According to Harvard Health, there was an 84 percent increase in alcohol use disorder among women, and a 35 percent increase among men from 2001-2013. More recently, the stress and anxiety from the pandemic have contributed to an even greater increase in alcohol consumption. I’m seeing more people ask questions like “Is my drinking habit something to worry about?” and “Do I have a drinking problem?”
If you’ve found your drinking habits or alcohol cravings have become harder to manage, you are not alone. At the same time, more people than ever are taking the admirable step to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol. As a therapist on the Monument platform, I get to witness our growing community explore and discover the benefits of moderation or sobriety every day.
Something I often remind members is that you don’t have to commit to a lifetime of abstinence on day one to examine and redefine your relationship with alcohol. Building healthier habits begins with a curiosity about how alcohol currently shows up in your life and a willingness to explore the positive changes from cutting back on drinking.
If you’re asking yourself or others “should I quit drinking?” here are a few things to keep in mind.
Signs you might benefit from quitting drinking
Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is a medical condition characterized by drinking more than you want and longer than you want, despite wanting to cut down. Alcohol use disorder is diagnosed on a spectrum based on 11 criteria defined by the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-5). Learning more about alcohol use disorder and in-person or online alcohol treatment options can be an empowering step in changing your relationship with alcohol. Whether you meet the criteria for AUD or not, the following signs are indicators that you would likely benefit from working towards a healthier relationship with alcohol.
What are the signs of an unhealthy relationship with alcohol?
- Having thoughts that you’re drinking too much or too often
- Trying to set alcohol consumption limits and consistently surpassing them
- Drinking to feel “normal,” or as a reward at the end of the day
- Feeling a sense of regret and shame about drinking or what you did while under the influence
- Developing an increased tolerance and needing to drink more to feel the effects of alcohol
- Using alcohol as a coping mechanism to relieve stress, boredom, anxiety, and/or to avoid responsibilities
If you identify with any of these signs, there is no shame in that. You can make a change and don’t have to do it alone. A great way to cultivate the motivation to do so is by reflecting on how drinking less can help you get closer to your ideal self.
What are the reasons to cut back or quit drinking?
It’s no secret that drinking alcohol takes a toll on the body, including increased risk of liver disease, high blood pressure, and other health risks.
Continued alcohol use can also damage your skin, weaken your hair and nails, cause weight gain, and lead to sleep issues. When we reduce our alcohol intake, we have more energy, our bodies function better, we have better sleep, and we reduce the risk of developing serious health conditions. We allow our bodies to heal and give our whole selves the opportunity to feel better.
Despite our best intentions, our behavior while drinking can hurt those closest to us. Unhealthy alcohol intake can strain relationships, and cause feelings of regret, isolation, guilt, and embarrassment. Taking alcohol out of the equation enables us to mend damaged relationships, make more meaningful connections, and be authentically present with the people we love. I also moderate a free support group on navigating relationship challenges while managing your drinking, which can help guide you throughout this journey of collective healing.
One outcome that isn’t always spoken about but can greatly improve quality of life is the financial benefit of drinking less. Alcohol use can lead to legal charges, job loss, poor financial decisions, and credit issues, in addition to the cost of the alcohol itself. Saving money from drinking less allows us to invest in ourselves and our future. To hear more about the connection between drinking less and financial stability, check out this interview I did with The Financial Gym podcast.
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A frequently asked question from my patients is ‘Is alcohol a stimulant or depressant’? Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, and unhealthy alcohol use can have various psychological and mental health side effects. Alcohol can take up to an entire week to leave the body, and typically causes significant psychological effects during the first 72 hours after drinking.
Alcohol use increases the dopamine levels in the brain, and other “feel-good” neurotransmitters, such as serotonin. After the alcohol wears off, so do the dopamine and serotonin, causing a deficit of these neurotransmitters in the brain. This deficit can lead to depression, shame, guilt, and anxiety (or “hangxiety”). The good news is, these effects are reversible. With time to recover, our neurotransmitters can find their natural balance again, and we can feel better.
While there are plenty of holistic benefits of sobriety, everyone’s reason for changing their relationship with alcohol is unique and valid. Finding your own “why” can be a powerful motivator, and something to explore further in specialized alcohol therapy with a supportive therapist. Reading more about the alcohol recovery timeline can also help you understand what to expect from starting a sobriety or moderation journey, and how to navigate the mental, physical, and social changes along the way.
How to choose moderation vs. sobriety
If you’ve decided that drinking less can give you more, you might now be wondering: can I moderate my drinking, or is quitting alcohol altogether a better option for me? The sobriety vs. moderation question can be challenging to answer. The good news is that you do not have to know the answer right away. You have choices and options! First, be sure to seek medical advice before cutting back on drinking or quitting alcohol cold turkey. Depending on your past drinking habits and medical history, you may need medically assisted detox, or other medical attention in order to safely taper down and avoid alcohol withdrawal symptoms (which can include symptoms like shakes and tremors and delirium tremens). There are a variety of inpatient and outpatient options for this.
If your healthcare provider determines that you don’t need additional care before beginning your sobriety or moderation journey, you can start exploring your options. One way to get started is trying abstinence for 30 days and seeing how you feel.
Take on the sobriety challenge
If you find yourself wondering ‘what is sobriety?’ “What will it feel like?” A sobriety challenge is a great way to rest and get a taste of a life without alcohol. If this seems too overwhelming or you’re not ready to try it yet, working to decrease your alcohol consumption can also be very productive. Tracking your alcohol consumption with the goal of reducing your alcohol intake to a few drinks each week is a great way to start building healthier habits.
Turning a sobriety challenge into a lifestyle
Join support groups
If all of these options feel like a lot to navigate alone, know that all kinds of support are available to you. You can attend therapist-moderated online alcohol support groups to hear from others on how they deal with their alcohol cravings and increase your awareness about where you are in the process.
For one-on-one guidance, you can also seek support from a specialized therapist and physician to discuss your needs and goals, and identify what path will help you get there. You are in charge of your journey, and the Care Team at Monument is here to guide you.
When to get started
Whether it’s Dry January, Sober September, or any month of the year, there is never a wrong time to build healthier habits and change your relationship with alcohol. While you may not feel 100 percent ready to stop drinking, you can start by taking small steps towards sobriety or moderation and discovering how they impact your wellbeing. Cutting back the frequency, duration, or amount that you drink are all meaningful steps towards a healthier life.