As someone who has worked in the substance abuse field for much of my career, I have become well versed in how to counsel those who are looking to make changes in their life towards total abstinence from drugs and alcohol. What typically brings individuals to sobriety can vary greatly from person to person. Some have struggled with addiction, some may have family members who have struggled with addiction, and others may be facing physical and mental health consequences as a result of their drinking or drug use. More recently, I am seeing individuals embracing a sober lifestyle or a drastic change in their engagement with drugs and alcohol after finding their use increasing in the last year.
Each year, I see friends and family members commit to “Dry January” and remain sober for the first 31 days of the year. I have even seen the term “sober-curious” become more and more popular as people begin to immerse themselves in a physical, emotional, and spiritual health journey. The idea of exploring a pressure-free sober lifestyle is also becoming more appealing as many find themselves more aware of the way alcohol and other substances affect their physical and mental health. We are also seeing healthier alternatives to alcohol becoming more available in restaurants and grocery stores, such as mocktails and seltzer waters. With all of that being said, you don’t need a “Dry January” to explore sobriety or a decrease in alcohol and drug use. Now, where to start….
- Know Your Why
Determining why you want to embrace a sober lifestyle is key to maintaining focus and motivation. Are you doing this as a way to decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety? Has drinking or using drugs become a problem in your life? Do you want to feel physically healthier? Will sobriety free up more time for other activities? Remember that your “why” doesn’t have to be something magical and intense, just establishing a “why” that is important to you can act as a great motivator to keep you on track when the days are long and hard.
- Utilize Friends and Family for Support
Having a support system is helpful with any lifestyle change, both big and small, especially when they can be utilized as accountability partners or are willing to check-in and provide encouragement. If you are used to socializing with other people who may drink or use drugs, finding a sober network or support group may provide more opportunities to engage in healthy activities that are not centered around drinking.
- Practice Healthy Living
No matter what your reason for making this lifestyle change is, use this opportunity to practice healthier living in other areas as well. By eliminating drinking and drug use, you not only free up time to do other things, but you may have more energy and the finances to invest in something new. Practicing healthy living can look like exercising or another physical movement, eating more balanced meals, developing better sleep hygiene, and using new coping skills for stress management. Alcohol and drug use can take a toll on both mental and physical health so this time spent sober can be a great time to find a better balance in those areas.
- Find a New Routine
As human beings, we are creatures of habit. If drinking and drug use has become a part of your daily or weekly routine, changing that routine may be essential to embracing sobriety or healthier living. Finding a structured schedule may provide you with more support in your day-to-day life, making it easier to find time for things outside of drinking and drug use. Focus on finding things to add to your routine that are fun and meaningful, instead of focusing on what you are eliminating. Reach out to your support network or those you live with to help you find other things to do or restructure your day in a way that feels good! Replacing old behaviors with self-care can also be a great way to practice finding a balance that can lead to long-term change.
- Celebrate Successes and Victories
Successes don’t just have to look like total abstinence. Practice celebrating small victories such as one week sober, drinking only on the weekends or when out with friends, using a healthier activity to cope with stress that doesn’t involve drinking and drug use, etc. If you have a background in 12 Step programs, you know the importance of recognizing milestones along the journey; this can be a great way to acknowledge our hard work and progress towards a goal instead of focusing solely on the completion of a goal. Reward yourself with things that are fulfilling and positive, activities and experiences that make you feel good about yourself!
- Be Kind
Making huge lifestyle changes can be hard, especially when alcohol use or drug use has become a normal part of day-to-day or social activities in your life. While it may be easy to be hard on yourself during this time, find ways to practice increased self-care and compassion, reminding yourself that you are doing a hard thing. Any healthy change is a positive change, even if we don’t do it perfectly. Allow yourself some space and kindness for the challenge you’re facing and practice affirmations that will remind you why you are taking steps to care for yourself. A few of my own favorite mantras to repeat are “one day at a time” or “change is hard, but I can do hard things.”
I have always encouraged my clients to examine their relationship with alcohol or other substances the way they would their relationship with anything else in their life. Is this something that makes me feel fulfilled in my life? Is it something that leaves me with increased guilt and anxiety? Is this something that preoccupies me to the point of distraction? These questions, along with many others, can be great starting points to determine whether or not we have developed an unhealthy relationship with alcohol or drugs. There are also many ways to categorize your relationship with alcohol. Not all “problem” drinking is alcoholism, and you don’t have to be an alcoholic to suffer from addiction to make radical changes to how much and how frequently you drink.
It takes strength and commitment to self to take this first step towards embracing healthier living and sobriety in a world where drinking and drug use seem to be a large part of many of the things we do. This doesn’t have to be a permanent change if it doesn’t feel right for you, but beginning to examine your relationship with alcohol and other substances can be an act of self-love and care instead of an act of restriction.
Meredith Beach is a Licensed Social Worker in the state of New Jersey, experienced in working with young adults and adolescents and their families who are experiencing substance use disorders, anxiety, depression, trauma, and relationship issues. Meredith is well versed in several evidence-based counseling techniques, such as Dialectical Behavior Training (DBT), Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Motivational Interviewing, and Mindfulness-based practices. Read More About Meredith.