More and more people are questioning whether alcohol deserves a place in their lives. The popular media has dubbed this growing contingent of alcohol skeptics “sober-curious.” These folks aren’t so much worried that they have a serious drinking problem, though that might be a nagging thought in the back of their minds. Rather, they suspect that the negatives outweigh the positives, even if they only drink “moderately” (however they define it).
Sober-curious folks are ready to dabble in sobriety, yet the choice to stop drinking is a complicated one. Cutting out alcohol isn’t as simple as switching to mineral water and going on your merry way. For many, it means giving up a stress or anxiety release, a comfortable habit, and a way to unwind at the end of a long day.
Then there are the obvious social considerations. Drinking is woven into every aspect of social life, from celebrations to mourning, brunches with friends, first dates, work functions—you name it, alcohol is there. Drinking is so normalized that not drinking unsettles and perplexes other people more than drinking to excess.
The sober-curious crowd, which includes a growing contingent of young people, is ready to disrupt the system as they increasingly realize that a sober lifestyle has more to offer. Alcohol perhaps isn’t the cool best friend it’s supposed to be. It’s more like the sloppy, unhelpful roommate who needs a boot.
Sobriety: Defining a New Relationship with Alcohol
Disclaimer: This post isn’t aimed at people who believe themselves to be, or who have been diagnosed as, addicted to alcohol. It’s for people who are curious about exploring sobriety as an alternative to a life that includes alcohol consumption. If you need help, call your doctor or the SAMHSA National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
Let’s be clear: You don’t have to think you have a problem to realize that your life might be better with less—or no—alcohol.
An entire industry is growing up around the idea of sobriety. The market for boutique alcohol-free beverages is booming. You can find sober happy hours in any major city. The sheer number of books, blogs, long-form essays, Instagram accounts, and podcasts dedicated to getting sober is a testament to this sea change.
Overwhelmingly, the people telling their sobriety tales publicly were once on the precipice, their drinking behavior threatening to destroy everything, before they quit. These narratives are important, and you might see yourself in their stories. However, they don’t represent the entire sober-curious movement. Plenty of people don’t have tales of woe beyond the occasional hangover and retrospectively embarrassing karaoke session. Nevertheless, they think they’d be better off without alcohol. They’re usually not writing books about their path to sobriety, but their stories—and yours, if this is you—are equally valid.
Giving Up the Juice: Learning to Live Without Alcohol
Society tends to treat drinking as a binary: you’re a drinker or a non-drinker, period. In reality, there are shades of gray in the middle. One of your many adult responsibilities is to decide where you belong along the imbibing spectrum. You might want to drink less often or not at all.
In either case, breaking up with alcohol means tackling the very practical side of changing the behavior, as well as the much deeper—and usually much harder—work of filling the void that getting sober leaves behind. There’s no magic pill here. Some people will have an easier time than others, irrespective of how much they drink.
Below are some strategies to try, but this is not an all-encompassing list. Some might help, and others not at all. To be successful, you’ll likely need a variety of different tools and tricks at your disposal.
Lessons Gleaned from Habit Change
Drinking is a habitual behavior. At least, it is for anyone who thinks about quitting. You don’t quit things that aren’t ingrained; you simply don’t do them.
Habitual behaviors follow a predictable pattern:
First, a cue or trigger primes the behavior.
Second, the behavior appeals to you. (This is sometimes called the craving stage.)
You do the behavior. In this case, you take a drink.
Finally, you derive some reward or benefit from the behavior. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t do it again. It wouldn’t become a habit.
Breaking habitual patterns comes down to interrupting that process. With something like alcohol consumption, it’s probably best to break the chain in as many places as possible.
Remove the Cues
One way to reduce the drive to drink is to avoid getting triggered in the first place. When it comes to drinking, that’s usually easier said than done.
Cues can be things (seeing your favorite crystal highball glass in the cupboard), people (your happy hour buddy), time of day (getting off work), places (sitting on your porch swing), or even emotions. Getting rid of the alcohol and barware in your house is a great first step. However, if feeling stressed is your main trigger, tossing the booze almost certainly won’t be enough. It’s not like you can snap your fingers and live a stress-free life. You can start to develop different tools for coping with stress without drinking, possibly with a therapist’s help.
For many people, their cues include friends or coworkers, or their favorite restaurants and bars. Ultimately, you may have to cut ties with certain people, switch jobs, or find new hobbies on your path to sobriety. You don’t necessarily have to start there, though, depending on your situation. There are other ways to engineer your environment:
If you’re comfortable doing so, tell people that you are doing a sobriety experiment.
People seem to accept sobriety more when you give it a cute name like “Dry July” or “Sober October.” Ask your friends not to invite you out for drinks or recount their drunken exploits to you for the time being. If you’ve been in the Primal community for a while, your friends are probably used to your “weird” self-experiments, like giving up grains, so they might not bat an eye.
Find or create sober spaces.
Thanks to the growing sober-curious movement, it’s easier than ever to find alcohol-free social options like sober dance parties, sober dating events, and even bars that specialize in fancy non-alcoholic concoctions. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding these types of events in any large-ish city.
If none exist in your area, you always have the option of starting social meet-ups yourself to get to know other sober-curious folks. Invite your friends to join you. Plan sober game nights or picnics. Go kombucha tasting instead of wine tasting. Do a couch-to-5k together. Lean on each other for social support.
Quell the Craving
The impulse to drink is usually accompanied by beliefs about how much better you’ll feel, or how much more fun you’ll be having, once you take that drink. A major focus of most addiction recovery programs is changing the thoughts you have around alcohol.
You’re thinking about quitting for a reason. See if you can start focusing on the negatives more than the positives. Come up with a mantra or affirmation that reminds you why you don’t want to drink:
Alcohol is the bad relationship partner I keep returning to over and over. I deserve better than that.
Nothing feels better than a good night’s sleep.
I’ll be happier tomorrow if I say no tonight.
Of course, you’ll probably need more than just a mantra, but it could be one piece of the puzzle.
When a craving hits, employ the same techniques you use to deal with sugar cravings: distract yourself, ride it out, or replace the alcohol with something you feel better about consuming. One technique that some addiction specialists use is a mindfulness-based tool called urge surfing. Fighting cravings makes them stronger, whereas tuning in to them and “riding the wave” allows them to pass more peacefully. Here is an example of an urge surfing meditation to try.
Nobody drinks because they want to raise their blood alcohol level. They drink because of the other stuff alcohol delivers: numbing, social connection, disinhibition, maybe even self-punishment. Ultimately, there’s nothing that alcohol offers that we can’t get by healthier means. Alcohol just happens to be readily available, fast-acting, and socially sanctioned.
An essential piece of the sobriety puzzle is learning to meet those needs in other ways. This requires self-awareness first—an honest exploration of why you’re drinking—and then effective tools to fill those voids without the downsides of drinking.
Your trajectory is going to be highly individual. Some #soberAF social media influencers will try to convince you that sobriety looks like walks on the beach, meditation, yoga retreats, and other “self-care.” Sure, bubble baths and meditation might help. I’d never tell you not to meditate. But, if your drinking behavior stems from unresolved childhood trauma, no amount of chanting om is going to deliver everything you need. You might very well need a competent therapist and a support group to arrive at your destination.
Focus on the Short Term
If quitting alcohol is your goal, and it feels important or urgent, then do what you need to do. Sure, in an ideal world, you’d replace drinking with a health-promoting, life-affirming habit instead. You’d go from drinking to transcendental meditation or training for an Ironman or learning another language or whatever. However, if in reality, you go from drinking every night to bingeing Netflix for a couple months until you have made a clean break from alcohol, so be it. You can work on becoming bilingual later.
“I’m Not Drinking Right Now.”
I learned this simple but incredibly powerful statement from Melissa Urban, founder of Whole30. She discovered that when you tell people, “I don’t drink,” or “I’m not drinking,” they challenge you and want to know why. Adding the tiny qualifier “right now” mostly eliminates the pushback. Maybe it’s because, as a society, we have become accustomed to sobriety experiments like Dry January. Or perhaps it makes people less uncomfortable to process the idea of “right now” as opposed to “forever.”
It’s also a poignant reminder to yourself that you don’t have to commit to never drinking again. You don’t even have to worry about the party you’ll be attending this weekend or the wedding next month. All you have to do is keep making the choiceright now, in this moment, not to drink.
Explore Different Paths
Hundreds of roads lead to sobriety. Seek out sobriety and recovery stories from people like you, but also realize that there’s only one YOU. You have the freedom and the responsibility to find the path that is right for you. Your path won’t look exactly like anyone else’s, and that’s fine.
Some people will be able to do it on their own with no major hiccups. Others will need more structured support. You’re surely familiar with Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but there are many, many other options out there that might suit you better. Don’t give up if the first one you try isn’t a good fit.
Many people believe that 100 percent abstinence is the only way to go. Others feel just as strongly that it doesn’t have to be all or nothing for everyone.
Instead of total abstinence, some folks opt for “mindful drinking,” which is exactly what it sounds like: making conscious, controlled choices about how much to drink and when. Mindful drinking approaches encourage you to drink more intentionally (and presumably, more moderately) without going completely dry.
In her book, We Are the Luckiest: The Surprising Magic of a Sober Life, Laura McKowen reminds us, “One of the definitions of sobriety is to be clearheaded. In that way, sobriety is about freeing yourself from any behavior, relationship, or way of thinking that enslaves you and keeps you from being present to life.” Ultimately, only you can decide what you need to do to be present or free, with or without alcohol.
Don’t Be “That Person”
As a final note, don’t be the person who challenges someone else’s sobriety. Just don’t.
When someone tells you they aren’t drinking, the only acceptable responses are, “OK!” and, “Can I get you some mineral water?” It’s never “Why?” or “Are you pregnant?” or “C’mon, one won’t hurt.” Don’t even consider, “Are you going to make me feel guilty for drinking?” Never be the reason that someone else feels pressured to take a drink they don’t want.
If you’ve tried your own sober experiment, share below what worked for you. What resources did you use? How did you navigate social situations where others were drinking? What did you learn?
About the Author
Lindsay Taylor, Ph.D., is a senior writer and community manager for Primal Nutrition, a certified Primal Health Coach, and the co-author of three keto cookbooks.
As a writer for Mark’s Daily Apple and the leader of the thriving Keto Reset and Primal Endurance communities, Lindsay’s job is to help people learn the whats, whys, and hows of leading a health-focused life. Before joining the Primal team, she earned her master’s and Ph.D. in Social and Personality Psychology from the University of California, Berkeley, where she also worked as a researcher and instructor.
Lindsay lives in Northern California with her husband and two sports-obsessed sons. In her free time, she enjoys ultra running, triathlon, camping, and game nights. Follow along on Instagram @theusefuldish as Lindsay attempts to juggle work, family, and endurance training, all while maintaining a healthy balance and, most of all, having fun in life.