Dry January is a thought-provoking experiment that challenged individuals to abstain from drinking for a month-long period. It began in 2013, when Alcohol Concern UK, a British charity, asked people to “reset their relationship with alcohol” and to “ditch the hangover, reduce the waistline and save some serious money by giving up alcohol for 31 days.” The next year, it became a government-backed public health campaign. The program was an immediate success. Over two million people in the UK participated in Dry January and an estimated one in five Americans participated as well.
January, and the beginning of a New Year, is the ideal time to begin such an experiment. The first month of the year is symbolic of a new start. Millions of people will attempt to initiate new, positive behaviors and eliminate maladaptive ones. They will try to reset their lives with gym memberships, diets, self-help books, and rediscovered self-control.
The Dry January movement has led to an interesting discussion. It has encouraged participants to evaluate their relationship with alcohol and to better understand if alcohol controls their behaviors, or if they are in control.
Not drinking for an entire month offers a well-defined, time-measured goal. It gives us something to aim for and an opportunity to experiment with abstinence, on a temporary, experimental basis. It is not meant to last forever but only for a set period of time. The question is: can we do it?
The joys of sobriety
Those in recovery often talk about the joys of sobriety. Improved health is one benefit of abstaining for a month-long period. People report sleeping better, and having more positive moods, without anxiety or irritability. Others report less heartburn and reflux, and fewer headaches. People have a sense of achievement, more energy, and feel better and mentally sharper. Those positive benefits prompt many to continue their sobriety for another period of time, a week or two, or a month. Success follows success.
Sobriety may be the ultimate form of self-care and wellness. A 2016 study published in Health Psychology found that six months after the end of Dry January, people who had participated in the movement (even those who didn’t abstain for the entire month) reported having fewer drinks per day, drinking fewer days a week, and getting drunk less often.
Alcohol is basically toxic, yet marketed to be an alluring solution to every life situation, both trauma and celebration. Alcohol has become society’s panacea, a wonder drug that magically bonds individuals together. It can be difficult to give this up as we are incessantly bombarded with advertisements and entertainment, all touting the pleasures of drinking.
The evidence is clear. Technological advances in neuroimaging allow scientists to observe alcohol’s effect on the brain and body with greater accuracy. A series of recent studies show that alcohol abuse does more damage than was previously known.
New research published in Alcoholism: Clinical Experimental Research proves that chronic alcohol abuse leads to thinning of the cerebral cortex. Alcohol affects all areas of the brain, but most significantly the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain. They regulate higher-order thinking skills and control of impulses, and are responsible for learning new information.
Excessive drinking causes lasting damage to your brain. According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), brain scans of heavy drinkers reveal reduced white matter. Numerous other studies show chronic heavy drinking causes shrinking of the brain’s frontal cortex. The Promises website concludes, “This means that heavy drinking damages the parts of the brain that would help them overcome alcoholism. It’s like drowning in the ocean and tearing up your life jacket.”
There are many reasons to be concerned. Excessive alcohol consumption in the form of binge drinking is dangerous. Acute intoxication from ingesting large amounts of alcohol is a leading cause of death in the U.S. For decades, and despite immeasurable warnings, it has remained a common practice across American college campuses.
There are other things that need consideration. Wine, called “the nectar of the gods,” can make you fat. Alcohol has “empty calories” and few essential nutrients. Additionally, alcohol impairs inhibitory control, which leads people to eat more, while the sugar in alcohol can stimulate appetite. So, as we binge on alcohol, we then binge on late night snacks, or a full-course meal at midnight.
For those who are uncertain if they can complete the 30-day program, consider the following recommendations:
Substitute: Some may call it a “half measure,” but substituting a non-alcohol beverage has merit. Fill your favorite wine glass with water, sparkling mineral water, or grape juice. Or use tomato juice or seltzer water. It doesn’t matter. It’s your choice. Fake it till you make it.
Network: Build a strong support network of friends and loved ones to encourage you, keep you accountable, and perhaps do the Dry January challenge with you. There is consolation in numbers. We all need people to help us get through difficult periods in our lives.
Journaling: During the 30-day period of sobriety, use journal writing to identify unique patterns of use. When do you drink the most? What triggers your cravings? What works to quell them?
Develop coping mechanisms: Find ways to co-exist in an alcohol-friendly world and resist peer pressure. You can keep your friends and you do not have to drink. Make a plan. Drink non-alcoholic drinks. Identify ways to abstain in sometimes high-pressured social settings. Walk away. Breath deep. Visualize. Just say no!
Falling forward: If you vow to make it through the month booze-free and still end up having a drink with friends or with dinner, don’t feel like you’re a failure. Don’t get too down on yourself. But if you’ve noticed you’re drinking more frequently, and the amount is increasing over time, think about exploring that. Perhaps try another “dry” month. Dry February anyone?
Although more research is needed, those who took the Dry January challenge experienced reduced drinking in the following months. A 2018 study by the University of Sussex found that the program, not only improved health for the month, but also contributed to healthier drinking patterns later. Participants not only drank less later in the year, they also felt more confident turning down drinks.
Before considering this program, individuals should realize that stopping alcohol “cold turkey” can be dangerous for some. Alcohol withdrawal can cause severe health issues, and even death, if not treated appropriately under the supervision of healthcare professionals. Dry January is not a treatment for an alcohol use disorder.
What happens after 30 days? The goal is to consciously drink less even if you don’t give up alcohol altogether. Start small. A month off is the perfect way to reset your relationship with alcohol. It only takes three weeks to break a habit. This could be the pathway to healthier drinking patterns. Many are able to do this successfully, while others have a more difficult time. It doesn’t matter, because Dry January is only an experiment, not a test. It is not “pass-fail.” And, best of all, you get to grade yourself!
Maxim W. Furek has a rich background that includes aspects of psychology, addictions, mental health, and music journalism. His book The Death Proclamation of Generation X: A Self-Fulfilling Prophesy of Goth, Grunge and Heroin explores the dark marriage between grunge music and the beginning of the opioid crisis. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org