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Reid K Hester Ph.D.
Reid K Hester Ph.D.

How to Stop Drinking

Many have done it. Here’s how.

If you’re reading this, chances are you have wondered about or have concerns about your drinking or that of a loved one. You’re not alone. Heavy drinking is on the rise in the U.S. and alcohol-related problems increase with an increase in drinking. And it’s natural to have second thoughts or feel two ways about drinking when it’s having some effect on your life you don’t like. But unless you’ve really decided to stop drinking altogether, the first step is to increase your internal motivation to change. Changing just because others want you to will not usually lead to any lasting change. Unless you agree for the need to change, want to change, and have some confidence that you can change.

Increasing your own motivation to quit

Fortunately, my research team and many others in the field who address alcohol problems have developed programs and protocols to help people resolve their ambivalence (i.e., feeling two ways about something) about changing their drinking. These programs go by the name of brief motivational interventions or brief interventions. These programs are offered both in face-to-face formats (originally the only option) and more recently as digital or online options. The elements are similar though and include:

  • A screening to determine whether a brief intervention might be helpful
  • An explanation of what the intervention entails (anywhere from 40 minutes online to 2-3 sessions with a psychologist or counselor with expertise in the protocol
  • A detailed assessment of one’s drinking, alcohol-related problems, history of drinking, the severity of dependence, family history of alcohol problems, and screenings for depression and anxiety. All of the questionnaires have been validated and are reliable measures of what they measure
  • Feedback follows that summarizes the assessments and compares your clinical picture to others of your gender and age range. It avoids labeling you or telling you what to do. Rather the feedback is provided in an empathic way that makes it easier to accept it as valid. What you do with the feedback is up to you.
  • A final set of exercises or discussions focus on your reactions to the feedback, exercises to help you resolve your ambivalence in changing, and help with setting up a plan to change if you decide to move in that direction.

That’s it in a nutshell. And for many people, the brief motivational intervention increases their motivation for change, their commitment, and confidence in their ability to stop drinking. And that’s all that’s needed. They go on and quit on their own.

Next Steps

Let’s say for a moment that you’ve decided to quit drinking. Now what? Well, you can take many paths to achieve and maintain sobriety and it’s becoming increasingly cool to be sober. A recent New York Times piece covers this movement well.

The first thing to keep in mind is that there is no single path that works best for everyone. There’s no “silver bullet” to be had. And run, do not walk away from anyone who claims to have a “silver bullet.” Rather, there are a number of promising and effective pathways to sobriety. Here are some:

  • Stop on your own.
  • Ask for support from family and friends.
  • Ask for support from your minister or clergy.
  • Ask for guidance from your primary care provider.
  • Seeking support for your efforts from online communities (e.g., SMART Recovery).
  • Use a digital tool (shameless plug here, we’ve developed such a tool in conjunction with SMART Recovery). Buyer beware though, look for evidence of effectiveness. There are a lot of tools out there that have zero evidence of effectiveness.
  • Psychotherapy with a licensed professional. If you have a significant mood disorder(s), this may well be the best place to start.
  • Start treatment in a substance use disorder treatment program. NIAAA has an excellent site to help you with this — their Treatment Navigator.

Whichever path you take be mindful that it may or may not meet all your needs. And many people use multiple pathways at the same time. Be honest with yourself and use what works.

Practice, Practice, Practice

A final word about stopping drinking: To be successful usually takes time, effort, and persistence. The good news though is that you can join the ranks of those who’ve decided to stop and been successful in doing so.

About the Author
Reid K Hester Ph.D.

Reid K. Hester, Ph.D., is the Director of Research at CheckUp & Choices, a digital health company that helps reduce alcohol and drug misuse, and a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico.

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