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You may need a Sober October more than you think. Experts explain how to do it right

<i>Oscar Wong/Moment RF/Getty Images</i><br/>Focusing on your relationship with drinking can be helpful to all kinds of people
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Oscar Wong/Moment RF/Getty Images
Focusing on your relationship with drinking can be helpful to all kinds of people

By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

Sober October, Dry January and Dry July: For one quarter of a year, these campaigns provide a motivation for people to come together and challenge themselves to go without alcohol.

It isn’t a surprise to Annie Grace that these periods to reduce alcohol consumption are becoming more popular. The author of “This Naked Mind: Control Alcohol” said she is seeing more and more people evaluate the relationship that alcohol plays in their lives.

How much is too much? The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention classifies moderate drinking as two drinks or less in a day for men and one drink or less for women. But two-thirds of adult drinkers report drinking more than those levels at least once a month, according to the CDC.

And the pandemic didn’t help. A December 2020 study found that 60% of respondents increased drinking over the year and more than a third said they engaged in binge drinking, which is defined as five or more drinks on an occasion for men and four for women.

Studies show that alcohol isn’t good for healthy living. There is no safe amount when it comes to heart health, according to the World Heart Federation. And even moderate drinking reserved for the weekend can have social, emotional and psychological impacts, according to a 2022 study.

Sober October could be a step to cutting out alcohol entirely, but it doesn’t have to be, said biological psychologist Aaron White, senior scientific adviser to the director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Whatever your level of drinking, a monthlong sobriety challenge could help you be more mindful about your drinking, White added.

Who benefits?

You may think you might not need a break from drinking because you don’t have signs of substance abuse disorder: your drinking causing serious impairment, health problems, disability or issues meeting responsibilities.

But problematic drinking is a spectrum — not just a binary between addicted and fine, Grace said. You may drink a little but not feel good about why or how you drink. You may drink a lot but feel doing so functions well in your life.

Even people who don’t drink heavily may find themselves with less control over when and how much they drink than they would like, Grace said.

She was one of those people. Grace didn’t feel she needed treatment programs, but she found that reducing her drinking was a struggle, which to her was a sign that something needed to change.

Taking on a sobriety challenge doesn’t mean you have to quit forever, but it can help you be more thoughtful in your decisions around drinking rather than doing it because it’s what you usually do, White said.

“It gives somebody a chance to cultivate alternatives,” he added.

How does it help?

Even in just a month, there is evidence that reduced alcohol consumption can be good for your physical health.

“Most people who drink excessively have fatty livers,” White said. “Even taking a break for a month is enough to just bring your liver enzymes down and for your liver to look healthier.”

Some people may find with less or no alcohol they sleep better and make better food choices for themselves, White said.

And for emotional health, a short-term challenge can point out feelings and routines that could be improved, Grace added.

Many of the people she works with — even moderate drinkers — describe their relationship with alcohol as something they are not in full control of, she said.

She encourages people who are using a sobriety challenge to take note of when they feel the urge to drink and what purpose it serves. Does it make you feel part of a community to share a drink at a party? Is that glass of wine after a long day a reliable sense of comfort?

Maybe the drink is an easy way — but not the best — to get those needs met, Grace said. Taking note and trying to find those things without a drink could open you up to new ways of fulfilling those feelings, White added.

How to be successful

There are a couple of stumbling blocks to plan for during a sober month, Grace said.

One is overcoming the desire to drink, and experts had different approaches to solve that problem.

Reducing drinking can have a similar effect as dieting — the more you tell yourself you can’t have it, the more you want it, said Natalie Mokari, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Charlotte, North Carolina.

She recommends starting with one less drink than you would usually have at each occasion or breaking a daily habit by limiting drinking to certain days. You can also have a sparkling water in between drinks or make weaker cocktails than usual to reduce your alcohol consumption, she said.

White said it is important not to feel shame if you end up drinking during your sobriety challenge. Don’t throw out the whole experience by beating yourself up over a glass of wine, he added.

Grace recommended leading with curiosity and information. Learning more about the psychology and biology of alcohol really helped reduce her desire to drink, she said, and approaching her urges with curiosity rather than judgment allowed her to learn more about the role alcohol played in her life.

There is also social pressure to drink. How do you not drink when everyone else is? Especially if friends get uncomfortable when they don’t see you with the beer you always have?

The first thing is to remember that people may make you feel bad because they are uncomfortable about their own relationship with drinking, Grace said.

It often helps to have a nonalcoholic drink in your hand at social events, White said, so the offer to have a drink doesn’t even come up.

Don’t binge on November 1

If you are hoping to curb your habits or boost your health, it is important not to see crossing the finish line as the time to overindulge, Mokari said.

Dramatically reducing your consumption over that time can lower your tolerance, and what was enough for a buzz today could result in a much higher level of intoxication than you expect 30 days later, White said.

You may also be undoing the changes in habit you have been building over the course of the month by going back even harder once it’s over, Grace added.

“In our society, even saying ‘I want to take a break’ is super brave,” she said. “If you don’t change how you feel about it but white-knuckle it the whole month, it becomes like this forbidden fruit syndrome.”

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