect When You're Abstaining
The initial motivation for casual sobriety can feel exhilarating, but executing it is another story, and you’re bound to run into some obstacles. “Becoming sober is incredibly uncomfortable,” says Cook. Because these changes will demand that you examine how you cope with hard feelings such as stress, inadequacy, shame, and vulnerability, prepare yourself for some unpleasant moments.
And if anyone knows working her way through hardship without giving in to alcohol, it’s Wayne. Over the past year and a half, she experienced a lifetime of hardship, from her mom’s cancer diagnosis, to unexpectedly losing her job, to navigating unimaginable stress brought on by COVID-19 and political unrest. “All of these examples were times when I wanted to drink to lessen the pain—to ease my stress, to escape. I wanted to pretend that bad things weren’t happening,” she says. So how did she get to the other side of all that pain? “Occasionally, it was as simple as having an alcohol-free option in my hand, and just remaining calm. But what really keeps me from drinking is knowing that it won’t solve anything. Every single problem that exists in this very moment will still be here after a drink.”
But it’s not just stress and uncomfortable emotions that drive us to drink. If you’re experiencing FOMO at just the thought of skipping brunch mimosas, adjust the way you approach socializing. “You can still choose to do all the activities [that you used to]; the experience may just be different,” says Lyons. “When I stopped drinking, I realized I didn’t really enjoy the parties or the bars after all, and I found other hobbies that made me feel happy and fulfilled. Give yourself time to find out what you really like to do without alcohol so you can start living a more authentic lifestyle.”
“When I stopped drinking, I realized I didn’t really enjoy the parties or the bars after all, and I found other hobbies that made me feel happy and fulfilled.”
The Benefits of Cutting Back
It’s true that you’ll have to walk through some difficult moments in your sober journey, but it’s not all bad! In fact, the whole point is to thrive, so know that you can look forward to physical benefits such as weight loss, clearer skin, and less bloating, and mental health boosters like more energy, better focus, and heightened productivity, all aspects that Wayne experienced in her first 60 days of sobriety. And the space you make in your life for more authentic experiences will be monumental. “I have to think of alcohol as a scummy ex-boyfriend,” says Lyons. “I had to kick him out of my life to make room for the right partner and right opportunities. If alcohol is disappointing you, it’s time to dump that loser.”
But perhaps the biggest improvement you’ll notice is the relationship you have with yourself. At the end of the day, sober curiosity is an exercise in knowing who you are: What makes you tick, what your triggers are, and when you’re tempted to rely on alcohol as a crutch. “As far as feelings go, you have to realize that the only way out is through,” says Lyons. “Allow yourself to experience what emotion it is that you want to run from, and show yourself how strong you really are.”
Your Lose-the-Booze Strategy
Enjoying social situations sober is easier with a plan. Arm yourself with these tips for navigating the party, sans alcohol.
1. Go in with a plan.
Avoid being caught off-guard when others question why you’re not drinking. Come up with a go-to response such as, “I’m taking some time off from drinking.”
2. Bring your own options.
Just having a drink in your hand can ease the initial awkwardness, so come prepared with your own non-alcoholic options. “Whenever I go to a party now, I bring my own six-pack of non-alcoholic beer and I feel right at home,” says Lyons.
3. Play it forward.
You might feel jealous of your imbibing friends, but those feelings will dissipate when you think of the hangovers they’ll be dealing with tomorrow. “What keeps me sober is remembering the worst,” says Wayne.
4. Feel the tension.
Real talk: It’s going to be weird for a little while. Whether it’s powering through social barriers or being received differently by others around you, get ready for some awkward times. Surrender yourself to feeling out of place—know that it’ll get easier, and those feelings will help you to become stronger in the long run.