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How To Reset Your Relationship With Alcohol Beyond Dry January

Elizabeth Wellington The Philadelphia Inquirer

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Dr. George Koob, the director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA) says that Abstaining from alcohol for an entire month lets you think about why you drink. Do we drink out of habit? To mask pain? Do we just like the taste? Dr. Koob says it's important to know these things about ourselves, especially during stressful times.


When the pandemic first hit, I really missed going out with my friends and drinking wine.

But I never missed wine with friends.

Between the Zoom happy hours with colleagues, the FaceTimes with family and close friends and the virtual make-your-own-cocktail classes, the liquor in my crib was flowing. Shelter in place? No problem, I just bought a box of wine when I went shopping. A glass of wine or two, every night. Why not? My only commute was from my bedroom to my couch. Like the rest of America, my life was a mix of anxiety and fear tossed with a generous amount of working from home around the clock. Hell, it had to be 5 o'clock somewhere.

"There is a permissive aspect to pandemic drinking," said Michael Platt, a psychologist and professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania. The world was crumbling and alcohol stimulates the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter tells our brains to relax and enjoy, Platt said. "There weren't many enjoyable things going on and you were craving the pleasant effects alcohol produces in your brain."

Tell me about it. By the time the end of 2020 rolled in, I was starting to roll around. And my acid reflux was on fire. I needed to slow down, reset and reevaluate. It was time to do a Dry January.

Taking a month off has become a popular thing to do. During a normal year, January is a perfect time for an alcohol reset because most of us need to give our bodies a break after a month of holiday charcuterie and cocktails. But 2020 was anything but normal. Many of us have been cocktailing in the privacy of our own home since March. According to Nielsen's market data, total alcohol sales outside of bars and restaurants has surged about 24% during the pandemic.

The UK-based Alcohol Change UK kicked off the first Dry January back in 2013. Four thousand people signed up for the first one. This year more than 100,000 people signed up through the group's app, and the nonprofit estimates that 6.5 million participated in some sort of Dry January ritual this year.

According to the Alcohol Change website, 66% of Dry Januaryers said they slept better and 70% said they had more energy. Eighty-six percent said they saved money and another 70% said they are drinking less six months after their alcohol-free time has ended. Other benefits: weight loss, lower blood sugar, and a drop in blood pressure.

I needed a little bit of all of that.

Yet the most important benefit of sober time — Dry January, Sober October, or any other teetotaling mission from Ruby Warrington's 2018 best seller "Sober Curious" — is that it gives you a chance to honestly reevaluate and reset your relationship with booze.

Abstaining from alcohol for an entire month lets you think about why you drink, said Dr. George Koob, the director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA). Do we drink out of habit? To mask pain? Do we just like the taste? It's important to know these things about ourselves, Koob said, especially during stressful times.

"Early studies are showing that [during the pandemic] people are drinking 20 to 40 percent more," Koob said. "And the unsettling part is that we are seeing that people are drinking more to cope. Cope with stress. Isolation. Loneliness. Boredom. Not being able to socialize like we once did has caused a big hole in our emotional psyche."

I went cold turkey on Jan. 1.

Before the month started, I averaged about one to two glasses of red wine a night. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAA), that made me a moderate drinker. So I wasn't in danger of alcohol withdrawal after a sudden stop.

But if you are a heavy drinker, it's important to consult a physician before quitting alcohol abruptly, Koob said. The NIAA defines heavy drinkers as women who drink more than three drinks a day and men who consume more than four. If you stop drinking and start to feel nauseous, dizzy or run a temperature, seek medical help, Koob said.

The growing number of sober-curious movements and sober happy hours have spawned a slew of non-alcoholic aperitifs and wines, so it wasn't hard for me to find a few bottles of fake-me-out wines and a bottle of Monday Zero Alcohol Gin. Generally speaking, the counterfeit chardonnays weren't bad and, while the gin far from the real thing, making a mocktail with a dash of Diet Sprite and a twist of lime did the trick. Koob says these faux products are OK, but as with everything, know your limits because it can make you want the real stuff.

My first emotional test came seven days in when I learned a close family member tested positive for COVID-19. I didn't pour a glass immediately. But that night, while I was up late worrying and watching TV, I eyed an open bottle of port and poured a healthy sip. The next night I poured another. The edge was killing me. Epic failure? Not quite. "When you do one of these movements it's normal to slip," Koob said. "It's important that you don't catastrophize it and give up." The good news: after my slip-ups, I didn't give up.

Out of the 31 days in January, I did 29 without a drop. I resisted pouring Pinot as I watched the attacks on the Capitol. And I didn't indulge in bubbly when Biden was inaugurated. The payoff: My acid reflux has been doused. My sinuses are clearer. I don't feel as bloated. I stopped waking up in the middle of the night with pasty mouth. My face isn't as round. I'm holding my yoga pose like a champ. (Watch out headstand.) And I'm sleeping through the night. The best news is that my friend has fully recovered from COVID-19.

Midway through January, I posted on Facebook about my Dry January goals. Most of my friends just shook their head with pity. But surprisingly, a few high school friends were giving up drinking too and cheered me on. We started a weekly chat pushing through the tough parts, like the inauguration and those Friday nights when we wanted to give in and go for the heavy pour. Oh, how I missed relaxing with a glass of red.

I have to admit, I'm relieved January is over. But I also don't plan to erase the positive effects of not drinking. I don't want my reset to be for naught. So, going forward, I'm taking Koob's sage advice and making an extra effort in the coming months to self-regulate and still have compassion for myself. "Each person has to set their own limits," Koob said. What are mine? Wine on Friday and Saturday nights and no more than one bottle through the duration of the week.

And maybe just maybe, I'll go for a Dry Lent.

Maybe. ___  Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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