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Is a "Damp" Approach to Drinking Right for You?

When it fails, there can be high emotional costs.

Key points

  • A “damp” lifestyle is one in which a person consciously cuts down on drinking, which is a form of harm reduction.
  • This approach runs the risk of failing, which may exacerbate a person’s problem.
  • Some people will move from a “damp” lifestyle to an abstinent one.

Movements such as “Sober October," “Dry January,” and having a "damp" lifestyle give people the opportunity to pay attention to their drinking. “Sober curious” people may wonder how their life could be different were they to make changes to their consumption.

There are plenty of reasons for people to be worried about alcohol consumption and its effects. Deaths from excessive alcohol consumption have risen significantly since the pandemic. In 2019-2020, nearly 100,000 people in the United States had an alcohol-related death, which was a 25 percent increase from the previous year. Clearly, people are suffering and looking to medicate their fear and anxiety with alcohol. More people may recognize that their own alcohol use may be adding to those fears and anxieties. Following are some questions I have fielded about this “damp” approach.

What is a “Damp” Lifestyle?

A “damp lifestyle” is a form of harm reduction. People may begin to wonder about their drinking and the role(s) it plays in their lives. Some might wonder if they are developing an addiction, while others might focus on other health concerns. Instead of completely stopping or going “cold turkey,” they decide to cut back.

There are various ways to do this—reduce regular consumption, stagger consumption, consume drinks with lighter alcohol content, or put limits on when and where a person will drink, use drugs, or engage in certain behaviors. Many regard it as a time-limited trial. It is easier to commit to something for a specified length of time rather than forever.

People may see cutting down as an experiment over which they have some control. Each person can set the terms of their own experiment. It may feel like taking a little control in life when so much else seems out of control. In choosing a damp lifestyle, a person may say to herself, “I don’t have to use/drink but I could.”

How is a “Damp” Lifestyle Different From Being “Dry”?

“Dry” is often used as a synonym for “abstinence.” Abstinence lends itself to all-or-nothing thinking. A person may believe that if she consumes, she has completely failed, or even worse, she herself is a complete failure. She may conclude that she can never stop. This may be both a wrong and dangerous conclusion.

Which is Harder, Cutting Down or Cutting Out Entirely?

Cutting down may be easier in part because “fully dry” may seem an impossible standard to many. Cutting down or curtailing may be something a person has done on other occasions. “Fully dry” may also be an unwanted standard. People still may still want to partake and enjoy (especially with others) and this gives them a mechanism for doing so. There is fear in being abstinent when a person’s friends are all partaking and enjoying. It can feel like social isolation or social death.

Many people who do stop using entirely (and without any professional treatment) often start by curtailing. They may come to realize abstinence is the best choice for them. Others may reap enough benefits from cutting down that they reach a new benchmark of success for themselves.

What Are the Upsides to “Damp"?

The physical effects may include measurable ones such as improved weight and blood pressure, for example. There may be fewer hangovers, which is a form of withdrawal that may have accompanying shakes, headaches, and stomach irritation.

Mental benefits include clearer thinking, improved memory, and increased motivation for other activities. There are also important social benefits, especially if one’s use has led to regular cycles of drama, injury, repentance, and repair with friends and family. These cycles may become less regular or stop completely. One may find she connects more with people whom she knew before she started using in the ways that prompted her to try a damp lifestyle.

The American Psychiatric Association, in its DSM-5, offers the overall category of substance use disorder, of which alcohol use disorder (AUD) is one. An AUD is a pattern of troubling use over a 12-month period. The diagnosis comprises 11 criteria; a person who meets two to three has a mild AUD; four to five a moderate AUD; and six-plus a severe AUD. The dominant belief is that addiction progresses: One can move from mild to moderate AUD or severe AUD.

If it can progress, though, can it also regress? In other words, can a person walk back an AUD? Can a person move from a mild AUD to not having one, a moderate to mild, and a severe to moderate or even mild? This is a matter of great contention for some. If someone can change their drinking pattern and meet fewer of the diagnostic criteria of an AUD, then this is an important upside.

Are There Risks in Choosing to Be "Damp" Rather Than Dry?

There is the risk the experiment may fail, which may exacerbate a person’s sense that she is a failure. A damp lifestyle may also work for one drug or behavior but not for another. That it worked before for this drug/behavior does not guarantee it will work for that one.

What Are the Proven Strategies for Success?

Set reasonable goals that have a chance of being met. Perhaps cut back the amount consumed at any one time. Maybe stagger days of using. Where possible, enlist friends or other networks of support. Many people might decide to do this in solidarity with others. Some might want to achieve some success before “going public.”

It is also important to recognize successes: Curtailing for even 24 hours is a success if one has never done it before.

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