I started drinking with friends when I was a teenager (White Lightning cider in the park, mmmmm). By my late 20s I was starting to notice that the euphoria of being pissed was being offset by increasingly savage hangovers which made me quite scratchy, irritable and gloomy. As the years passed, the hangovers started to get worse and the high from drinking got less and less. I was getting fatter from drinking too much, which was making me lose self confidence, which was making me want to drink more to give myself a boost which was actually making me feel worse, mentally and physically. A classic vicious circle.
It was only when I cut back on alcohol that I realised how deeply ingrained it is in UK culture. I was always surprised at how astounded and annoyed people were when I’d turn up for a meal and not be on the sauce. It was almost like my abstinence was going to ruin their evenings. I’ve had people tell me I’m boring for not drinking and others who’ve basically handed me a glass of booze in spite my protestations. Be prepared for similar reactions if you decide to take a break from alcohol.
Over the last few years, I think I’ve developed a healthier relationship with booze. I now drink infrequently (probably once a week on average - total abstinence didn’t work for me) and really only when I am seeing friends. I try to avoid ever drinking on two consecutive days and if I have had a few drinks then it’s extra important that I exercise properly the following day. I also really try to avoid mixing drinks and will ensure I have a Berocca before I go to bed after having been drinking to minimise my hangover the next day.
As we all know, drinking can, at least initially, make you feel more confident and relaxed. That’s because alcohol depresses the part of your brain that’s linked to inhibition. But, as you drink more, other parts of your brain begin to be affected, and that can lead to a strong or unexpected emotional response - think of times when you’ve burst into tears, or become unexpectedly angry after you’ve had a few drinks. This kind of response is more likely to happen if you’re depressed.
Drinking can make you feel worse in a whole range of other ways too - it can make us hungover, feel tired, stressed, irritable and grumpy.
It can also impact your sleep which can have a severe impact on your mental health.
Alcohol is highly calorific so it can lead to you putting on weight which can also contribute to you feeling low.
Cutting out booze entirely isn’t always easy. Don’t beat yourself up if you find this challenging. The important thing is to cut down how much you’re drinking. One way to think about reducing how much you drink or cutting it out altogether is that you’re simply creating a new habit, and as with all habits, it just takes a few weeks for a habit to become properly established. Follow these tips to get through the first few weeks and build this new habit.
Avoid temptation. In the early stages, it’s a good idea to avoid situations where you may be tempted to drink. This might mean going out for a cup of tea, or to the cinema rather than the pub, to see friends. If you tend to drink when eating out, try going to restaurants that don’t sell alcohol, or volunteering to be the designated driver. Another way of avoiding temptation is to get rid of any booze you have at home.
Make a plan. Try and work out when you would usually have a drink and fill the gap with something else. So, if you tend to drink at home in front of the TV, maybe replace that glass of wine with something else you enjoy. If you would usually head to the pub after work on a Friday evening, you could organise to meet friends at the cinema, or go to an exercise class to help you relax instead.
Try to identify your ‘triggers’ (times when you’re tempted to drink). It could be that when you’re stressed you want a drink. What are the kinds of things that make you so stressed that you feel you need a drink? Is it possible to avoid those situations? Is there another way of dealing with that stress?
Tell your family / friends and enlist their help. Breaking a habit like drinking alcohol is tough to do on your own so it’s key to enlist your friends’ support. If they understand what you’re trying to do then they’re much better placed to be supportive. In the early days of reducing your boozing, I’d suggest focusing on activities where alcohol isn’t an option - your determination to quit is going to be tested if you meet up in the pub.
Keep track of how you’re doing. One way of doing this is to give yourself short-term goals. If you drink every day, you could first try drinking every other day, then having an alcohol-free week, then an alcohol-free month, for example.
Reward progress. It’s important to acknowledge that making changes to your lifestyle can be difficult and to reward yourself with something when you make progress. At the same time, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself if you slip up every once in a while. You could try putting aside the amount of money you’ve saved from not drinking and spend it on another treat at the end of the week or the month.
Get rid of any booze you have in your home.
Tell your friends or partner that you’re going to stop drinking and why.
Download an app. There are lots of apps that will help you stop drinking, track your progress and build positive habits. Here are some examples: Stop Drinking with Andrew Johnson, I Am Sober, Happify, Strides: Habit Tracker or Quit That.
Think about buying smaller bottles of booze and using smaller glasses. One way of cutting down on alcohol if you’re a wine drinker is to buy small (125ml) glasses for the house rather than the large 250ml ones. I’d suggest also considering buying half bottles of wine instead of normal 750ml one.
If you’re worried that you’re drinking too much and want some help to stop or slow down you can contact these organisations:
Provides peer support. Check the site for information about local meetings. They’re famous for their 12 step recovery programme, and for their model of peer support through sponsors and meetings.
A specialist drug and alcohol treatment charity. Their addiction services are free and confidential.
Drinkline – National Alcohol Helpline
If you’re concerned about your drinking or someone else’s. This is a free, confidential helpline open weekdays 9am – 8pm, weekends 11am – 4pm. Call on 0300 123 1110.
Al-Anon Family Groups provide support to anyone whose life is, or has been, affected by someone else’s drinking, regardless of whether that person is still drinking or not.
How to avoid temptation during dry January, Abi Wilkinson, The Guardian. Advice holds true for the whole year!
Giving up alcohol for a year salvaged my mental health, Ned Lamb, The Guardian
The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, By Catherine Grey
For information, advice and guidance see: Drink Aware
Cheers? Understanding the relationship between alcohol and mental health, The Mental Health Foundation
An alternative view - Why drink is the secret to humanity’s success