By Nicole Pajer, AARP April 2023
Are you sober curious? Here are 9 expert tips to help cut back on alcohol.
More and more people are toying with the notion of drinking less. Here’s how to get started.
“I don’t like the way alcohol makes me feel anymore,” says Ellen Albertson, a 60-year-old psychologist and registered dietitian in North Hero, Vermont. She’s currently in breast cancer remission and cutting back on vices that could put her at future risk. In addition, she wants to work more toward practicing what she preaches as a health and wellness professional. While drinking used to be fun, Albertson’s noticed that she isn’t finding it as worth the side effects. “It doesn’t do anything for me now other than make me feel really sluggish and tired,” she explains. Thus, Albertson is limiting her drinks to just a few a month when she heads out with her friends or fiancé. “I’d like to be totally sober, eventually. That’s the goal,” she explains.
A year-and-a-half ago, Curtis Matthews, 56, decided to cut back on his drinking. “I used to be a heavy social drinker and would often consume multiple beers or hard drinks in one sitting,” he reveals. After overdoing it one Christmas, he experienced a terrible hangover and vowed to never drink like that again. Since then, he’s averaged around 10 drinks per year and has only had three drinks so far in 2023. “I’ve noticed significant improvements in my overall health and happiness,” says Matthews. “I used to rely on alcohol to get a buzz, but now I can enjoy social gatherings without feeling the need to drink excessively.”
And Violette de Ayala, who recently turned 51, has been alcohol free since January. “I started to cut back at the end of 2022, because my trainer shared the effects it can have on people with Hashimoto’s, which I have, and menopausal women,” she says. She had initially committed to just Dry January, but has since continued on. “I also contemplated only having sips of Champagne for special occasions like my birthday, but I am really liking the way I feel being sober,” she says. “My birthday is around the corner, and I am truly thinking I am not interested in a glass of Champagne to celebrate.”
A sobering trend
These are just a few examples of the many people who consider themselves to be sober curious, a movement towards developing a healthier relationship with alcohol by drinking more intentionally, cutting back and maybe even giving up the booze altogether — and a trend that has been growing in recent years. In 2013, Alcohol Change UK created the Dry January movement, in which people pledged to give up drinking for the month. Since then, mocktails and nonalcoholic drinks have surged in popularity.
In fact, Nielsen reports that between August 2021 and August 2022, nonalcoholic drink sales totaled $395 million in the United States, growing 20.6 percent from the previous year. People who turned to alcohol to cope during the pandemic are now looking to prioritize healthier habits. And recent studies on the negative health effects of alcohol have also spurred the movement, with the World Health Organization making a statement that “when it comes to alcohol consumption, there is no safe amount that does not affect health.”
Finding yourself feeling sober curious? Here are nine expert-backed tips on how to tiptoe in.
1. Just get started
“I would say the very first thing people should do is start to explore it,” says Greg Hobelmann, co-CEO of Ashley Addiction Treatment and a part-time faculty member at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Start gathering information wherever you can, whether that’s reading an article on the sober curious movement, doing a web search or looking at things on YouTube. The more information you read on the benefits of cutting back and tips on how other people are doing it, the more motivated you will likely become to dive in.
2. Focus on your why
Take a moment to understand why you want to cut back on drinking. “Be radically honest with yourself,” says Kristin Hankins, outpatient program manager at Mountainside treatment center. Ask yourself: “What is it that you want to explore in a sober lifestyle? Is it for health reasons, to gain clarity and focus, to improve relationships or simply to experiment with a different lifestyle?” Knowing what is driving this change can help you stay motivated and focused, explains Hankins. It’s also a good idea to take note of when you drink and to try and be more mindful of those moments, adds Hobelmann. For instance, are you doing it when you go out with friends socially after work or pouring a glass of wine when you cook dinner every night out of habit?
3. Create a community
Discuss your sober curiosity with friends and loved ones, as creating a community of others on the same journey can help you to succeed. “I think more people than you may have thought are actually considering this and thinking about it,” says Hobelmann. “I can’t tell you how many times I say I don’t drink, and people say, ‘Gosh, I need to do that or I need to take a break.’” So opening up to others about your desire to cut back may be an easy way to find accountability buddies. And regardless of whether they are sober curious themselves or not, ask those around you for support. This, says Albertson, has been pivotal in her success.
4. Have a plan
Changing a behavior, says Hobelmann, can be hard. And when it comes to alcohol, people often are quick to adopt an all-or-nothing mentality. “What we typically see is someone say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna stay completely sober for this period.’ And then when they have one drink, that’s out the window and they’re back to their old set of habits,” he explains. For this reason, it’s good to go in with a game plan, whether that’s cutting back to X amount of drinks per week, drinking every other day to start or only drinking on the weekends. Then, once you feel good in that spot, you can reevaluate and go from there.
“Focus more on moderation or decreasing alcohol consumption than abstinence,” adds clinical director and licensed counselor Jenni Busse at Southern California recovery center Gratitude Lodge. Oftentimes, she explains, if one focuses on abstinence and slips up, it can lead them to give up as they feel like they have failed. “However, if you focus on moderation, it allows you to cut back in small, manageable steps, instead of cutting it out of your life cold turkey.”
5. Track the benefits
Writing down how drinking less positively impacts your life can help you stay motivated on your sober curious journey. Grab a notepad and jot down the benefits of what you’re feeling after cutting back. If you notice more energy, that you’re sleeping better, have fewer hangovers or see that your complexion has improved, for instance, write that down.
“Lowering alcohol intake can help improve function, cognition and health,” says Deborah Freeland, an assistant professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at UT Southwestern Medical Center. Cutting back, she adds, can also help reduce one’s risk of falls, driving impairment and cognitive decline, which are already high-risk conditions in older adults. “Decreasing alcohol can also reduce risk of other medical issues like insomnia, high blood pressure, stroke, osteoporosis, obesity, anemia, liver disease, cancer, heart conditions, depression and electrolyte abnormalities,” adds Freeland. And alcohol, she warns, can also interfere with numerous medications, which can be problematic, so you may notice some improvements in how prescribed medications may be affecting you. On her end, Ayala has noticed that since she stopped the booze, she’s sleeping better, having an easier time with menopause symptoms and has less nasal pressure and fewer sniffles.
6. Find a substitute habit
Think about what inspires you to drink and find something else to do in those situations where drinking would normally occur. This, says Hobelmann, could be everything from taking a walk to watching a Netflix show. If you drink when you’re lonely, pick up the phone and call a friend or make plans to do something social. Albertson has found that prioritizing yoga, meditation and walking on the beach has really helped as a drinking distraction for herself. You can also revisit an old hobby you once had, whether that’s playing a musical instrument or making art. Drinking less will give you more time to pursue these passion projects in general and can pave the way to help you find new hobbies and interests.
7. Create a new signature drink
Albertson finds it helpful to purchase nonalcoholic beverages to sip and to create mocktails at home. She also enjoys going to restaurants and bars that serve nonalcoholic beverages, which most are doing today. Many bars and restaurants have entire mocktail menus, and there is an ever-increasing number of nonalcoholic drinks to buy at home. Ayala is also taking advantage of this. “I now drink sparkling water with a lime on the rocks and even enjoy creating pretty mocktails that are not filled with sugar,” she explains. You can find recipes for mocktails online. Derek Brown, a NASM-certified wellness coach, mindful drinking advocate and expert mixologist shares one of his favorites below.
Derek Brown’s Ginger Maple Old Fashioned One serving 12-14 oz. Double Rocks Glass
2¼ oz. Nonalcoholic whiskey alternative (such as Spiritless Kentucky 74 or Ritual Zero Proof Whiskey Alternative) or strongly-brewed black tea
¼ oz. ginger syrup
¼ oz. maple syrup
Dash All the Bitter Alcohol-Free Orange Bitters
Stir and strain the liquid into a rocks glass. Add ice. Garnish with an orange peel.
8. Don’t stress the social situations
When we were younger, being social was all about taking shots with friends at bars and drinking games in college. But that’s not so much the case in midlife and beyond, says Hobelmann. He encourages people to take inventory in a room the next time they’re out with friends. “Often when you go to a social event, you realize, wow, there are a lot of people here that aren’t drinking or drinking very little,” he says. And in general, he adds, people don’t care whether you drink or not. “Many people have this idea of if I don’t have a drink in my hand at a social event, people are going to think I’m strange or weird. It’s not the case,” he says. In fact, Hobelmann, who has been sober himself for almost 12 years, says that these days when he tells people he doesn’t drink, he’s more likely to be met with someone replying that they’d like to cut back as well than resistance for not partaking.
9. Pay attention to signs that you may need help
Wanting to cut back for health or personal reasons is one thing, but it’s also important to pay attention to signs that you may have a more serious addiction that could benefit from professional intervention. Warning signs to look out for include:
You continue to drink despite negative consequences.
·Your job, relationships and friendships suffer as a result of your drinking.
You find yourself lying about how much you drink.
You’re becoming isolated from friends, family or any of the normal sort of social interactions that you have.
You’re noticing a change in the way you feel or your physical health.
You find yourself having cravings for alcohol.
You notice you are building a higher tolerance.
You experience withdrawal symptoms (headaches, sweating, irritability, anxiety, loss of appetite, shakiness) when you attempt to discontinue drinking.
How to Get Help With a Drinking Problem
If you think you have a problem, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) free national hotline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You can also visit FindTreatment.gov to confidentially search for treatment assistance resources. The Alcoholics Anonymous website also has a directory to connect you with a local chapter in your area. And you can always ask your health care provider or mental health care provider for a referral to a licensed professional who can help you to navigate your addiction. For additional help on deciding if your drinking habits are harming your health, visit the National Institutes of Health’s Rethinking Drinking website for tools like a drink calculator to help you determine how strong your mixed drink or cocktail is, a look at how many drinks is considered “too much” and information on how to cut back.