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AARP Smart Guide to Dry January

Our tips can help you start the New Year on sober footing


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Photo Illustration: MOA; (Source: Getty Images (2))

To start off the new year on a healthier note, more and more people are hopping on the Dry January trend. If you’re wondering if this is the year to try a month of sobriety, our AARP smart guide can help walk you through the process.

 

GETTING STARTED

1. Be radically honest with yourself

If Dry January seems daunting, it may be time to look at recent lifestyle challenges that have led to an increase in your drinking. For example, “retirement brings special challenges as one loses the social support of coworkers and the structure that a job provides,” says Joseph R. Volpicelli M.D., executive director at the Institute of Addiction Medicine. “Free of the demands placed by a job, [retirees find that] alcohol drinking has one less constraint and can gradually increase.” Due to “increased isolation and fewer constraints on their drinking” during the pandemic, many drank more. Plus, losing a loved one, especially your spouse, can have “a profound effect on increased sadness and loneliness,” Volpicelli says.

2. Understand “unhealthy drinking”

Evaluate your level of drinking. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) advises limiting your intake to one drink or less for women and two drinks or less for men per day. Unhealthy drinking is either drinking too much on a particular day (binge drinking) or having too many drinks over a week (heavy drinking), explains Volpicelli. “Research shows that alcohol drinking has no absolute safe level and risks increase the more one drinks,” he says. Although the risks are lower for adults who follow the guidelines above, Volpicelli says that “levels of moderate drinking decrease [because] drinking later in life poses several increased health risks.”

3. Know your personal “why”

Whatever inspired you to try Dry January, keep that in mind as you tackle an alcohol-free month. “Recognize that this is something you are doing for yourself primarily — a gift of improved physical and emotional health that’ll benefit you year-round,” says Edie Weinstein, a licensed social worker, psychotherapist and interfaith minister. “Don’t look at it as a New Year’s resolution. Consider it a lifestyle change and a shift in attitude about alcohol.” Even when (or if) you go back to consuming alcohol, you’ll now know how you feel sans alcohol.

4. Track the benefits

How do you know if Dry January is benefiting your body? Journal about it, recommends Lisa Smith, author of Girl Walks Out of a Bar and cohost of the podcast Recovery Rocks. “Go gently with yourself and pay attention to how you feel without the alcohol. Are you sleeping better? Feeling less sluggish in the morning? Eating better? Have a clearer head?” says Smith. Volpicelli says a short break from alcohol can mean better control of your blood pressure or blood sugar (diabetes), reduced heartburn and belly pain, less risk of falling and bone fractures, less dehydration and improved skin health, less chance of car accidents, improved energy, fewer feelings of anxiety, more time for recreational activities and improved relationships with others.

5. Don’t stress about tomorrow

“Try to [focus on] the current day,” says Smith. “Don't worry about how you'll skip alcohol tomorrow or for the rest of the month. Remember that if you do drink, you can just pick right up and start again the next day. No need to be perfect!”

6. Understand and avoid triggers

When you begin Dry January, you may notice that certain thoughts, feelings, people, places or things make you crave alcohol. “Triggers include loneliness, boredom, stress and health issues,” explains Rehan Aziz, a geriatric psychiatrist and associate professor of psychiatry and neurology at Hackensack Meridian School of Medicine. “Retirement is a particularly challenging time. It can bring major changes in social roles and social networks, as well as changes to assets like income and health insurance. Any of these factors can cause loneliness and stress, which can lead to depression.”

7. Talk to your doctor

“Many health care professionals fail to ask patients about their drinking, and this is especially true for older adults,” says Volpicelli. Bring up the topic with your doctors, since even moderate drinking can “increase the risk of cancer or neurological damage.” Ask your doctor to measure liver enzymes, he advises. “As the liver is damaged by alcohol, liver cells release enzymes in the bloodstream that can be easily measured. If the results show liver damage not associated with other medical disorders, then a reduction in drinking or a period of abstinence is a good idea.”

8. Consider whether medication would help

If you crave alcohol or experience difficulty in controlling your alcohol use, Volpicelli recommends asking your doctor about medications such as naltrexone or acamprosate to reduce the feeling of needing to drink. “These FDA-approved medications are helpful for a wide range of people,” he explains. “The medications are safe for older people and generally do not interact with other medications. The medication naltrexone has been tested specifically for older adults and found to be safe and effective.”

9. Avoid self-medicating with alcohol

Many factors can lead to self-medicating with alcohol as we age, says Gary Small, chief of psychiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center and author of The Memory Bible: An Innovative Strategy for Keeping Your Brain Young. These include health, marital and financial issues, and questions about retirement. “Uncertainty and indecisiveness about retirement can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and other psychological and physical symptoms,” he explains. He recommends identifying some of your life's stressors and adding ways to reduce stress to your routine, such as “exercise, meditation, 12-step groups and spending time with people who don’t drink.” Seek professional help to address triggers to drinking, and recognize that triggers can mean that it’s time to “substitute other ways to reduce stress and avoid the harmful effects of excess alcohol use,” he adds.

10. Address anxiety and depression

Life stressors lead to increased anxiety and depression. Alcohol is a central nervous system depressant, explains Weinstein, so “if someone is already feeling depressed, it is likely to exacerbate the symptoms of depression.” She adds, “As we age, we may become more susceptible to depression and anxiety for reasons related to loss, illness and incapacity. Widowhood, children leaving home, change in routine, income level adjustment, cognitive decline and isolation are all contributing factors.” Drinking suppresses anxious or depressed moods, but “the rebound effect once they stop drinking can worsen anxiety and depression,” says Aziz. If your anxiety and depression have increased over time, talk to your doctor.

11. Get better sleep

Many believe that alcohol helps with falling and staying asleep, but that’s not the case. Volpicelli notes that alcohol can increase the frequency of having to urinate during the night and that “alcohol relaxes muscles and can increase snoring and sleep apnea.” During Dry January, take the opportunity to chart your sleep pattern and record how you feel the next day, he advises.

 

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CHANGE YOUR OUTLOOK

12. Consider this month a gift to yourself

Take on the mindset that Dry January is part of a self-care attitude and a way to pamper yourself. Focus on what you’re able to add to your life, rather than what you’re taking away. For example, you’re adding in better sleep or a new hobby. You’re pulling toward understanding how alcohol impacts your body and healthier habits as you age. Don’t spend all your time thinking about what you’ve given up (alcohol), and focus on what you are gaining instead. This could be more energy to play with your grandkids or something as simple as waking up without the dreaded hangover headache. When thinking about ways to have fun, Smith adds, "grab a friend or relative and go bowling or to a museum or to see that big new movie.”

13. Try a new (or old) hobby

“Hobbies can transport us mentally and even be a meditation,” says Smith. “What's something you always wanted to try but never got to focus on? It can be anything from gardening to pickleball to an online writing class. It can even be [returning] to the basics you loved as a kid — jigsaw, crossword puzzles, adult coloring or comic books.” And don’t be afraid to invite a friend along. If nobody wants to join (or you’re too shy to ask), you can still explore new hobbies with your spouse, friends or adult kids.

14. Do Dry January with a friend

“Ask a friend or relative to do Dry January with you,” recommends Smith. “An accountability buddy can be helpful and make it more fun.” It can also be your spouse. Research has shown that if one partner in a relationship makes positive health changes, the other is more likely to have positive health changes as well. Having an accountability partner can help you break bad habits and create new ones, such as sticking to a new workout routine or keeping your New Year’s Resolution to have a 30-day break from alcohol.

15. Replace your cocktail hour

“Doing a Dry January is a great opportunity to break out of the old routines around alcohol that many of us have had for years,” says Smith. “If you have a nightly ritual around cocktail hour, replace it with a walk or other physical activity [that’s] full of benefits.” Or try one of the hobbies Smith listed above.

16. Try nonalcoholic alternatives

Smith recommends replacing alcoholic beverages with botanical drinks or nonalcoholic alternatives. Because of increased consumer demand, there are more and more options for nonalcoholic beers, ciders and mixed drinks. “There are so many nonalcoholic drinks now that it may be much easier than you think,” she says. Nick Mechak, a former sommelier and cofounder of the nonalcoholic botanical beverage brand Parentheses,  recommends asking your server for a nonalcoholic version of the restaurant’s handcrafted cocktails. “More often than not, there are one or two options that are pretty good,” he says. He also encourages folks to “challenge a bartender.” Here’s how: “Tell them you want a nonalcoholic drink with certain qualities, and many bartenders will be happy to try to make something.”

17. Understand the expense

You might initially balk at the price of nonalcoholic alternatives to your favorite liquors. Isn’t a $30 nonalcoholic gin just juice? Actually, no. “Botanicals [herbs, roots and flowers] that you see in many NA drinks are quite expensive,” Mechak explains. “These are important because the flavors, while not always strong, can give beverages a level of complexity and sophistication not seen in cheaply made NA drinks. Many NA beverages use exotic juices or sweeteners — like pomegranate, yuzu or monk fruit — that feel more sophisticated than apple or grape juice, which are readily available and inexpensive.” Mechak continues, “Regarding a gin alternative, you have both a machine and the botanicals to pay for, which makes the product cost about the same as normal gin.”

18. Embrace herbal teas

Mechak has found tea to be a good alternative. “I found Chinese tea to be really interesting,” he suggests. “You can get teas from certain regions, different preparations, and some even have vintages.” He adds that there are also a lot of excellent herbal teas if you want to avoid caffeine, “and if you want to get really into it, you can make your own herbal tea blends.”

19. Learn how to say “No thanks”

If you’re in a social setting where alcohol is served, “remember that you don’t need to justify turning down a drink,” says Weinstein. You can say things like, “I’m on a medication, so I can’t drink while taking it” (which may very well be true) or “I’m the designated driver, so I can’t drink.” But saying “No, thank you,” is sufficient, she adds. “I think of it as a form of self-love and boundary setting.”

 

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LOOK FOR SUPPORT

20. Don’t shy away from bringing up intimacy

“It's common to feel your body in a brand-new way,” says Tawny Lara, author of Dry Humping: A Guide to Dating, Relating, and Hooking Up Without the Booze, “especially if you use alcohol to alleviate chronic pain, hormonal changes or other diagnoses.” But don’t go through these changes alone. Tell your partner what you’re going through. “You can still have a great time in bed with your partner without alcohol!” she adds. “You might even have a better time because you're no longer numbing your body with alcohol, which means you're finally able to feel maximum pleasure.” She recommends taking it slow by communicating with your loved one in simple ways, such as: "I'm a little nervous to try XYZ without alcohol. Please be patient with me. I may need to take a break or stop altogether.”

21. Ask for support directly

Consider what may help or hurt your Dry January. “Let [your loved ones] know what level of support you need from them,” Lara recommends. “Maybe you need an alcohol-free home for the time being, or you want date nights to be more activity based rather than dinner and drinks.” Additionally, Smith recommends sharing how you feel with your loved ones throughout your alcohol break. “There may be days that it’s hard, and you get discouraged,” she says. “Let them know you’re having a tough day and need to cancel dinner that night.”

22. Suggest alternative ways to enjoy each other’s company

If you’re only used to being around certain friends while drinking, it can feel very different being the only one not drinking. But you can still enjoy your friendships by suggesting new rituals. Lara recommends saying: “I'd love to start a new ritual with you. Maybe we can go for mid-week walks or afternoon tea while I take a break from alcohol. I still want to spend time with you; our time together just needs to look a little different for now.”

23. Join an online peer support group

Finding others doing Dry January can be crucial to your sober time. “When people quit drinking alcohol or drink less alcohol than they used to, it's common for a lot of emotions to arise,” Lara explains, and talking to someone who gets it can help. Aziz recommends finding a group through online resources such as forums, apps and “websites dedicated to sobriety and mental health, which can offer additional support and information.” Try starting with Reddit’s sober and stopdrinking communities. You can also search Facebook groups for peer support.

24. Visit a support group

If you think you may need more support for your dry month, or if you are considering quitting alcohol for good, Aziz recommends considering joining a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) or SMART Recovery, “which provide community and guidance.” Both groups are free to join. AA, according to its website, is a “fellowship of people who come together to solve their drinking problem,” and the famed 12 steps are based on biblical principles with many mentions of God. Those who aren’t religious or prefer a research-backed group can join SMART Recovery, “an evidence-based recovery method grounded in Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that supports people with substance dependencies or problem behaviors,” as explained on the organization’s website. Or try an alternative group, such as the secular groups LifeRing and Secular Organizations for Sobriety (SOS), or Seniors in Sobriety, Moderation Management (if you decide to go back to drinking alcohol after January) or Women for Sobriety. Search online for in-person groups in your local area, or attend meetings online.

25. Read quit lit

Whether you’re quitting drinking or just looking to drink less, there are a variety of “quit lit” books by and for people from all walks of life — not just those who have experienced negative consequences due to alcohol abuse. Head to your library to explore titles such as Smith’s Girl Walks Out of a Bar and Lara’s Dry Humping, plus Sober Curious, Quit Like a Woman, This Naked Mind, The Unexpected Joy of Being Sober, Not Drinking Tonight, Quit Drinking Without Willpower and Dry. There are also many sober influencers on Instagram, many of whom you can find through the sober hashtag (#sober), who offer camaraderie and support.

26. Listen to sobriety content

Use this time to explore different types of sobriety content, such as podcasts and songs about quitting drinking. Recovery Rocks is a podcast cohosted by multigenerational friends Smith and Lara, both of whom contributed their expert advice above. The Addicted Mind podcast is hosted by therapist Duane Osterlind, who interviews experts and people in recovery to understand addiction from a research and treatment perspective. She Recovers is a nonprofit organization founded by mother-daughter team Dawn Nickel and Taryn Strong, both certified professional recovery coaches, and they have a fantastic podcast. Meanwhile, if you’re sober song curious, try finding inspiration by listening to “Sober” by Kelly Clarkson, “Amazing” by Aerosmith, “Demons” by Kenny Chesney and “Bad” by U2.

27. Find inspiration in public voices

Reading the stories of sober celebrities can inspire you during Dry January. Jamie Lee Curtis has recently opened up about her sobriety, seeing it as her key to freedom. Samuel L. Jackson has also spoken on why his family’s love changed everything. Elton John celebrated 30 years of sobriety in 2020 after a friend’s funeral became a “catalyst” to get sober. Other sober celebrities include Rob Lowe, Ben Affleck, Sir Anthony Hopkins, Edie Falco, Kristin Davis, Eric Clapton, Robert Downey Jr., Naomi Campbell, Keith Urban, Brad Pitt, Tim McGraw, John Goodman, Jim Carrey and Bradley Cooper, to name just a few.

 

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AFTER DRY JANUARY

28. Continue to focus on alcohol-free activities

You’ll likely come away from Dry January with an awareness of alcohol’s impact on your life and a list of the things you enjoy without drinking. “The key is to find activities that you find meaningful,” says Smith. Continue to use your time in new, different and more significant ways, which can include supporting a cause close to your heart. “Many people find this through a community organization or their place of worship. Volunteering locally can be particularly fulfilling. It gets us out of our heads and makes someone else's day.”

29. Reward yourself

Use the money you saved from not buying alcohol for a reward, like a weekend trip you’ve always wanted to take. Something like crossing a dream trip off your Bucket List or investing in redecorating a corner of your house for your favorite hobby will feel even more satisfying.

30. Determine whether you want to keep going

During this time, you may have realized that you have abused alcohol in the past or that you enjoyed the benefits of an alcohol-free life. Smith recommends learning more about alcohol and its effects on you during Dry January: “For women, Ann Dowsett Johnston's book, DRINK: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, is fantastic. For anyone, Alcohol Explained by William Porter is great.”

31. Make the rest of your life your best life

“People get sober for many reasons,” says Weinstein. As you find interesting and fun activities that don’t involve alcohol during Dry January, Weinstein encourages you to ask yourself what a sober life could look like, and whether anything is getting in the way of experiencing that life: “How can you make this time the best of your life?” This could mean more physical activities you enjoy, like going on nature walks, hiking, working out at the gym, meditation or yoga. It could also mean alcohol-free nights out, like attending a concert or joining a book club.

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