For many people, alcohol has woven itself into the fiber of their lives. Before a night out on the town, a few drinks will be a catalyst for a good time; after a particularly stressful day at work, a cold beer or glass of wine is often the go-to method of relaxation.
It’s also a fact that sometimes people ― even those who consider themselves casual or social drinkers ― can go overboard. That may lead to a desire for a break from drinking altogether or just a plan to cut back. (Looking at you, Dry January participants!)
HuffPost has reached out to experts and to people who have successfully quit drinking to get a little advice on how to realistically reduce your alcohol consumption. Whether you’re looking to imbibe a little less or quit drinking completely, here are some actually helpful tips:
Take a moment to find your “why.”
In order for human beings to change behavioral patterns, it’s important to first understand them. “One practical tip for cutting down in drinking is taking time to understand what role alcohol serves in your life. Once you grasp this, you will understand what resource or skill you need,” said Mahlet Endale, a licensed psychologist based in Atlanta.
Irina Gonzalez, a 32-year-old writer and editor from Fort Myers, Florida, managed to locate her reasons for drinking and has been in recovery for three years.
“For me, I had two very distinct reasons I drank: when I was having fun or socializing, like dinner with friends or on a date, or when I ‘needed’ alcohol to cure something, [like] when I was feeling stressed by work or home alone and lonely,” Gonzalez said. “It’s the latter that I find problematic. If you are leaning on alcohol to help you with something, like all those memes that say you ‘deserve’ a drink after a hard day of work, question that.”
Try figuring out “what it is that you are missing and what is it that you think alcohol is providing,” Gonzalez added. Does it help you open up to other people more? Does it help you relax? “For most people, I would say that they need to work on the thing that is missing instead of letting alcohol fill that void,” she said.
Get professional advice.
After understanding your “why,” start looking for resources or support that helps address that specific issue. Endale said that over time you’ll be able to replace alcohol with healthier habits. However, this isn’t something you have to do on your own.
“This process is made much easier if you have a therapist who can help you with each step of the process,” Endale added. (Don’t know where to start? Here are a few tips for finding a therapist and making it more affordable.)
Be prepared for aspects of your life to change.
Liz Melchor, a writer based in San Francisco, had her first drink at age 14 and continued from there. She eventually quit alcohol at age 26 and has stayed sober since. Melchor, now 36, said to be prepared for some circumstances in your life to shift when you’re trying to cut back on drinking.
“Giving up booze probably means giving up a lot more, like your daily habits ― [going to the] bar after work every night ― and your friends. You might have a lot of friends who you only drink with,” she said. “But it is important to give those up … sometimes it can be even harder to say no to the friend who keeps asking you to join her at the bar or the Tinder date who wants to take you to happy hour.”
This doesn’t mean you can’t have fun. There are plenty of activities you can do on dates or with friends that don’t involve drinking. It just may take a little getting used to at first (which is totally normal). Don’t give up.
Try a new activity as a way to meet people.
If you decide to step away from friends who aren’t supportive of your efforts, it might feel a little lonely at first. Ever wanted to join a bowling league? Interested in doing that pottery class? How about a book club or aerial yoga? Now’s the perfect time.
“If you’re lonely, try to engage in activities that give you the opportunity to meet people. Treat every relationship as though they are a support network,” said Clarissa Silva, a behavioral scientist, relationship coach and creator of Your Happiness Hypothesis Method: Breakup Recovery.
If you do have loved ones you could lean on, utilize them as well. A strong support system during this time could make all the difference. For Gonzalez, meeting and falling in love with her husband, as well as the unwavering support of friends and family, were “invaluable in my sobriety,” she said.
Work up a sweat.
Yes, establishing a workout routine and good eating habits can be a pain. But it’ll get easier ― and pay off ― over time.
“It’s important to understand how much exercise and diet can contribute to mental health. Start exercising,” Melchor said, noting that CrossFit worked for her. The activity “really helps manage emotions, get rid of anger, elevates mood and [helps you] learn to feel both good in your body and the power of your body,” she added.
Avoid going cold turkey by taking small steps.
If you don’t have an alcohol dependency issue (more on that in a minute), then try edging back in small doses.
“Replacing your alcohol habit can occur if you manage it incrementally, Silva said. “Trying to deprive yourself at first will result in bingeing later. Set up incremental goals of reducing the amount per session then graduate to daily, weekly and monthly.”
One way to do this initially is swapping every other beverage with water or a non-alcoholic drink. You can also opt for a delicious, satisfying mocktail at a bar or party. No one will even notice.
If you’re struggling with cutting back, consider seeking additional help.
Research shows that roughly 16 million people in the United States suffer from “alcohol use disorder,” which is described by the National Institutes of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as “compulsive alcohol use, loss of control over alcohol intake, and a negative emotional state when not using.”
If you find that you’re struggling with giving up drinking ― and it’s affecting your daily life ― consider seeking professional help. It could be beneficial or even lifesaving.
But remember, this isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. While some may prefer programs like Alcoholics Anonymous, others might find seeing a therapist or going to another group organization to be more their style. For Melchor, AA personally wasn’t a solution for her. It’s all about finding what consistently works for you.
“Even if AA doesn’t work, [it] absolutely does not mean you can’t get and stay sober,” Melchor said. There are “so many other resources available, especially now with the internet.”
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.