The topic of alcohol and mindfulness felt appropriate in the month that many call Dry January. It has become a tradition because it offers your body and mind a chance to reset and reflect after the seasonal bloat and weariness. As a therapist, I encourage everyone to take mindful dry periods throughout the year to check in with themselves. Most people would rather not cut out alcohol entirely, which is where mindfulness comes in to assist and a movement labeled “sober-curious.” Society has long presented drinking alcohol as a necessary accoutrement to a good time or a problem which promotes thinking of life in black-and-white terms of “either/or.” However, there is so much more to explore in between these absolutes which allows for healing, compassion, and mindfulness.
What is Mindful Drinking?
Mindful drinking is a philosophy that brings the self-reflection of meditation to any alcoholic drink. It is a movement with a growing community. Mindful drinking is not about quitting alcohol but instead being aware of how much alcohol you’re drinking and its impact on you in the moment. It’s about recognizing the reasons for and the ramifications of drinking. It’s about improving your relationship with alcohol, so you maximize enjoyment and minimize negative side effects like hangovers, regrets, and anxiety.
Mindful drinking can make physical, mental, emotional, and financial change that is positive and proactive way. It is a way of utilizing cognitive behavioral modification (CBM) practices while being completely present. Asking yourself why you want a drink, or should you have a drink while reviewing what you have planned the rest of the day or the next morning, brings you into the present fully and without judgement. It allows you to make a conscious decision to drink or not to drink. Here are the 3 basic steps to starting your mindful drinking journey:
- Stop & Reflect: Ask yourself about the role alcohol plays in your life and the moments throughout your daily routine that most make you crave it and find other ways to fill in the gaps. Think through what you like and don’t like about drinking. Is it the taste of alcohol that draws you in? The bodily sensation of a buzz? Identify the amount of alcohol you typically consume to induce a certain effect, and then consider the facets of drinking you enjoy less, like hangovers or the sense of losing control. Articulating these aspects of your drinking life can help you form realistic guidelines for cutting back, he said.
- Make a Plan: Drinking narrows our focus on the world where we only focus on the present moment. This is why it’s crucial to establish a plan for mindful drinking ahead of time. This can include drinking with a friend who’s also practicing mindful drinking, making sure you eat while you’re drinking, and asking the bartender to use half the amount of alcohol in a cocktail. These tricks will slow the rate of alcohol entering your system, he said, which can help you be more intentional about the drinks you do choose to consume. You can use CBM to retrain your brain by pouring water into your wine glass after the first glass of wine is complete. You can use this trick with beer bottles or ordering a ginger ale with lime on the rocks. A little-known fact that Curtis Jackson (aka 50 Cent) shared in an interview is that he buys champagne for his friends and at his gatherings so people can have a good time, but he fills his glass with ginger ale as he has been a very long time sober.
- Ask Questions: Don’t take alcohol for granted. If you are going to drink, make it a conscious, deliberate choice. Think about whether alcohol will add value to your experience — what difference will drinking make to your time at a party or your night at the bar? And if you’re drinking to try to enjoy an event where you’re not having a good time, consider just going home. Keep asking questions about the motivating factors behind alcohol consumption.
Regulating emotions is what is most important in being a successful mindful drinker. This is why meditation helps significantly. You can listen to a guided meditation I have on my YouTube channel to help.
Benefits of Mindful Drinking
Some of the potential health benefits of reducing your alcohol consumption include:
- Improved Sleep – Alcohol in high amounts disrupt sleep patterns so cutting back to moderate or low amounts will improve sleep quality substantially.
- Anxiety Reduction – Better sleep = reduced anxiety! Excessive alcohol consumption also causes hormonal imbalances which can increase anxiety.
- Weight Management – At an average of 125 calories per drink, even a small reduction can make a big difference.
- Lower Blood Pressure – More than 3 drinks a day is associated with higher blood pressure. Cutting back to 1 drink per day alone can help lower both systolic and diastolic pressure.
- Better Liver Function – Alcoholic hepatitis and liver disease is on the rise. Alcohol use can lead to a build-up of fat in the liver which can be a precursor to liver damage. Reduction in alcohol use can help prevent these potentially dangerous changes.
- Healthier skin – Heavy alcohol use can lead to more wrinkling and early aging of the skin. It is inflammatory and can cause disruption of the usual function of blood vessels in the skin. This can result in skin that looks duller, drier and puffier, and may even cause facial redness and blotchiness.
- More Brainpower – Reduced alcohol consumption leads to greater focus, clarity, and mental energy. The result is often higher cognitive performance and greater motivation.
Social Mindful Drinking
So many of our social activities involve drinking. We drink at work happy hours and while at restaurants on dates and when out late with friends and then again at brunch the next morning. We serve wine and beer at book clubs and volunteer meetings, during the games and to the parents at our kids’ birthday parties. Cutting back alcohol should feel as comfortable and normal as cutting calories or increasing your number of daily steps. But with drinking so embedded in so many of our social interactions, cutting back when interacting with others can sometimes feel a bit challenging.
Here are some ideas on how to navigate social situations when you’re starting to drink more mindfully:
- Have a plan and stick to it: Mindful drinking is a proactive practice. Have a limit in mind when entering a social situation and stay the course. When cutting back, phrases and questions you might hear include, What else can I get you? Why aren’t you drinking right now? Come on, it’s the weekend, live a little! Oh, one more drink won’t hurt you. You just have to try this. Sincerely thank the person, say no, and redirect the conversation. Prioritize you and your goals.
- Aim for small victories: Focusing on cutting back during one event is doable. Focusing on a year’s worth of cutting back will likely seem more challenging. Although you may have an overarching goal in mind, focus on small wins and the progress you make at each social event. Even cutting back one drink per in-person or virtual gathering can add up to big wins over time.
- Order drinks with half shots: Ask your bartender to make your drink with half the amount of alcohol; chances are you’re not the first person to make this request. Half shots are an easy way to reduce your alcohol intake while also allowing yourself to sip on cocktails twice as long.
- Alternate with water: This win-win solution helps with hydration and pacing. Turn it into a consistent, positive habit for yourself by always drinking a big glass of water between your drinks. And don’t forget to end your day with a couple extra glasses just to top things off.
- Surround yourself with positivity. Often those you care about will support you in goal setting and achievement. If cutting back, reach out to the friend who will want to join you for a morning walk or yoga session versus a boozy brunch. Physical activities such as hiking, biking, skiing, or shooting hoops are easy ways to socialize without a drink in hand. And when out, sit next to those who simply don’t care what’s in your cup.
- Socialize mindfully: One of the best parts of mindful drinking is how it often leads to mindful engagement. When you look at socializing not so much as a reason to drink but more as a way to meaningfully connect with others, chances are you’ll leave social situations feeling far more fulfilled. Use cutting back as an opportunity to truly engage.
- Eat: Order an appetizer. Indulge in a dessert. Nibble on a healthy snack. If you’re used to holding something in a bar and you’ve reached your drink limit, hold a plate instead of a glass. Eating also can help break up drinking and keeps you from drinking too much on an empty stomach.
- Nurse your drink: Sip slowly and savor. It will last longer.
- The “newness” will fade: Cutting back on drinking can feel different because it’s new. Mindful drinking is often just a series of small tweaks that have minimal day-to-day impact but provide maximum long-term results. Focus on all the positives this “new” normal will bring and remember that “new” will be “normal” soon enough.
- You Are Not Alone: There are many people interested in improving their health and lifestyle. There are groups out there to join if that is your thing.
- Have a backup plan: If the evening changes course or you realize the people you’re with have different drinking plans, allow yourself the freedom (and power) to call it a night. This may mean leaving earlier than anticipated, with your nightcap being a cocktail of comfortable clothes, your couch, and Netflix.
- Reward yourself: Give yourself something to look forward to if you stick to your plan. Maybe it’s a fancy coffee drink, a new book, or an activity you’ve been wanting to try. It’s a great in-the-beginning motivator.
- Don’t give in to FOMO: It can be hard to not to feel like you’re “missing out” when you’re cutting down or declining the offer of an alcoholic beverage. So, focus on what you’re gaining.
- Enjoy the clarity: If you’re used to increasingly blurry evenings with fuzzy endings, pay attention to how you feel on the mornings you wake up after cutting back—no headache, no dry mouth, no light and sound sensitivity, no fatigue. Instead, you’re energized, and you remember all the interesting little details of a fun night with family or friends. Capture this feeling and remember it.
Mindful drinking is the growing alternative to the all or nothing mindset of either drink or don’t. Meditation, mindfulness practices, and cognitive behavior modification helps. Remember, you are not alone! There are many sober celebrities: Curtis James Jackson III (50 Cent), Marshall Bruce Mathers III (Eminem), Brad Pitt, Zac Efron, Elle MacPherson, Tom Holland, Demi Lovato, Florence Welch, Tyra Banks, Lana Del Rey, Chrissy Teigen, Nicki Minaj, Calvin Harris, Drew Barrymore, Jessica Simpson, Kit Harrington, Miley Cyrus, Jada Pinkett Smith, Daniel Radcliffe, Kristin Davis, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Hudson, Blake Lively, Rumer Willis, Anne Hathaway, Pharrell Williams, Dax Shepard, Elton John, Jim Carrey, Keith Urban, Robert Downey Jr., Rob Lowe, Samuel L Jackson, Tim McGraw, Tobey McGuire, and the list goes on.
There are also now sober curious influencers, dry bars, dry retreats, dry festivals, online communities, hashtags, and apps to help people improve their drinking habits and feel both healthier and happier. Mindful drinking has made such an impact that major beer, wine, and spirit makers are offering nonalcoholic or low-alcohol options.
If you are wanting to explore how to better implement mindful drinking and heal the foundational drivers, I am here to help.