5 Keys to Going Alcohol-Free

What to know before you quit drinking.

Posted Apr 07, 2021 | Reviewed by Jessica Schrader

KEY POINTS

  • Increases in drinking during the pandemic have led many people to reconsider their relationship with alcohol.
  • There is a growing movement of people embracing alcohol-free lifestyles.
  • Going alcohol-free could lead to challenges like withdrawal and social pressure, but support is available.

April is Alcohol Awareness Month, so it's a good time to talk about how to quit drinking safely and what to expect if you’re going alcohol-free. It’s no secret that alcohol use increased with the COVID-19 pandemic, and that has caused some people to start questioning the role of alcohol in their life.

The social trends of “Dry January” and “Sober October” have challenged people to stop drinking for a month to decrease their tolerance, improve their health, and get a different perspective on their drinking. But beyond that, there's a growing "alcohol-free" movement—it’s not just people who think they are “alcoholics” who are ditching the booze, but many people are embracing the health effects of an alcohol-free life and/or going alcohol-free for sociopolitical reasons.

But there’s not much guidance on how to quit drinking safely, particularly for people who don’t seek treatment because they think their drinking isn’t severe enough to warrant “detox” or “rehab” programs. As a clinical psychologist who specializes in addiction treatment, I get pretty nervous when people talk about quitting drinking “cold turkey” because there are significant and somewhat unpredictable risks of being abstinent abruptly. There are also social aspects of going alcohol-free that you may not be expecting. So whether this is the first or 50th time you’re quitting drinking, here are five important things to keep in mind.

1. Watch for withdrawal symptoms, even if you don’t think you’re a heavy drinker.

You may be surprised to learn that alcohol is one of the only substances with the potential for life-threatening withdrawal. And many people also don’t realize that you can experience withdrawal symptoms even if you were only drinking a couple of drinks a day, or not even every day. 

Symptoms of alcohol withdrawal can start as soon as several hours after your last drink, but it could take several days for them to appear. Although there’s no exact formula for knowing who will experience severe withdrawal, you’re at higher risk the more regularly you drink, the more you drink, and if you have other health complications or a history of seizures. So be on the lookout for the following symptoms of alcohol withdrawal:

  • Restlessness, fidgeting, or agitation
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Sweating, increased blood pressure, rapid heart rate
  • Tremors and muscle tension
  • Headache
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sensations of itching, pins and needles, burning, or numbness
  • Mental confusion
  • Seizures
  • Hallucinations or perceptual disturbances

There’s a useful online screening tool that can help you assess withdrawal symptoms and track them over time, but it’s not a substitute for a professional evaluation. If you think you’re experiencing withdrawal, please seek medical assistance quickly. Severe alcohol withdrawal can lead to fatal grand mal seizures, strokes, and cardiac arrest.

And even if your symptoms are mild, consider getting help to make you more comfortable. There’s no prize for suffering, and you may be more likely to start drinking again if you ignore withdrawal symptoms. While some detoxification protocols involve being admitted to a hospital unit or specialized “detox” facility, some people are able to get outpatient treatment that involves taking medication at home.

2. Don’t panic at cravings or setbacks.

Regardless of your reasons for going alcohol-free, you’re likely to have urges or cravings at some point. You may even have a setback or slip and find yourself drinking again. It’s important to understand that cravings and setbacks are part of the process and they don’t mean that you’re unable to be alcohol-free. They just mean that alcohol had a bigger role in your life than you may have noticed.

I tell my clients to think of cravings and slips as important data—what can you learn from them? What factors (people/places/feelings/activities) were related to your drinking or wanting to drink? How can you deal with those things differently in the future? If you find that you’re struggling with cravings and slips, there are medications that can help. With self-help books, social support, and/or therapy, you can also learn different ways to manage the urges with various coping skills.

3. Your relationships may suffer at first.

Contrary to what you may think, going alcohol-free may put some strain on your relationships at first. Depending on how much and how often you’ve been drinking, you’re probably going to be a bit on edge at first and you may have a shorter fuse. So try to increase your self-care activities so that you’re prepared to cope with that increased distress, and talk to the people close to you about your experience so they understand why you’re feeling and acting differently.

You also may start to realize that alcohol was a bigger part of some of your relationships than you thought. And some people may not be supportive of your decision to be alcohol-free. If you’re quitting because alcohol was causing problems in your relationships, then you’re probably hoping to see relationship improvements once you quit. But that can take time, which can be frustrating. So be patient with yourself and your loved ones, and try to find ways to improve your relationships in tandem with your alcohol-free goal. You can also consider couple or family therapy, support groups, or self-help books.

4. You’ll become acutely aware of social pressures to drink.

Most of us realize that alcohol is heavily woven into modern culture, but going alcohol-free is going to increase your awareness of the direct and indirect social pressures to drink. You’ll start noticing how many alcohol references you see throughout your day, and it will probably be annoying at times. You’ll also notice just how differently alcohol is treated than other mind-altering drugs, like how it’s the only drug that you have to explain why you don’t use it. Have you ever been asked why you don’t smoke cigarettes? Or use cocaine? Probably not. If you’re a woman of child-bearing age, expect people to ask (or wonder) if pregnancy is the reason you’re not drinking.

So be prepared for people to seek some reason for your alcohol-free decision, and decide how you will respond when asked. I personally don’t like saying you’re “giving up alcohol” because it sounds like you’re depriving yourself of something essential or coveted. Instead, I think it’s more empowering to simply say you’re alcohol-free, that you don’t drink, that you don’t feel like having a drink, or even just not drawing attention to it at all. Do you really need to explain a healthy choice?  

5. Support is available.

Whether you’re going alcohol-free temporarily or as part of addiction recovery, social support can be a critical aspect of sticking with it. Mutual support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can be helpful, but some people don’t find the 12-step approach compatible with their beliefs and needs. So take some time to familiarize yourself with other types of support; the pandemic has led to the rise of virtual options that increase accessibility beyond what you can access in person.

If you’re not into support groups, then you can take advantage of the rapidly growing alcohol-free support community on Instagram. You can search terms like #alcoholfree, #soberlife, or #addictionrecovery to find accounts that offer motivational posts, alcohol-free lifestyle ideas, and emotional support. You can also get support from a professional therapist.

 Sergio Infantes/Pixabay
Pouring out wine.
Source: Sergio Infantes/Pixabay

Alcohol ads and public service announcements tell us to “Drink Responsibly,” but if you decide to embrace an alcohol-free lifestyle, it’s equally important to “Stop Drinking, Responsibly."

Copyright 2021 Kelly E. Green