It’s been a long pandemic. And if you found yourself drinking more in the last two years, you’re not alone. A survey by the American Psychological Association in March of 2021 found that one year into the pandemic, nearly one in four adults reported they were drinking more as a way to cope with stress. And according to a new report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, deaths related to drinking alcohol skyrocketed 25 percent in just one year, from 78,927 in 2019 to 99,017 in 2020. This April, in honor of Alcohol Awareness Month, many of us may find ourselves pondering our relationship with alcohol, and wondering things like, “Is it doing more harm than good?” “Would I really benefit from another drink?” “Is my drinking impacting others in a negative way?”
Alcohol, after all, is a socially accepted part of life for many people in the United States. According to a 2019 survey by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), 85.6 percent of adults reported they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, with 69.5 percent saying they drank in the last year and 54.9 percent saying they drank in the last month. And while light to moderate drinking (defined as no more than one drink per day for women, two for men) may be OK, heavy drinking could have some significant consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that in 2010, the economic cost of drinking in the US was $249 billion, related to work productivity, health care, law enforcement and criminal justice and motor vehicle crashes. Those costs were mostly a result of binge drinking, which is defined as having four or more alcoholic drinks in one sitting for women and five for men.
If you’re considering taking a break from booze this month—whether that means cutting back or cutting it out entirely—here are some ideas on how to approach Alcohol Awareness Month. Who knows? You may like the way you feel and keep at them long after April ends.
- Set personal goals. Do you want to abstain for a month, or simply cut back? Consider what you want to do, and then think about why you want it. Is it to see if you feel better, sleep better or think better? Is it to lose weight? Is it to focus on your relationships or work? If you can find your “why” you’ll have something to fall back on, in case you feel tempted to stray from your goals.
- Think about some enjoyable alternatives. Mocktails and non-alcoholic beer are becoming more popular these days. If you enjoy the flavor of your favorite drink and want to keep enjoying it, minus the booze, consider stocking up on some different non-alcoholic options and doing some online recipe searches. If you won’t miss those flavors, think about other choices that could be interesting or relaxing, whether it’s different types of tea, flavored seltzer or a variety of fruit juices.
- Try tracking. If your goal is to cut back, determine an acceptable number of beverages and stick to that number. If you don’t trust yourself to mentally tabulate, download one of many drink-tracking apps available.
- Keep a journal. Alcohol may take more of a toll in your life than you realize. Heavy drinking can lead to a hangover, and with that comes stomach irritation, disrupted sleep, inflammation, dehydration and a whole mishmash of generally unpleasant feelings. As you take a break from booze, keep a journal about how you feel. That’ll give you something to look back on, whether or not you decide to stick with your new routine. Some journal prompts include: “What are ways that I feel better when I don’t drink?” “What are some of the challenges of drinking less?” “What are some things that make me want to take a drink?” “What are you feeling grateful for today?” “I feel happiest when I’m (fill in the blank).” “What do you like about yourself?” “What’s some advice you’d like to offer your past self?” “What’s some advice you’d like to offer your future self?”
- Talk to people about it. There’s a pretty hefty stigma attached to drinking too much, and around alcohol use disorder, which Mayo Clinic defines as “a pattern of alcohol use that involves problems controlling your drinking, being preoccupied with alcohol, continuing to use alcohol even when it causes problems, having to drink more to get the same effect, or having withdrawal symptoms when you rapidly decrease or stop drinking.” One way to challenge that stigma is to talk openly about struggles you might be having to trusted friends and family members. They can offer support as you try to make positive changes in your life. For many people, joining a support group can be helpful when trying to stop drinking. In addition, if you have children, talk to them about the dangers that could come with excessive alcohol consumption. According to NIAAA, kids who drink are more likely to become victims of violent crime, suffer from academic problems and be involved in vehicle crashes that involve alcohol. As a parent, you have the power to influence them early to make responsible choices.
- Talk to your health care provider about any concerns. If, during this month’s reflection, you’re concerned you may need help in controlling your drinking—i.e. you spend more time than you expected craving a drink; or you end up regularly drinking more than you intended; or you’re thinking about drinking in a way that feels problematic—talk with your healthcare provider. He or she can offer advice or refer you to a program that could help.
You’ve probably heard of Dry January and Sober October. Along with April as Alcohol Awareness Month, these are all themed months that offer people a chance to unite around a common goal, together, and reflect on their own habits. There are no hard and fast rules to how you approach these months. The key is to consider your own health, and make the right choices for you. And when in doubt, open up to your doctor. That’s what they’re there for.